Bowermaster’s Adventures: Palmer Station, Antarctica

Palmer Station — When we sail into the narrow channel fronting the U.S. science base here at the tip of Anvers Island it is clear of ice, but for one sizable iceberg which we wait out, watching it drift slowly out to sea.

Once anchored and tied to the rocks at four corners — a necessity in Antarctica given the unpredictable winds and constantly moving ice, which are the twin constant threats of boats both big and small alike down here — we settle in for a good night’s sleep before going ashore the next day to interview and film scientists based here for the austral summer.

But when we awake the scene around our boat has changed: Big winds have pushed a field of brash ice — small chunks of floating ice that have a tendency to congeal into bigger masses when temps are cold — into the narrow channel, threatening to trap the sailboat and make getting back and forth to shore a nightmare.

Tying our nine-foot rubber Zodiac up next to the station’s row of a half-dozen bigger, sturdier versions it feels a bit like we’d ridden up to an Old West town and saddled our Shetland pony next to a string of quarter horses.
Though it is gray and misting heavily when we climb ashore the station’s manager, Bob Farrell, in sweatshirt and jeans, meets us outside. His charges this summer total just 41, a third of them scientists, the rest support staff.

Whether krill expert or IT guy, whether studying Antarctica’s longest-living insect (a midge) or looking after the station’s wastewater system, every one of the 42 based here for three to six months treats the place with equal parts reverence and occasional disdain. While each loves Antarctica in their own way, many returning year after year, the isolation — and grayness — of the place can sometimes make the assignment feel more jail sentence than golden opportunity. The two days we are at Palmer it rains and snows and rains and snows, with the sun coming out for just a tempting 30-minute peek, and then starts to sleet.

Luckily for us the place is busy with interesting science and super-committed-scientists. While the NSF-supported scientists are often in the field counting penguins or sampling underwater algae, a handful are here working the first-floor labs doing what scientists do: count, recount, analyze, compare, dissect, hypothesize, write and edit. Among the hi-tech support here is full-on Wi-Fi connections which allow phones with U.S. prefixes to ring and experiments launched with colleagues back home in New Jersey watching over scientists shoulders via Skype or Immarsat.For example, we find Rutgers’s University grad student Travis Miles in a lab preparing a four-foot long yellow “glider,” which he and assistants will slide into the ocean a couple miles from the station to collect data from deep channels nearby. The program has already sent one of its gliders 7,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean.
In a similar but different underwater endeavor, across the hall we meet Kim Bernard – native of South Africa and currently studying at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science — who shows off colorful screen grabs from her own undersea work, which is focused on krill fluctuations. The mainstay of Antarctica’s food web, recent krill numbers have been way down. Is it the warming waters? Overfishing? Extra-hungry predators? While the Rutgers’s team goes deep for answers, Kim studies the potential influence of tides on krill.

And both studies benefit Palmer’s most long-term study, of Adelie penguins, led by Bill Fraser who has been coming to Palmer since the mid-1970s. HQ for Fraser and his birding team — he currently has two teams of two scientists out on remote islands, counting — is a sturdy half-dome tent on the station’s front deck.

Sharing a glass of early evening whisky Fraser details some of the changes he’s seen since first arriving at Palmer in 1975-76, staying the first season for three months, the next for 13 months. During those decades he’s watched Adelie penguin populations decrease significantly, due to warming temperatures thus lack of sea ice; Gentoo penguin numbers increase, as they move into the warming neighborhoods abandoned by the Adelies; and krill numbers fluctuate wildly.

But the main thing he’s witnessed is less and less ice. Photographs assembled by various Palmer Station managers and visiting photographers show that at this tip of Anvers Island the retreat has been significant; they show a glacier behind the station that has retreated by 1,500 feet.

“That is the future of the Antarctic Peninsula,” says Fraser. “The ice is definitely disappearing. And fast.”