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People in a rubber boat.
Photo Credit: Steven Untracht
Members of the chemical ecology team return to Palmer Station after a dive among the islands of Arthur Harbor. Dr. Steven Untracht reports on some of the science that takes place at the research station, as well as his observations on the environmental changes under way.

Fleeting thoughts

Science and signs of climate change in Antarctica hit home for Palmer Station physician

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I jumped into the Zodiac with my dry bag: an impermeable sack containing a bottle of fresh water, my camera and a set of dry clothes to change into in case I somehow ended up in the subfreezing sea.

Two graduate students from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Ruth McDowell and Kate Schoenrock External Non-U.S. government site, and their dissertation advisor, Chuck Amsler External Non-U.S. government site, were waiting for me after I had been delayed getting back from the glacier that morning. Chuck (wearing a dry suit for diving), Ruth (also suited up) and Kate needed to collect some red seaweed.

Kate backed the boat away from its mooring into Hero Inlet, and then asked if I would “drive.” Enthusiastically, I made my way back to the tiller, trying not to stumble over all of the diving and other equipment occupying most of the 17-foot pontoon around my feet, and slowly turned up the throttle.

“We’re going to Spume,” said Kate, referring to an island two nautical miles to the southwest of Palmer Station, the U.S. Antarctic Program’s External U.S. government site smallest research base. I’m the station physician. But on this excursion, I was a volunteer dive tender. I spend as much time as I can with the scientists, because science is Antarctica’s culture.

I eased the boat past Bonaparte Point, the tip of the peninsula on the other side of Hero Inlet. Spume Island came into view — way out on the horizon, all by itself, surrounded by uninviting gray sky and deserted sea. It seemed halfway to New Zealand. From the bow, Kate signaled our heading. Chuck, seated midway up to my left, scanned the island then turned to me and said, “Now speed it way up, Steve. We’re in 200-foot water and there’s nothing around.”

Suddenly I longed for places more familiar, like the operating room … or the slope of the slippery glacier where I spent the morning.

Buildings on a rocky promontory.
Photo Credit: Steven Untracht
Palmer Station viewed from Marr Ice Piedmont, showing the vast stretch of ground from which the glacier has receded over the past 43 years.
Chuck Amsler
Photo Credit: Steven Untracht
Charles D. (Chuck) Amsler
Kate Schoenrock
Photo Credit: Chuck Amsler
Kate Schoenrock

Marr Ice Piedmont occupies almost all of Anvers Island, except for small rocky outcroppings like Gamage Point where Palmer Station is located. A swath of the ice rising up behind Palmer had been found free of crevasses and safe for hiking.

I had headed out to the glacier right after Sunday breakfast. My cleats crunched into the icy incline as I trudged my way up into the howling winds, closing in on the clouds, feeling the strain in my lungs and fighting the fatigue in my legs to get just a little higher where space and time all but disappear.

The exhilaration of reaching the crest soon gave way to a surreal, calm sense of being part of this mystical place, as if eons ago I calved off this very glacier, just another blue iceberg floating out into the world. Slowly, peacefully, I scanned the mountaintops, then the endless sea and then, in the other direction, four miles away and 500 feet below, the islands of Arthur Harbor.

Suddenly, I realized: I’m late!

I scurried back down, my progress impeded by the 500 yards of bare rock and boulders splayed out in peaks and valleys between the foot of the glacier and the station. When Palmer Station was built, the glacier began immediately to its rear, but over the last 43 years, it has receded to its present location, exposing an ever-lengthening stretch of desolation and serving up the only tedious part of its friendship.

Out of breath, I made it to the boathouse just in time to go out with the dive team. I had taken Palmer’s boating classes, including the island survival session, but I was still inexperienced at the helm. Now in open water, staring at the distant speck that was Spume Island, I did my best to ignore the cramp in my throttle hand and cranked it up until my knees started shaking.

Notwithstanding my trepidation, the Zodiac gained adequate headway and for a spell even skimmed the water’s surface. Halfway to Spume we came upon a field of brash ice, the small bits floating on the surface. Mercifully, I needed to slow way down so as not to damage the propeller on the frozen chunks. We could feel and hear ice grinding the undersurface of the boat. The tiller suddenly jolted to the right as a piece of ice locked noisily in the prop blades, as if some fun-loving fur seal had yanked the propeller shaft the other way.

“Rock the tiller sideways a bit,” advised Chuck, who has made more than a dozen expeditions to Antarctica.

Free of the ice field, I picked up speed once more and finally reached the southern shore of Spume Island. Kate then relieved me of the tiller so we could survey the area for leopard seals, which would have made diving unsafe. We didn’t spot any of the large predators, but Chuck felt that the surf was too strong for his liking, so we headed back halfway to Janus Island, where the waters were a little less rough.

Chuck and Ruth began donning the rest of their diving equipment with the boat now stationary at Janus, except for riding up and down the swells. Kate and I helped them with their heavy gear, and before long, I found myself feeling like I did on the research vessel Laurence M. Gould External U.S. government site in the middle of the Drake Passage on the way down here two weeks earlier. I was glad that I didn’t have time for lunch before jumping on the Zodiac.

Chuck and Ruth disappeared into the water, and Kate and I concentrated on following the course of their bubbles as they met the surface.

“They’re hoping to collect some Myriogramme smithii,” said Kate, referring to a particular species of red seaweed — called “macroalgae” by scientists — which amphipods won’t eat. [See previous article: Underwater forests of Antarctica.]

The amphipods will devour other types of red seaweed such as Palmaria decipiens. But amphipods and their predator fish downright refuse so much as a nibble from the most common macroalgae in the waters around Anvers Island, the brown Desmarestia anceps and D. antarctica. That’s not only good for the Desmarestia, perhaps explaining why they’re the most abundant marine plant here, but it also makes this algal foliage a convenient place for amphipods to hang out and not get eaten. Live-and-let-live ecology.

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