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Remote operations

Fieldwork along the Antarctic Peninsula requires special support

John Evans pulls out a photograph from one of the many binders that line the shelf of his cubicle office at Raytheon Polar Services (RPSC) in Centennial, Colo. He lets the picture make his point about just how challenging it can be to work in the Antarctic Peninsula.

The photo shows several people (including Evans) in immersion suits, a special type of dry suit, walking waist deep in freezing cold water and guiding an inflatable Zodiac through a thick zone of brash ice. The U.S. Antarctic Program’s ARSV Laurence M. Gould appears small on the horizon, with a leopard seal lounging much closer on an ice floe.

Evans, a coordinator for RPSC’s Special Science Projects, dismisses the idea that the leopard seal, which hunts penguins, presents a danger. “No, not really. You kind of watch it. It watches you,” he says. “We’ve never had any incidents. He’s just there making a good picture.”

The picture was taken from the shores of King George Island, where an NSF field camp, Copacabana, is located. Copa, as it is informally known, is one of two such camps supported by NSF in association with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the South Shetland Islands, located just off the northern tip of the peninsula. The other camp, Cape Shirreff, is on Livingston Island, some 150 miles to the southwest.

Copa research focuses strongly on avian biology, and the site was elected primarily because of its proximity to an unusual congregation of breeding colonies of the three small Antarctic penguins known as brushtails — Adélies, chinstraps and gentoos. Researchers also study seabirds at Cape Shirreff, but this location was selected primarily for its access to seal breeding sites, according to Evans.

The NSF and NOAA partnership shares research, operations and funding aspects for the two camps, based on a formal long-term agreement that varies from year to year in its details. Both studies are part of an international program to help monitor and conserve the ecosystem, including a tiny species of crustacean known as krill, which are fished commercially. Krill are also central to the diets of many penguins and seals.

Evans and his RPSC colleague Melissa Rider comprise the sum total of an informal entity called Special Projects, which plans the logistical support of the multi-year Copa and Cape Shirreff camps. They also work projects requiring temporary camps in the region, with one or the other going into the field to provide on-site support.

They also help coordinate projects involving U.S. scientists working with other Antarctic national programs like Argentina and Chile; and pretty much assist with just about any other task outside the mainstream operations of the USAP.

“That’s unique for special projects,” Evans says of Copa and Cape Shirreff. “Everything else is very temporary. Usually meaning a tent camp in some place that nobody ever heard of, with a handful of scientists for a few weeks. [Then we] pull everything up and return it to its original contour as best we can and go home.”

Most fieldwork in other parts of the USAP enjoys support by air, using ski-equipped military planes like the LC-130, smaller aircraft like Twin Otters or helicopters. But if you’re headed to an island in the Antarctic Peninsula to conduct research, prepare to get wet. The only way on and off is by Zodiac from one of the RPSC-chartered research vessels dedicated to Antarctic science.

“The camp openings always require a major effort. With good conditions, it’s only a few hours, but it’s very, very labor intensive,” says Evans, who has worked in the Antarctic on and off since the 1960s, when he helped lead the first ascent of Antarctica’s highest mountain, Vinson Massif.

“There’s a lot of things that can shut you down and not very much that can hurry you up,” he observes. “If it’s blowing a gale, you can’t do small-boat operations. If there’s too much ice, you can’t push through it.”

The fieldwork, whether at temporary camps or permanent field stations, occurs in the southern hemisphere summer. That doesn’t necessarily mean the weather is ideal.

Ross MacPhee, curator of mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History, 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.

“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.

The draw at Livingston and King George islands for biologists like Wayne Trivelpiece 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, 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, a geobiologist at the California Institute of Technology, 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.

Good advice, it turned out. Back in South America, lugging a crateful of rocks, scientists unpacked all the rocks and removed 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.

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.

“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, 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