Monday, November 30, 2009

Cute -- it's what's for dinner

You guessed. When times got tough, the pups got sauteed.
Diaries of the Shackleton expedition talk about the sorrow that our pictured Second Officer Tom Crean suffered when the time came to make dinner out of the little guys. (For those of you who joined us late, Ernest Shackleton's Endurance expedition was the tragic and heroic last-gasp effort by the Brits to capture a polar first by crossing the continent on foot. The Norwegians beat them.)
Although the crew, Crean especially, took a fondness to the dogs, the huskies could be a nasty pack prone to chomping on the hands of their handlers. But they were critical to early 20th century polar expeditions. Attempts to use gas- or diesel-powered tractors proved disastrous. And ponies, it turns out, even when fitted with pony snow shoes (no kidding) are much better for birthday parties than crossing the ice.
And dogs, when the going gets really tough, are as good for breakfast as they are for lunch.
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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Frozen water, frozen, water, frozen ...

People who come to Antarctica talk about living on the continent as living "on the ice."
What that doesn't convey is the feeling you get within hours of arrival of how much the ice seems to be living itself. Of course, it isn't alive. But it changes constantly.
When we arrived on Anvers Island, the bay looked like this:

By this morning, after the tide had gone out, it was full of brash, or junk ice and looked more like this:

Likewise, late last night this mini-iceberg that's been hanging around Palmer Station like a lost kitten spontaneously started bobbing and twisting in the water. In the end, it didn't flip over. But it's likely to go bottoms-up, or "turtle," before long.

(Notice its resemblance to a Henry Moore sculpture -- with the added bonus of being noticeably in flux by the day and by the hour.)
(This one, on the other hand, looks like something Tim Burton might put together if he worked in whites and blues instead of blacks and, um, blacks:

The shame here is that the almost black light quality of the blues is hard to transfer from ice, to camera lens to computer to blog -- particularly when your correspondent is pretty sure that ISO stands for "I swear, officer.)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

If only they had statues to abuse

Culturally, if not taxonomically, the sheathbill is the pigeon of the Antarctic. So lowly is its status that some folks call them shit chickens.
Like chickens, and unique among Antarctic birds, their feet are not webbed. They are also chicken (free-range, anyway)-like in size. They are common and they are scavengers.
Given a chance they'll feast on the eggs of penguins, terns or petrels. In a pinch, they'll gorge on feces (no cracks about reporters being the sheathbills of the human world).
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Ice, Ice, baby

A hundred, or maybe multiples of that, icebergs are drifting toward New Zealand. There are so many, in fact, that a shipping warning could kick in soon if the ice doesn't let up, shipping in the region could be in doubt.

The small iceberg shown here is on the opposite side of the continent, and well away from busy shipping routes.
But on the other side of Antarctica the traffic in ice spotted by satellites is more problematic.
Scientists think the icebergs are the remains of a giant ice flow that split from the continent, possible due to climatic changes.
New Zealand has sent out coastal navigation warnings, but there are no imminent plans to shut down shipping.
New Zealand was barraged by icebergs in 2006, and a sheep was flown by one on a helicopter so it could be shorn in a publicity  stunt to promote the country's wool industry.

The Drake is a fake

We dodged a bullet in crossing the Drake Passage. It can be the roughest seas on the planet, but Neptune smiled upon us. Sea legs were shaky, but that was it. We got through quickly and puke-less.
This is a link to photos from the short voyage.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Polar paparazzi

When the crew of the Endurance was trapped in the winter ice, the frozen sea working like a vise to crush their ride home, photographer Frank Hurley made pictures. It wasn't easy, what with the flesh-freezing winds and that whole winter-long night going on. But he strung some lights for this classic.
Here's what he wrote in his diary:
“During night take flashlight of ship beset by pressure, This necessitated some 20 flashes, one behind each salient pressure hummock, no less than 10 of the flashes being required to satisfactory illuminate the ship herself. Half blinded after the successive flashes, I lost my bearings amidst the hummocks ,bumping shins against projecting ice points and stumbling into deep snow drifts.”
For all his work, just a fraction of his images survive. When Ernest Shackleton ordered the abandoning of the ship, the "boss" helped him cull through the bulky glass plates that did then what our tiny memory cards do in today's digital cameras. To make sure Hurley wasn't tempted to go back and retrieve more pictures, Shackleton insisted on shattering the discards.
Why'd they take any at all when weight was so critical? Their sale was one of the few things the crew had to make money off of the journey.
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Isn't he cute?

We saw this guy alone on a small ice berg a few hours before our ship landed at Palmer Station. Having arrived, I'll post more pictures and maybe something interesting when I have things a little more in order.
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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Have canned air, will travel

     Here’s a business idea: Fix microscopes. And make house calls. To the poles.
     Too late, Jim Janoso has beaten you to it. Toting a suitcase crammed with mirrors, lenses, flashlights, tiny screwdrivers, small allen wrenches, oils and canned air, he travels to the world’s most remote research outposts so scientists can better look at little things. “I never thought I’d get down here,” he says while swaying side to side on a laboratory stool as our ship makes its way south. But he’s bound, for the third time, for Antarctica. It’s been more serendipity than calculation that made him microscope mechanic to the poles. He is trained as a mechanical engineer and has worked in the aerospace industry, for the forest service and a concrete manufacturer. Happenstance introduced him to the former proprietor of Northern Focus Optical, which traveled mostly to middle schools and high schools tending to microscopes in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
     Janoso took over the firm in 2003 and branched out to higher-end microscopes and expanded his circuit into Alaska and some its most isolated camps.
     Word of mouth soon enough landed him a gig in the Antarctic. Now, he says, “I sometimes forget where home is” (actually Roundup, Mont.) while going to polar regions for their spring and summer season and roaming the lower 48 states much of the rest of his time. As we bob across the ocean on the way to Palmer Station, he dissects the ship’s high-end microscopes.
     There will be more microscopes awaiting his trained eye and steady hand when we arrive. Janoso sometimes gives long-distance direction on the art of microscope maintenance to their handlers around the world. Careful about moving from -40 to a heated room lest condensation creep in between the lenses. Mind how you move from the warm to the very cold or risk cracking glass.
     Other problems require his rare skills and the spare parts he’s toted with him. Inevitably, he’ll need something that’s not stowed in his bag. Sometimes, he’ll borrow tools in the ship’s machine shop and fashion a fix. Just as often, the repair will have to wait until next year – if ice and weather and research funding gaps don’t conspire to delay him longer. “I’ll go anywhere,” he said. “I love it.”

When waters collide

     This is where the water wrestles with itself.
     Nature has drawn a loopy circle through the Southern Ocean well away from, but around, Antarctica. The line wanders anywhere from north of 47 degrees latitude to south of 60 degrees, and meanders from season to season, year to year. It’s where the deep-chilled brine of polar surface water slips beneath the warmer waters of the north. The result of the battling waters is the Antarctic Convergence.
     Although it is a virtually invisible – and somewhat shifting – line, the Convergence forms perhaps the most imposing quarantining of species in the world. Consider that in an area larger than North America there are just 39 of the more than 9,000 species of birds on the planet. This time of year the Convergence – alternatively, the Polar Front – sees surface waters around Antarctica become diluted with fresh water from ice melt.
     The mix and churn of the warm and saltier water from the north with colder Antarctic water conjures up great blooms of algae. Tiny shrimp-like krill feed on the algae, and then become the main staple of dinners for everything from penguins to whales. On board a ship, there’s no noticeable difference from the convergence itself beyond a dip in temperature. While the Convergence is often associated with violent seas, the roller coaster conditions are often just a coincidence.

     And we are taking a shortcut through the most notorious coincidence. The Drake Passage overlaps with the Convergence and marks the spot where winds and currents circling from the west out of wide-open seas come barreling between the tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula. Shortly before sundown last night we passed by the bottom of Tierra del Fuego (pictured) and into the Drake. The swells here are decidedly larger than what we saw before entering the Drake. Waves wash over the back deck and fewer people wander out to the bow. It has become a seesaw. But by Drake standards, the weather and seas are rather calm. And those who stand watch are rewarded with the sight of an albatross.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Southward ho!

     The Laurence M. Gould shoved off into a bright Chilean afternoon, carrying a crew of 17 and a few dozen geologists, paleontologists and biologists bound for the Southern Ocean.
     We'll spend about a day navigating the fjordish (sorry, the word works for me) straits that will wind us calmly by Argentina and then out through the much more rollicking Drake Passage.
     We compared notes on seasickness medicine, some folks already drowsy and dry-mouthed from the drug patches they'd pasted behind the ears the day before. 

     Got about an hour's lecture on safety. Short version: Try not to bang your noodle in a doorway or fall off the side. 
    Quickly saw dolphins and penguins swimming by the bow.
    Sharing sleeping quarters with three others in what basically amounts to a shipping container below the water line. Shower, I'm told, is too flights up. But I'm in no hurry.

Monday, November 23, 2009

One comes, one goes

This ship came in across the dock this morning (Monday). We're set to sail at 2 p.m.

What the chic crowd is wearing this (Austral) summer

My threads:

Adios a Punta Arenas

One last run through our South American staging ground.

Unlike so much of the world, the homogenizing taint of U.S. franchises – McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut in particular seem so common everywhere else – has yet to invade the southern tip of Chile.

More than a few shops catering to tourists and locals trade in the hiker chic brands like North Face and Columbia. (Oddly, though, I don’t think I ran across signs for Patagonia clothes, which is named for the region.)

But still, there are places that would fit in nicely en Los Estados Unidos. Consider Lomit’s (alternately described on its menus as the more Latin Lomitos). It could substitute nicely for Chicago’s Billy Goat Tavern, a watering hole and grill long popular with that city’s newsfolk dating back to the age of Royko. Middle aged readers will remember it as the place that inspired early “Saturday Night Live” skits with Dan Akroyd and John Belushi bullying their customers in thick Balkan accents about “cheeseburger, cheeseburger, no fries – chips!”

The staff at Lomit’s doesn’t come on as strong, but they dish up a deliciously greasy burger smothered in a muenster-like cheese. The sandwich is the size of your face – unless you’re John Kerry. The meal is best washed down with Austral Calafate Ale – named for the native calafate berry that turns it slightly sweet and crimson – straight from the southernmost brewery in the world.

It doubles as a sports bar, and the folks were watching a game Sunday afternoon that had something to do with a ball. But I was left clueless because there was no hoop or bat or Chiefs massacre.

Along the cold windy beaches, as much rock and seawall as sand in many places, young couples like to huddle tightly together in twosomes. I guess it’s one way to keep warm.

At the town square, it was as if John Phillip Souza had imposed his will on a Latin jazz band. A mix of army and naval troops marched through the main drag and assembled for a mini-concert at the town square. They improved tremendously when they stopped marching and swapped in more salsa for the Souza.

Later I would do my own marching, spending a few hours cruising for a pharmacy that was open, carried seasickness pills and could understand my use the word vomito. Not easy on a Chilean Sunday.

I stumbled across what seems a ritual on Sundays for families to make to trek to tightly packed two-story mausoleums. Maybe long cold winters led people this way rather than waiting until spring to bury the dead.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Good as Gould

This is my ride for at least the next few days, and my lifeline to civilization for the next month.
The Laurence M. Gould is a scientific research ship. I will be a stowaway.
The original plan had been to take a take 10-day journey from Punta Arenas, Chile, to Palmer Station on Anvers Island, dropping off research teams on even more remote field stations farther north on the Antarctic peninsula.
The rumor in port this morning was that we would instead head straight to Palmer because sea ice was making the other destinations trickier to get to. Unsure how that will shake out, or what it means to my chances of being able to visit places other than Palmer. In any event, I'll shiver happily.
Obssessives (that's you, Mom) can track the progress of the ship by clicking on this link or the link listed on the right hand side of the blog. (Also, remember to vote in our poll, also listed to the right. Antarctic Convergence, bring it on.)
We board the vessel at 2 p.m. local time today and, we hope, cast off at 8 a.m. Monday.
The boat looks pretty cool, but it seems like it could use a racing stripe, and a pair of fuzzy dice.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Boy, are my arms not tired.

See this plane. See how it's wheels are on the ground? That's not a good thing. For me, at least.
That's KU's Chris Allen at the door. For the last month-plus the electrical engineering professor has headed a team flying on the NASA DC-8 that's been mapping ice on and around Antarctica. They've packed the plane with leading-edge radars capable of a dizzying array of measurements that can penetrate kilometers deep into the surface. That lets them figure out how high the ice is, and how deep it is -- sorting out where the ice stops and the ground begins.
Because the bevy of sensors needs clear skies to make its measurements, clear weather has been key. And they've been lucky, even adding flights to their mission because the gods were kind.
But final extra flights when I arrived in Punta Arenas, Chile, this week got postponed once, twice and finally, this morning scrubbed for good. So my hopes for flying over the continent were dashed.
The various logisitic and scientific crews weren't terribly bummed. They're worn out and now they can get a head start on packing up for the ride home.
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Friday, November 20, 2009

Everything is so different here

I've been accused of not being amenable to local cuisine, or fresh cuisine of any sort. But I offer this as Exhibit A in evidence of my daring palate. You see here a container not of quotidian, stateside sour-cream-and-onion Pringles, but a quite Latin American package of Kryspos -- that's Kryzpo with a "K." If you investigate I think you'll find not a single k in the entire word "Pringles."
And what's up with the Dreams Casino in Punta Arenas. Sure, it's on the (quite frigid) beach, but there appears to be no moat of water around the thing. The people here must be loco.

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It's always a campaign year -- or is that happy hour? -- somewhere

While the U.S. waits impatiently for, or works desperately against, hope and change, Chile is approaching the eve of its presidential election.
The incumbent, Michelle Bachelet, had a rough start but is leaving office next year as a rare president with rising popularity ratings.

So now we have opposition candidate Sebastian Pinera pitted against former president Eduardo Frei in the December 13 voting. Pinera is ahead in polling with37 percent support, followed by Frei with 28 percent. Independent candidate Marco Enriquez-Ominami is playing the Ross Perot role and is polling at 17 percent.
Banners and posters are ubiquitous in Punta Arenas and campaign appearances dominate local TV.  
Strikes are pretty regular here, and have ramped up in anticipation of the election. A few-hours strike of meteorologists played a small role in determining whether a flight over Antarctica I'd like to tag along with might be delayed. The weather guys came back to work, but the flight was scrubbed because of a cloud bank moving toward the Antarctic peninsula.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The deep south

We are in MuttonWorld.

Punta Arenas sits by Strait of Magellan, marking where Pacific waters become Atlantic. It's the southernmost city of any size (about 116,000) in the world. Think cold and windy, without a whole lot of winter sunshine.
The Spainiard José de los Santos Mardones established the place in southern Patagonia in 1849 and it became a signficant port of call and coal depot until the Panama Canal created the shortcut that meant shipping routes didn't have to snake below South America. But while it was big, it was also a popular gathering spot for spies keeping eyes out for what was going where.
Now it's about sheep and oil, drawn from the Tierra del Fuego oil fields.
Chile claims a sliver of Anarctica that runs clear to the South Pole. In fact, there's a monumnet south of Punta Arenas -- which lies at the south end of what the rest of the world recognizes as Chile -- that marks the supposed center of Chile.

South for the (Austral) summer

I'd forgotten how much Spanish I'd forgotten.
Still, there's a special kick to navigating a foreign city on your own. (Last night I escaped from the torture that is modern air travel. About 36 hours of cramped seats and crowded airports. Almost makes you yearn for the days of scurvy and storms that would have brought you to the Strait of Magellan by steam and sail a few generations ago.)
Anyway, like almost any place I've been, locals are surprisingly accommodating of unilingual Americans. Punta Arenas is a friendly port city that makes a go off of shipping, sheep and scientists. Lots of wool and fleece and glacier glasses. I arrived to weather I had left behind: soggy and about 15 degrees above freezing. I couldn't see the sun, but it appeared to set very late.
I come courtesy of the Marine Biological Laboratory which has put National Science Foundation bucks to use in a science writing fellowship that will take me and two other journalists to Palmer Station on the Antarctic peninsula. My main patron, of course, is The Kansas City Star, which has sprung me free for a little over a month and agreed to pick up the cost of sending me south a few days early in hopes of tagging along on a NASA DC-8 flight over the last continent. (That's still iffy. Maybe on Saturday if the skies clear.)
And most significantly, I'm here with the blessing of a family that's let me miss Thanksgiving and a very special birthday in pursuit of a frigid wanderlust.
Picked out a bag of loaner polar clothing at Raytheon's port-side warehouse this morning. (Apparently summers in Antarctica are cooler than in the Midwest.) I'd show you a picture of all the gear, includes something called a red yazoo cap that looks like it sounds, but it's already been  set aside for storage on the ship that will tow me farther south. They actually had comfy boots that fit my oversized feet. But, alas, no gloves large enough for a Sasquatch. (Luckily, I brought my own army surplus gloves and overmitts.)
If weather clears over Antarctica, I'll fly on a NASA ice-measuring plane over the continent tomorrow night. Weather and a strike at the airport have that trip in jeopardy for the moment. If that flight scrubs, maybe Saturday -- or not at all.

Give the "Boss" a go-cup

For Hemingway fanatics, it's a special bar in Paris or Key West. For me, the mecca of bars is here in Punta Arenas. The Shackleton Bar is tucked in the back of the Hotel Jose Nogueira and is said to serve a nifty version of the local specialty. (The pisco sour is sort of a Chilean margarita, sans salt.)
Ernest Shackleton, known by those in his famously failed expeditions as the Boss, stayed at the hotel, in those days owned by the epynomous Nogueira, while making repeated attempts to rescue the bulk of his crew when they were stranded on Elephant Island. One legend has him firing a gunshot into the roof of the bar when it was time to round up sailors for a rescue mission.
Today the walls are adorned with a series of paintings depicting the trevail and ultimate rescue of the Endurance crew.
Now, excuse me while I go down a cold one at the Boss' bar.
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Is it getting stuffy on this planet?

Not had any gloomy news on temperature and carbon build-up lately? Well, it's always coming.
The Global Carbon Project tells us earlier this week that a six degree Celsius
temperature rise by the end of the century is virtually inevitable. 

In the journal Nature Geoscience, a team of 31 researchers say a spike this decade of carbon emissions suggests a runaway train effect in the buildup of greenhouse gases. We posted earlier here news that the planet might be better at soaking up carbon, the new results suggests the Earth isn't as absorbent as we might like.

Monday, November 16, 2009

On the rocks

A number of witty friends suggest this is what's drawing me south, but I'm more about this.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Earth, like a dorky sweatband, soaks it up

A Brit's recent study of ice samples finds that the Earth has a surprising ability to absorb the increases in carbon dioxide in the air.
Although the rate at which we belch CO2 into the atmosphere has increased almost 18-fold since 1850, ice samples taken from Antarctica suggest the planet has soaked up almost half the carbon added to the mix by the activity of man. (Probably no small amount of it created in the manufacture of monstrous things like the one strapped to this guy's noggin.)
It could be a rosy finding, if it holds up, because conventional wisdom was that the Earth's ability to absorb CO2 would decrease as it became saturated.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Warming = less ice = more plankton = CO2 storage = less warming?

Just preliminary evidence here, but the British Antarctic Survey has found that the way melting ice allows more sunlight to shine in the ocean spurs significant blooms of tiny marine creatures. Those phytoplankton, in turn, eventually die and sink to the ocean bottom, taking carbon with them.
That means a symptom brought on by greenhouse gases, the melting of the ice, could spur a phenomenon that reduces the levels of those same greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Bad news: it doesn't look like the effect is anywhere nearly dramatic enough to offset the overall buildup of greenhouse gases.

Monday, November 9, 2009

New meaning to life list

`God save thee, ancient Mariner,
From the fiends that plague thee thus! -
Why look'st thou so?' -"With my crossbow
I shot the Albatross." -- Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Turns out fish hooks work better (or is it worse?) than crossbows.
The top six species of sea birds at risk of extinction in the Atlantic hail from the albatross family. The British Antarctic Survey on South Georgia has found the number of those big birds flying today is just half the population of the early 1960s.
Your fish sticks might be the problem. In diving for their own seafood, an albatross is vulnerable to getting snagging by commercial fishing equipment -- either on hooks or in nets.
Now the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Birdlife International are calling for a treaty monitoring panel to impose new rules on fishing to protect the albatross.
But will using albatross-safe fishing methods be more costly, less fuel efficient, more damaging to other species?
In any event, it's long been considered bad luck to kill one of the birds. Just ask the ancient mariner.
'Is it he?' quoth one, 'Is this the man?
By him who died on cross,
With his cruel bow he laid full low
The harmless Albatross.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Let's hope CO2 ain't all that

The last time carbon dioxide levels were as high as they are today was, well, quite a long time ago.
Something like 15 million years ago. That's right, even before disco.
And the world was a much different place. Global temperatures were 5 to 10 degrees higher and sea levels were 75 to 20 feet higher.
How do we know? you ask.
It used to be we only knew about atmospheric levels going back about 800,000 years -- a blink of an eye in geographic time -- by studying bubbles of air trapped in long-frozen Antarctic ice.
Now comes the very clever Aradna Tripati, who has peered back further in time by looking at sea shells.
Specifically, she's charted the ratio of boron to calcium in the shells to figure out what the atmosphere was like when they were formed. That time travels a good 20 million years.

Melting, just not as fast as we thought

Good, but not great, news on the rate at which the West Antarctic (think western hemisphere -- it's confusing when you get down there) Ice Shelf is melting.
It is melting. And the debate about whether your Buick is responsible will go on. But tracking ice movements against bedrock suggests that previous estimates about the trimming of the ice shelf were overstated.
That said, the researchers say that ice is still melting.
"West Antarctica is still losing significant amounts of ice, the loss appears to be slightly slower than some recent estimates," said Ian Dalziel, a researcher with the West Antarctic GPS Network, said in a press release. "So the take home message is that Antarctica is contributing to rising sea levels. It is the rate that is unclear."