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International Polar Year:
Bacterioplankton genomic adaptations to Antarctic winter


Blogs: Joe Grzymski (Co-PI)


Aug 13-24. Joe's "eventful" travel and arrival at Palmer Station...

In science, as in life, things don’t always go according to plan. The past two weeks of travel and arrival at Palmer Station were marked by tremendous highs and lows. Finally, after a 5-week delay because of a car accident, I arrived at Palmer Station — in the most unusual fashion. Deployments from the United States to Antarctica are a logistical nightmare because so many things can go wrong: planes are delayed, baggage is lost or held up in customs, weather slows travel, etc. Sometimes, unforeseen events add to this complex mix of variables. My trip from Reno, Nevada to Punta Arenas, Chile was completely uneventful. In retrospect, I should have suppressed my optimism that “smooth sailing” was ahead. Tuesday August 12th in Punta Arenas was a miserable day with snow and high winds but I boarded the ship in the late afternoon, ran into some old friends and went out for dinner and drinks. Wednesday morning we left on time at 10am for the trip south through the Straights of Magellan towards Cape Horn and ultimately across the dreaded Drake Passage. Our trip through the relatively protected waters leaving Punta was marked by 60-knot winds and quickly the news of “a rough crossing” spread like an outbreak of the plague. There was a huge low-pressure system on course to meet our boat with 50-knot winds and 20-30 foot seas. In fact, there was talk of the extremely rare possibility that we would reach Cape Horn and hold until the storm passed. People disappeared into their cabins as they tried to stave off effects of seasickness. I used this quiet time to read books, watch a few movies and finish some busy work.

As you can imagine, medical problems, even slight ones, are taken very seriously aboard ships at sea and especially in Antarctica. Three days from the nearest port is no place to deal with serious problems of ANY nature; this is magnified exponentially when health issues arise. The combination of very rough weather ahead and a medical issue on board our boat enacted a plan B — to seek shelter for the night while weather passed and medical issues were addressed. The next morning we made our way south into the Drake with much improved weather: 20-30 knots of wind, 10-15 foot seas. The crossing was a bit rough but uneventful. The ship ran into newly formed ice south of the South Shetland Islands (see the photo of ‘pancake’ ice on photo gallery page) that slowed our progress. Nonetheless, we woke up Monday morning with Palmer Station in view off the starboard side.

Weather…weather...weather. It’s all about the weather in Antarctica. I’ve included a graph of air temperature, wind speed and pressure for each day in July. Weather drives biology and weather drives how we can do our science in ways that are magnified here compared to anywhere else on earth. The Antarctic Peninsula juts out from the Antarctic continent and extends to fairly “northern” latitudes. Palmer Station is located at 64°S latitude- about 200miles more south than Anchorage, Alaska is north. The weather the past two weeks has been wintry near the Palmer Peninsula after a period of unusually excellent winter weather. A series of low-pressure systems brought winds, snow and colder temperatures into the region; this also caused sea-ice formation. (Compare this to the very “nice” weather driven by a high-pressure system peaking on the 20th of July.)

Above: Weather data for July 2008 at Palmer Station, Antarctica.
Temperature, wind speed and atmospheric pressure are plotted for each day.

Sunday August 17th, a day before our boat arrived in the area, the ice moved into the Palmer Station area quickly and unexpectedly. This caused a fishing line to become frozen across the entrance to the pier impeding the docking of the Laurence M. Gould (our boat) and impeding us getting to station. We were so close yet with high winds, unstable sea ice and no safe way to get to station we were impossibly far. So we sat for over 24 hours less than 500m from Palmer as a new plan was enacted.

Normally the ship ties to shore, a gangplank is lowered and you walk across to Palmer Station after a brief introduction by the station manager. An inaccessible pier and the potential for being stuck for days was a discouraging scenario so the ship’s crew got very creative (see photo). The ship received permission to use a rocket-launching line thrower to send a line to shore (see video). It was an incredibly exciting event- especially for Mike, the chief engineer who got to shoot off two rockets, as the first one was hit by a blast of wind and missed the station. We were taken off the ship using a zodiac and pulley system to ferry cargo and 4 people from the Gould to Palmer. The zodiac was pulled across the fragile ice with either people or cargo in it using the ship’s capstan and a block and pulley attached to a bollard (post to tie up ship) on shore. This ingenious solution was enacted thanks to creative minds aboard the ship and on station. All of this occurred in a blizzard, in 20-knot winds and in the dark!! It was an exciting ship offload that was handled beautifully and safely. Getting to Palmer safely Tuesday night was wonderful. Great thanks to all of the people involved on the ship and onshore, from Raytheon Polar Services Company and Edison Chouest Offshore for getting us to station!!

- Joe Grzymski for B-229