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USAP participants set up a temporary field camp.
Photo Credit: Melissa Rider/Antarctic Photo Library
A field support team on James Ross Island, near the Antarctic Peninsula, erects a Weatherhaven structure. Built for ease of transportation and durability, these buildings can be erected quickly at remote research field sites, providing shelter for the science team.

Peninsula camps offer challenges and rewards

Ross MacPhee External Non-U.S. government site, curator of mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History External Non-U.S. government site, led an expedition to Livingston Island last season to search for fossil evidence that mammals lived and traveled through Antarctica more than 100 million years ago. Unrelenting snowstorms shut down the team for most of the two weeks. [See story: Bridge to the past.]

“I work a lot in the Arctic … but it’s nothing compared to setting up camp in the extreme south,” MacPhee says. “In both places, I work in the summer, but in the Arctic, summer is really summer. There’s not a lot of snow, and it’s actually quite pleasant.”

The scientists only had two good days of weather — the day they arrived and the day they left. “In between, it was pretty miserable in terms of these storm fronts coming in one after another,” he says. The team will arrive later in the austral summer this year at the same location, hoping for better weather.

“One of the big areas of special projects activity is paleontology because some of those islands off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula are true hotbeds of Antarctic paleontology, and they’re kind of hard to get to,” says Evans, who has a background in geology.

On the Peninsula
Camp Life: Away from the lab
Copacabana: Going on a diet
Cape Shirreff: Keeping track

The draw at Livingston and King George islands for biologists like Wayne Trivelpiece External U.S. government site is the wildlife. Trivelpiece, a NOAA scientist, is interested in the ecology of three penguin species that call King George Island home — Adélies, chinstraps and gentoos. He has spent all or part of every southern summer on the island since 1976, one of the longest such studies in Antarctica.

His wife and co-principal investigator, Susan Trivelpiece External U.S. government site, who started working on the project in 1981, says it usually takes most of a day to get the camp up and running. The effort requires numerous Zodiac trips to and fro, delivering supplies that must last the occupants from October until January, when a ship comes to swap out team members.

“After all these years, it runs pretty smoothly,” Susan Trivelpiece says, “thanks in large part to John, who has done it for so many years now.”

The grantees, particularly newcomers to the USAP, learn to appreciate even the oddest bits of advice from Evans.

Joe Kirschvink External Non-U.S. government site, a geobiologist at the California Institute of Technology External Non-U.S. government site, tells the story of his first visit to the Antarctic Peninsula about a year ago, a collaborative effort with Argentine scientists on Seymour Island. Evans advised him to pack extra plastic, watertight bags, more than the expedition likely needed.

Antarctic Peninsula Map
Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Map of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Good advice, it turned out. Back in South America, lugging a crateful of rocks, the scientists had to unpack all the rocks and remove them from the wood crate on the orders by customs agents in Chile. “It’s funny; John Evans had this incredible intuition,” Kirschvink says. “If we hadn’t had those extra bags we would have been carrying rocks one by one.”

Kirschvink and his colleagues will return to the peninsula this season, to James Ross Island, for a project that may challenge the well-established impact theory that an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. It could be that climate change had a larger role to play. [See story: What killed the dinosaurs?]

Despite the challenging conditions and fickle weather, Evans says the Gould’s crew has always managed to make landfall, though sometimes plans change. For instance, the Kirschvink and MacPhee projects will share the same science cruise. Evans scheduled the James Ross Island stop first, because that one is trickier in terms of ice and weather.

Scientists search for dinosaur fossils.
Photo Credit: Melissa Rider
Scientists search for dinosaur fossils on James Ross Island during a previous expedition.

“If it looks like they have a chance to get in to James Ross, they should shoot right over there and do it,” he says. If not, the ship will cruise to Livingston Island and then back to James Ross for a second try.

“If you can’t get ashore, you can’t do your work,” Evans says. “That’s never happened, but it’s never far from the back of the mind of the people that are doing it. An icebreaker is kind of a challenging way to try to get to some of these places. Some of the islands you just can’t land on.”

Mike Goebel External U.S. government site, a NOAA biologist who oversees the Cape Shirreff operation, notes the scientific effort requires a lot of muscle. “Everything you see on the island came to the island in a Zodiac,” he says. “It literally had to be man-hauled to the building. … The science equipment tends to be small and compact.”

Big or small, the Gould’s crew usually finds a way to shuttle needed equipment and supplies to the islands. Personnel have even transported all-terrain vehicles (ATV) to and from the islands. Getting the ATV on the Zodiac wasn’t difficult using the ship’s crane, but reloading it onto the boat from the island required a bit more ingenuity. In the end, the crew deflated the Zodiac, rode the ATV on the small boat, and then refilled it using scuba tanks.

“The whole concept [behind special projects] is that there is so little infrastructure on the peninsula side,” Evans notes.

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs