Working for science in Antarctica

The research at Palmer, one of the fastest warming areas of the planet, focuses on climate changes, effects and potential ramifications.

January 25, 2010 15:54


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PALMER STATION - Sometimes it's easy to forget that I live in a place so unusual. We have many of the same benefits and challenges of any small community, making our lives feel very normal. The 35 of us are the workers, the fire department, the customers and employees, the dishwashers and toilet scrubbers. We come from diverse backgrounds but usually behave like one big family, for better or worse. We eat three meals a day, usually of a gourmet nature, work out in the gym, surf the Internet and drink good coffee.

My room has a beautiful ocean view. The sights outside include the sky, a glacier face and the ocean, which is sometimes filled with ice. They each appear in various shades of grey, white and blue depending on the weather and time of day. It hasn't gotten dark in weeks because the sun doesn't set until 11:46 p.m. and rises again at 2:32 a.m.

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Around such hours those flat colors turns orange, pink and gold for extended periods of shocking beauty. We are truly lucky to be here and temporarily consider this place our home.

Thus is life at Palmer Station, one of three research station run by the US Antarctic Program. We live over a thousand kilometers from the nearest traffic jam, ATM or tree. Living and working in Antarctica has its challenges, but nothing compares to the hardships faced by Shackleton, Byrd or Mawson within the past century.

This is a continent capable of unimaginable harshness with plunging temperatures, deceptive elevations and blinding starkness. It can quickly drive the mind to madness and limbs to frostbite.

We endure it all, the pleasure and frustration, even the gourmet food, for science. Palmer is in the heart of the Antarctic Peninsula, one of the fastest warming areas of the planet. Within the last 50 years, mean annual temperatures have risen over 5.5 degrees Celsius, leaving less ice both on land and in the water.

Penguin populations are changing as true Antarctic species such as the Adelie head further south while sub-Antarctic varieties move in. Scientists can study the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere thousands of kilometers from the nearest factory and thousands of meters down into the ice.


They look at the phytoplankton that consumes some of that CO2 and the krill that feed on them and provide the foundation of the ocean's food chain. The ozone hole opens overhead in its annual fluctuation, forcing us to cover our skin with clothing and lotions that protect from up to four times the typical levels of solar radiation.

The research at Palmer encompasses many of Earth's natural systems mainly analyzing local climate change, its affects on this region and potential ramifications for the rest of the planet.

Station population tops out at 45 people and consists of two groups: scientists and those who support them. Scientists are known as Grantees because they are awarded grants through the National Science Foundation to do their research here. I work in Logistics on the support side and am responsible for the materials that come and go from the station.

Our monthly supply ship travels out of Punta Arenas, Chile, our logistical hub and a four-day boat ride away. A typical day for me includes operating heavy equipment, warehouse data entry, shoveling snow, assisting scientists, washing dinner dishes and any number of other tasks.

I'm also on the search-and-rescue team and in charge of our fire department. For a location so isolated, we keep plenty busy maintaining all station operations while working at least six, nine hour days a week.

People choose to work in Antarctica for wide ranging reasons. Grantee Lab Assistants tend to be unpaid undergraduate students gaining experience in the field. Trades people come here as part of lifelong careers practicing their skill. Management is usually promoted from within, some having spent decades coming to the "Ice."

All are adventurous people looking for an alternative lifestyle. Most have an interest in science and delight in working closely with the Grantees. Few leave unchanged by the stark beauty of the continent.

At Palmer, most employees work at least a six-month contract, often the hardest part of which is being away from family and friends. My family is over 12,000 km north and in the opposite season.
As my days get longer here and summer arrives, their temperatures fall below ours as winter envelopes and snow blankets. We work long hours, so the rare extra time is easily filled with hobbies and projects.

Some play cards or other games. Others escape into movies and books. We have a band that practices at least once a week and an exercise group that works out in the gym every morning.

This season we're even enjoying delicious homebrewed beer made by one of our scientists who also happens to be a brew master. Most everyone brings a different expertise to station and loves to share and learn what others have to offer.

When weather allows, we take the opportunity to explore nearby islands and coves in Zodiac inflatable boats. This provides not only an escape from station but usually close interactions with wildlife.

On neighboring Torgersen Island, over a thousand Adelie penguins lay eggs and raise their chicks. Leopard and elephant seals stretch out on rock and ice between underwater feedings, unbothered by a passing Zodiac with clicking cameras. The most popular creatures tend to be humpback whales, especially when their enormous mass curiously studies our dwarfed boats from as close as a few meters.

A longstanding tradition at Palmer involves jumping from the pier into the -2 degrees C ocean when our ship departs. The shock and pain involved for those who swim draws cheers from departing friends and laughter from the others still on shore.

We all spend enough months here to see this process on several occasions, knowing that some day it will be our turn to see the event from the ship's point of view.

Leaving Palmer is always bittersweet, departing our cozy and predictable community to return to a world with green grass under barefoot, night-time hours that are actually dark and fresh bananas. The traffic jams are there too, but returning to society is part of the fun of leaving it for over six months. Besides, most of us end up back down here again for another season, or maybe five.The research at Palmer, one of the fastest warming areas of the planet,
focuses on climate change, its effects and potential ramifications.

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