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.

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

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

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

Thus is life at Palmer Station, one of three research stationrun by the US Antarctic Program. We live over a thousand kilometersfrom the nearest traffic jam, ATM or tree. Living and working inAntarctica has its challenges, but nothing compares to the hardshipsfaced by Shackleton, Byrd or Mawson within the past century.

This is a continent capable of unimaginableharshness with plunging temperatures, deceptive elevations and blindingstarkness. It can quickly drive the mind to madness and limbs tofrostbite.

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

Penguin populations are changing as trueAntarctic species such as the Adelie head further south whilesub-Antarctic varieties move in. Scientists can study theconcentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere thousands of kilometers fromthe nearest factory and thousands of meters down into the ice.

They look at the phytoplankton that consumes some of that CO2and the krill that feed on them and provide the foundation of theocean's food chain. The ozone hole opens overhead in its annualfluctuation, forcing us to cover our skin with clothing and lotionsthat protect from up to four times the typical levels of solarradiation.

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

Station population tops out at 45 people and consists of twogroups: scientists and those who support them. Scientists are known asGrantees because they are awarded grants through the National ScienceFoundation to do their research here. I work in Logistics on thesupport side and am responsible for the materials that come and go fromthe station.

Our monthly supply ship travels out of Punta Arenas, Chile, ourlogistical hub and a four-day boat ride away. A typical day for meincludes operating heavy equipment, warehouse data entry, shovelingsnow, assisting scientists, washing dinner dishes and any number ofother tasks.

I'm also on the search-and-rescue team and in charge of ourfire department. For a location so isolated, we keep plenty busymaintaining all station operations while working at least six, ninehour days a week.

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

All are adventurous people looking for an alternativelifestyle. Most have an interest in science and delight in workingclosely with the Grantees. Few leave unchanged by the stark beauty ofthe 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 mydays get longer here and summer arrives, their temperatures fall belowours as winter envelopes and snow blankets. We work long hours, so therare extra time is easily filled with hobbies and projects.

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

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

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

On neighboring Torgersen Island, over a thousand Adeliepenguins lay eggs and raise their chicks. Leopard and elephant sealsstretch out on rock and ice between underwater feedings, unbothered bya passing Zodiac with clicking cameras. The most popular creatures tendto be humpback whales, especially when their enormous mass curiouslystudies our dwarfed boats from as close as a few meters.

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

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

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