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Palmer Station

USAP research base still going strong after 40 years


[Editor’s Note: The interviews and events in this article mainly took place in January 2010, at the height of the summer season at Palmer Station, Antarctica. This year marks the 40th anniversary since the U.S. Antarctic Program’s smallest research station opened its doors to scientists.]

Palmer Station is a small place that seems to loom larger-than-life for those who live and work there for any amount of time.

I finally got my chance to visit the U.S. Antarctic Program’s smallest research station — a handful of sea-blue buildings clinging to the rocky shores of Anvers Island — this past January.

That time of year on the Antarctic Peninsula is the equivalent of arriving in New York’s Time Square on New Year’s Eve — the place is abloom with life and the thunderclap of glaciers calving icebergs. The sun — when the Seattle-like gray curtain of clouds parts — shines nearly 24 hours a day.

Naturally, biological research dominates the marine ecosystem. Scientists study many of the big critters that inhabit nearby islands, like the barking Adélie penguins and the monstrously large elephant seals that lay in muddy wallows, gurgling and burping like a city sewer. Other biologists dive under water to observe the murky forests of algae and the sea creatures that swim among the long tendrils of seaweed.

This is also the time when the research vessel Laurence M. Gould steams down the length of the peninsula as part of a long-term study of the region, which is undergoing rapid changes from global warming. Its sister ship, the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer, is also nearby this season, on a two-month expedition to collect data on climate change and the evolution of the ecosystem since a massive ice shelf collapsed in 2002.

Palmer Station serves as the base of operations for much this research — part town, part laboratory and part warehouse. About half of its 45 bed-capacity is reserved for support staff — the carpenters, electricians, cooks, mechanics, technicians and others who keep Palmer running. Their job is to ensure the scientists can focus on their research.

“It’s stripped down to the bare minimum support staff that we have on station to complete all of the work and keep on top of the maintenance,” explains Phil Spindler, assistant supervisor of laboratory operations at Palmer Station. It’s a job title that means he’s the point person for science support, though like everyone at the station, he and his small department juggle many responsibilities.

“A lot of this job is logistics management, materials tracking, chemical safety, lab allocation,” he says while touring the bottom half of the Biolab building, where about a dozen labs house all manner of beakers, glassware and equipment, from dissection microscopes to something called a high-performance liquid chromatographer that isolates chemical compounds.

“Almost everything is meant to measure something, whether it be light, temperature, time or speed,” notes Elizabeth “Lily” Glass, an instrument tech, who tracks, maintains and fixes the 900 pieces of equipment located at Palmer Station and off-site at a warehouse in Punta Arenas, Chile, the embarkation point for USAP vessels and personnel.

Fortunately for Glass and her incoming replacement, James Bucklin, there’s about 900 instruction manuals that come with the job.

“If you had to know everything from the get-go your mind would explode,” says Glass, who has also worked aboard the ships in a similar capacity.

“I wouldn’t have come down here if I had to know it all,” quips Bucklin, one of the few people at Palmer Station making his first visit to the Ice.

Unique environmental challenges

Zee Evans has trouble counting the number of deployments she has made to Antarctica since her first trip to McMurdo Station in 1997. For the last six years, she’s worked at Palmer Station, heading up the four-person facilities, engineering, maintenance and construction (FEMC) department.

They are the folks who look after everything on station “without wheels on it,” she explains. January is the best time of the year for outdoor projects. This season the focus is on re-painting the wooden boardwalk maintaining the Bio Lab structural beams and running a new conduit line to support Terra Lab, home to various autonomous experiments. “The rain and the saltwater does create havoc with our stuff,” Evans notes.

The climate is relatively mild at Palmer Station compared to points farther south, like McMurdo on the other side of the continent or South Pole Station, where winter temperatures can plunge to below minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. But it’s one of the few places in Antarctica where it actually rains.

It’s also the only place in the USAP where personnel have to worry about the local wildlife chewing on equipment.

“I do a lot of patches on leopard seal bites,” says Ryan Wallace, the boating coordinator for Palmer Station, who oversees its fleet of Zodiac boats. Apparently, the large predator seals like to use the rubber pontoons for chew toys. One year before his time, Wallace says, leopard seal bites nearly sunk one boat parked in Hero Inlet next to the station, submerging and destroying thousands of dollars in science equipment.

He recently returned for his fourth season at Palmer Station to run the boathouse, a job that entails patching up the aging fleet and being a “grease monkey.” He spends the other half of the year working as a boat driver for an expedition company that runs tours around the world.

It’s a no-brainer as far as which job he enjoys more. “I love the mission here,” he says.

Satellite engineer Ken Kloppenborg, a large man with thick glasses, seems especially keen on the science, having worked at other research stations, including McMurdo and a site in Puerto Rico that supported a radio telescope.

“It’s always interesting to be around places where scientists are going, ‘Gee whiz, look at this. We didn’t know this before,’” he says.

For love of the mission

If there’s anything that unites the crew at Palmer Station, it’s their sense of shared mission.

“That’s the thing that’s kind of neat about Palmer: You can have direct involvement in science,” says soft-spoken Station Manager Rebecca Shoop, who joined the USAP in 1994 after deciding the 9-to-5, get-the-gold-watch-after-50-years lifestyle wasn’t for her.

“I find it hard to imagine sitting in an office for 12 months of the year,” she says. “I like coming down here and doing the job. The planning and all that stuff can be fun and challenging, but when you’re down here, you’re making it all happen. It’s all very direct.”

It’s also all very exhausting. Most of the summer crew arrived in September and finally headed to all points north in April. The work schedule is long at nine hours a day, six days a week. But that doesn’t tell the whole story of what is required to work at Palmer Station.

There’s no professional fire department. There’s only one doctor. Tour ships come and go for months. The environment can be hazardous, the weather infamously fickle. Almost everyone on stations serves on one or more emergency teams. In addition to the volunteer fire department and trauma team, there are also glacier and ocean search and rescue squads that train every month.

For instance, by day, Bob DeValentino is the Peninsula Logistics coordinator, meaning he tracks and moves all the materials that come and go between the station and the rest of the world. But he also serves on the glacier search and rescue team, one of the veteran members who is familiar with ropes, complicated knots and crevasse detection.

On one deceptively mild afternoon, he and other members worked a complex rescue scenario on the slushy glacier that hovers behind Palmer Station, pulling a “victim” out of a crack using a backboard and pulley system anchored in the ice. The chill of standing on the ice for hours, with the wind blowing up the glacier off the ocean, can be mind- and body-numbing.

On his 10th trip to the Ice in 10 years, DeValentino shrugs off the cold and the creeping exhaustion.

“I think it’s great. It breaks up the routine. You miss the point of being here if all you had was your job,” he says. “It helps people take a little more ownership in the station. It keys them into the fact that they are part of a community here, and they do have a responsibility to take care of themselves and the rest of the community.”

The lesson is not lost on Dianne Smith, the station’s administration coordinator. Going by the nickname 5-0 (her height), Smith works with everyone at Palmer, from the time they arrive to the days before they leave. It’s a place where everyone stops for a moment to take genuine interest in the welfare of a co-worker, she says, or to take the initiative in the case of an emergency.

“Help can be several days away — even weeks during the winter season. You can’t land a plane and get us out of here in six hours, so we need to be self-sufficient,” she says. “We need to be able to take care of ourselves and our place.”

The expectations of the community, the extended isolation, can be draining, Shoop notes.

“It’s a long season. It’s seven months,” she says. “To me what a big part of my job involves is making sure things are OK with the community and letting people know what’s going on.”

There and back again

There are few people as enthusiastic about the community and Palmer Station as Evans. It’s common to step into the station galley — a cozy room above the laboratories with a wall of windows looking out onto the harbor, islands and icebergs — and find her smiling and wearing an apron in the kitchen.

“Here at Palmer we’re more a part of a community than some of us are at home,” she says. “It’s a lot easier to volunteer here doing little things than it is at home doing little things. You don’t have to go far.”

She’s also an unabashed ambassador for the USAP when off the Ice.

“I promote Antarctica as a job. I wish I had cards to hand out,” says the Minneapolis resident. “It’s a beautiful landscape. It’s pristine.”

Pristine but changing rapidly. Veteran residents — and even those who have only ventured down the last few years — see the changes wrought by global warming. Penguin colonies are shrinking. The front of the glacier behind Palmer Station, part of the Marr Ice Piedmont that covers most of Anvers Island, retreats about 30 feet a year.

“I definitely see the changes,” says George Ryan, hazardous waste technician, who has been traveling to Palmer Station on and off for the last decade. In 2004, the rapid melting of Marr Ice Piedmont from a spot called Norsel Point on Anvers Island revealed a separate spit of land, now called Amsler Island.

Still, the landscape inspires many at Palmer Station, where it seems almost everyone sports a fancy digital SLR camera to capture the ever-changing scenery. Even the inexorable collapse of the ice amazes, where the melting ice caps on the individual islands look like melted marshmallow on a sweet potato pie as it deflates.

“It’s an amazing setting. I still enjoy walking between the buildings and looking out across [the landscape],” Shoop says. “It’s wonderful. You’ll see something different — the light, something in the water, the ice moving in and out.”

Most of the folks I talked to for this story have themselves moved out of Palmer Station, and a smaller crew has moved in for the winter. This ebb and flow of humanity mirrors the natural cycle of wildlife in the region, breeding giving way to broods giving way to migration for another season.

No doubt, many of Palmer personnel will be back in September, when the penguins and petrels and seals also return, to begin anew the challenges of life on the Antarctic Peninsula.

“It’s always difficult to say, ‘no,’ to coming back,” Glass says.

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Curator: Michael Lucibella, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Peter West, Division of Polar Programs