Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Life at the South Pole batters body and mind

(As published in The Kansas City Star:)
PALMER STATION, Antarctica | Jon Brack loved the South Pole.
The rest of the world might consider life there a banishment, might think the place is some frozen gulag to be endured.
But Brack relished his sunless winter at the bottom of the world. He tended a greenhouse, learned to play guitar, picked up conversational Italian. Venturing out of the Amundsen-Scott station meant dressing like an astronaut, but it promised the mind-blowing colors of the aurora australis.
“I didn’t want the sun to come back,” he said, “because I didn’t want the auroras to go away.”
Brack is part of a breed that has been drawn to Antarctica for better than a century — men and women intrigued more by the exotic than the easy, who think life is too short to be squandered in someplace ordinary.
Working all three U.S. research stations on the continent, Brack never went hungry or lacked a warm bed and an Internet connection.
At 22, he set aside a business degree and went to work as an Antarctic chef. Raytheon — the giant defense contractor that also runs the American polar research stations — started him at a field camp about eight miles from McMurdo Station on the Ross Ice Shelf on the continent’s New Zealand side.
MacTown, as regulars call it, is a summertime home for about 1,000 people — in winter, a fifth of that. Typically, about half the people are researchers. The rest are people such as Brack, who keep the scientists warm, fed, healthy and free to pursue research.

Antarctica: A frozen hotbed of climate research for hardy scientists (belated post of story)

(As published in The Kansas City Star:)

ANVERS ISLAND, Antarctica | Roald Amundsen attacked this frozen nowhere-land as a racing explorer, determined to be fastest, to be first, to be remembered.
His determination and savvy got him to the South Pole before any other, and made him a hero in an age when Antarctica existed in the human imagination as a final conquest.
Mostly for show, he brought along a scientist.
Just shy of a century later, the conquerors have given way to the curious.
Now scientists such as geologist David Barbeau and ornithologist Kristen Gorman, rugged individuals of another age, shuttle in rubber Zodiac boats from remote research stations and ice-breaking research ships. They bump aside small floes, bend against brutal polar winds and scramble up cliffs in search of their own discoveries.
They search not for fame, but for answers about the same climate that once tortured and killed their polar adventuring forebears. Around this continent, the weather has mellowed alarmingly. Giant glaciers and tiny creatures are threatened as this tip of our global iceberg warms faster than anywhere else on earth.
These modern-day researchers come not to conquer, but to understand.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Shackleton, after waiting for established air route and better food, gets to South Pole

OK, not that Shackleton. But a distance relative of the old man became not the first, but about the gazillionth person to make it to the South Pole.

From the Military Times:


   After five attempts, a Shackleton has finally made it to the South Pole.

   Navy Reserve Cmdr. Scott Shackleton reached the pole the night of Feb. 9 while serving on a three-week resupply mission helping prepare the scientific communities stationed there for the Antarctic winter from mid-February until October.

   Scott Shackleton's distant cousin, famed British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, made four unsuccessful attempts to plant a flag at the geographic bottom of the earth before he died of a heart attack on his last expedition in 1922.

   "It's a beautiful and mystical place," said Scott Shackleton in a phone interview from McMurdo Station just hours before he was scheduled to leave the continent and begin his journey home. "It's unlike anywhere else in the world. I understand now why he kept coming back to explore, and I hope I get another chance to come here, too."

   Scott Shackleton's job was to oversee the offload of a tanker and a container ship. He made it to the South Pole in an Air Force C-130 aircraft, which was making ferry runs with supplies to sustain those living at the South Pole for another year.

   During Ernest Shackleton's second expedition, he got within 97 miles of the geographic pole - the farthest south anyone had made it until that time.

   His hopes to be the first to the pole were dashed when Norwegian Roald Amundsen and his party got there Dec. 14, 1911.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Carpe vomit, seas the day

     Heading south, the ocean gods showed mercy. The notorious Drake Passage knew relative calm. Most all aboard our stubby, ice-breaking research ship fared well.
     Payback is a, well, it rhymes with itch.
     In the small hours of Sunday morning, as the ship moved deeper north into the Drake, the wind blew 50 knots and the swells pitched above 15 feet.
     My bed is tucked in the hold of the ship. It's a place of many noises. The throbbing diesel engines. The alarms that go off regularly in the engine room to alert the crew to tweak this or turn that. The ventilation in our makeshift cabin that drones on like the outside winds.
     But my crib is also protected from the most extreme sways of the ship. Even so, I have to prop up the side of my mattress with a lifejacket so I won't roll out from the top bunk. Even with that jury-rig, I have to hold on to the walls to keep from spilling to the floor.
     Others have it much worse. In their upper deck bunks they feel the sways of the ship in exaggeration and, like me, feel the boat's bass vibration when a wave strikes the bow just wrong.
     One woman has twisted her ankle on the swaying floors and now must navigate the ship's steep stairways on one good leg. Worse yet, the talented chef from Palmer Station has hitched a ride for emergency dental work. An exposed nerve must wait for five days of rocky passage before someone in Chile can drill into her mouth. Plus she's been seasick.
     And the boat is shrinking, figuratively. The rough seas mean the outside decks are closed. Plus most of the people riding along have been living in these close quarters for a month now. The best jokes have been told. The romance of the ice has faded far to our stern. Thoughts are now shifting to connecting flights and the sundry details of holiday travel.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A yeti at the helm

Some of you may want to reconsider your votes in our poll of Antarctic explorers.
With a one-day overpopulation, the people doing real work at this polar outpost were busy. But the day's visitors, stuck for the last month aboard a research ship were eager to see the sights. In particular, they wanted to visit the nearby islands where Penguins poop and elephant seals  lounge in the guano.
Who'd they come looking for to pilot this Antarctic maritime expedition? None other than one very corn-fed Midwesterner raised on the prairie who just three weeks ago wasn't terribly sure about the whole bow/stern thing.
I can be quite impressed with myself (reporter, duh), but maybe never so much as when the locals sought me out to take 10 folks in a Zodiac to Torgersen Island. OK, it wasn't Worsley taking the James Caird from Elephant Island to South Georgia, but there were small swells and a gusty wind and a little snow.
It was also my bittersweet final Zodiac outing, and I was rewarded by principally, not messing up the boat, and additionally by seeing the newest born of Penguin chicks.

Now honestly, which is cuter? The chick, or the Zodiac driver?

Your ride is here

Ever been at a party, having a great time, and your ride home starts honking the horn out front?
The ship that will haul us back to Chile arrived this morning, with plans for steaming north on Friday morning.
Crew and passengers have been cruising around the Antarctic peninsula for the last month, kept from their explorations too much of that time by ice. For them, today is a great respite, a chance to come ashore on Palmer Station, hike around, maybe soak in the hot tub and almost certainly have a drink or six in the bar. Everyone will feast together on pizza tonight and the longer-term residents of Palmer will get a welcome infusion of company.
For those of us who have settled into Anvers Island so comfortably, the boat is not a pretty sight. It means our stomachs are soon to be tested by the Drake Passage, and after that several airports and tiny airline seats.
Much more, it means leaving -- without much prospect of ever returning -- one of the most spectacular natural settings on the planet. We'll leave behind, too, a tight ad hoc family of warm and adventurous souls who have made the remote anything but lonely.
I'm already dreading that moment after an exotic, some days after the return, when it feels like a dream -- cut short by the alarm clock of ordinary life. Where's the damn snooze button.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Young chicks (gratuitous headline intended to inflate web traffic)

Our astute ornithologists alerted us to some of the first Adelie penguin chicks of the year, no more than three days old when we saw them on Tuesday.
This is not your antiseptic maternity ward. It feels, instead, like a great blending of primordial goop.
On a rocky little island aptly named Humble, amid the random snoring and bellowing of lethargic elephant seals, the chicks sit in rock nests springing veritable streams of guano and slush that dribble through mounds of  seal dung. Think of downtown Kansas City after the St. Patrick's Day parade.
In these early days, both parents stay near -- likely to protect the young from the greedy jaws of skua shorebirds. Soon they will take more turns venturing out into the water for meals.

At first approach, they seem invisible. Advised to stand quietly as winds grew stronger, their tiny chirps caught our ears and led our eyes.
Mostly, the adults keep the downy chicks warm by sitting on them as if they were still just eggs. Then the parents stand and out pop the hungry maws -- like editors, always begging for more, more, more.
So Mom, or just as often Dad, barfs. Tiny, slimy, half-digested bits of seafood wretch up and into the hatchling's beaks. Antarctic sushi.
Nearby, other nests still harbor eggs. But the job of the newborns is to eat and make guano. They do both as prodigiously as the Royals give up runs. Like our boys in blue, they've been doing worse each year. The Royals don't have a great excuse. For these feathery swimmers, the problem is that in the winter they forage from the ice during the daylight. Since there's increasingly less ice, they move farther and farther south, where the winter days only get shorter. And so on. But there's always next year.

Chillin' in style

Woke this morning to see this ship, the  Bahamian-flagged Minerva, a couple hundred yards from my bedroom window.
It's one of two cruise ships expected to stop at Palmer Station this week, and part of a trend of Antarctica tourism going through fits and starts.
Just as Antarctica has become the chic place for the well-heeled and environmentally conscience to see, the business of bringing tourists to high latitudes in the lower hemisphere is getting trickier.
First, the cruisin' companies have had to deal with their own heavier traffic. Operators go to great lengths to time their journeys in the all-too-brief Austral summer so that they remain largely out of view from one another. It's a bit of a buzz kill to pay a bucket-load of money to have your view of penguins and icebergs cluttered by a another cruise ship.
Then there's the nagging issue of sinking. The Explorer (not to be confused by National Geographic's cruise ship of the same name) shared paint with an iceberg in 2007 about 60 miles from the Antarctic peninsula. The passengers and crew, about 150 in all, were rescued from lifeboats. But the sinking of the Explorer brought about attention to the perils of taking so many people to areas so remote in waters that can be tricky.
Now the countries involved in the uneasy of the no-man's-land of Antarctica want strong new controls.
In 2007, the cruise ship Explorer ran into an iceberg less than 100 kilometres from the Antarctic Peninsula. Its passengers were rescued in lifeboats, but the ship sank. It carried 185,000 litres of marine diesel, a lighter fuel, which prevented it from becoming an even worse environmental disaster, according to experts.
Already, rules are set to take effect barring the use of heavy oil on the cruise ships south of 60 degrees latitude, meaning a few companies will bow out rather than retool their ships. Saga, Swan Hellenic and Voyages of Discovery have already steamed away from the continent..
Meantime, the disintegration of the Wilkins Ice Shelf has dumped more icebergs in the water, making navigation harder and meaning and accessibility to some areas less predictable.
The cruises can routinely run tens of thousands of dollars per head. So people talk about the orange parkas their issued for the trip as being $20,000 jackets. Passage on the Minerva, which featured lectures from a scientist who's done much research in the region, included a surcharge that helped pay for scientific gear donated to Palmer on Tuesday.
I climbed on to the Minerva this morning to see the ship and the grip-and-grin ceremony. It was populated by the sort of folks who could afford the money and time for a 10-day Antarctic cruise. Lots of gray hair. And when the folks from Palmer gave a presentation on board, passengers were told they could also watch it on TV in their berths. Later, some 200 rounded through the station for tours and T-shirts.

Monday, December 14, 2009

H2o -- chilled

This link should lead to a random collection of the Antarctic's defining feature: ice.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

That water's cold. And deep, too.

Ahab wannabes were grabbing their harpoons. The great white (really white) one bobbed in the Southern Ocean on Sunday.
There's cold, and then there's dangly parts take a vacation cold. The water here is actually slightly below 32 degrees farenheit (salinity at work). So why not go swimming?
Local tradition holds that residents of Palmer Station plunge in the polar waters when friendly vessels head north. The ritual aims to bring good luck for those about to head across the notoriously nasty Drake Passage. It's decidedly bad luck for those taking the plunge.
During my time here, no ship would be making the trip without me aboard, so I jumped in just to confirm my stupidity.
Off the pier in one blindingly pale flash of gumption, and I was in the water.

I've read where studies test people's tolerance to pain by having them stick their hands in ice water. It hurts.
Indeed, you do know when you hit the water.

But it must have been numbing as well, because I figured a somersault in the water was in order. Not a great idea.
I got a head rush combined with a brain freeze. It was like gulping down a giant grape Slurpee while buried naked in the snow. I felt as if my eyeballs were collapsing on themselves. Even my prodigious insulation was no match for the ice water.
Time to head for the ladder. People on land seemed alien. They were laughing. Smiling. Where's Bill Clinton when you need him? I wanted somebody to feel my pain.

I waddled 30 yards to the hot tub, where it took me a good two minutes to inch my frozen flesh into the steamy water.

Soon, though, I warmed with my fellow ice jumpers, all of us well impressed with our own daring. Friendly crowd. Not terribly bright.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Man in the mountain

Can you see him?
Anybody can find the face of Jesus in a pancake or a crying Madonna in a coffee stain.
But you've got to travel to the Antarctic peninsula to see this music great in a mountainside.
His face is above the center, diagonal snowfield. He's looking to your left.
A bird researcher based out of Palmer Station a while back noticed that the face in this mountainside and the mug has become a fixture in the psyche here ever since.
See him yet?
His identity can be found, if not with your own eyes, in the comments section.

This leopard is a bad cat (but no feline)

OK, this is my nominee for the weirdest creature south of an editorial board meeting. The Hydrurga leptonyx, or leopard seal is the Antarctic regional bad boy. She (honestly, it's hard to tell the sex) feasts on penguins and the young of other seals and just about any other warm-blooded prey he can get those menacing chompers around. Leopard seals also gorge on squid and krill.
We saw this one lounging on an ice floe floating about 100 yards from a penguin colony and rolling around in a pool of her own urine. Reminds me of that week I spent at Sturgis.
Although it's an ear-less seal, it looks more like what might happen if you mated a snake with a whale, a Doberman with an otter, or Michael Phelps with a tax collector. They are absolutely otherworldly, like something out of the "Alien" movie series banished to the coldest water in the world. 
They lumber on land, but they dart like torpedoes of muscle once in water. The  sterns of our Zodiac boats have been reinforced because leopard seals have been known to bite through the thick, hard rubber.
The one we encountered today was at least 10 feet long. They can grow to more than 12 feet and weigh well over 800 pounds and don't have particularly cuddly personalities. Can you say mother-in-law?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Seal sleeps, science stop

OK, so it's not this crabeater seal's fault that a trailer home-sized ice berg has blocked in all the boats today. But the way it's lounging about on the same ice that is keeping researchers and the rest of us from heading out in the water seems to rub things in a bit.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Playing to our audience

Mrs. Powell's kindergarten class has asked for pictures of penguins swimming and sliding on their bellies. We know our audience, and we aim to please.
Yet these are two areas where we're pretty weak. I've not seen many penguins sliding with real speed on their bellies. Rather, they tend to flop on to their tummies and scoot a little bit when they seem to feel it's easier than walking.

As for swimming, those pictures are a challenge, too. It's a blast to watch them swim through the water, breaking the surface like dolphins. But since you never know just where they'll come up, it's hard to capture.

But sometimes they lounge around the surface of the water and look a little like ducks.