Without much time to get settled in and recover from the week-long travel, our Antarctic Biology Training Course started on Sunday from 8 am to 6:30 pm, with a brief break for lunch. So much effort has been put in to arrange our limited time here that we better make the most of it. Although the course seems to have been offered a dozen or so times since the early 1993, this particular offering has taken 6 years to implement. The funding was granted in 2012 for deployment in late 2013, but at the last minute the US government shut down (don’t get me started) and the course was called off. It took 4 years to make it happen again, although an austral winter course took place at Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula south of Chile in 2016. I’m really glad that another shutdown was avoided this year. Yet one more reason that makes this trip improbable.
Yesterday was spent listening to short conference-style presentations by each of the Course’s participants about their research. I gave mine on modeling ocean worlds and measuring the chemistry of Yellowstone extreme microbial communities. Only a handful of us here are astrobiologists, and instead we got to learn a lot about microbial physiology, evolutionary biology, or strategies for adaptation to the cold by tardigrades, birds, fish, and even squirrels (yay). The onus of the Course is on “integrative biology”, integrating molecular biology, microbiology, physiology, ecology, etc. from molecules to ecosystems. It’s meant for people who normally work in different university departments to talk with each other and break artificial boundaries between these branches of biology. We astrobiologists bring in an extra “interdisciplinary” dimension of cross-talk between biology and other disciplines such as geology, physics, chemistry, and astronomy (planetary science). Paying close attention to 20 presentations on such seemingly disparate topics and making connections between them was draining, but after dinner and a short refreshing walk around the base, we attended yet one more science lecture in the dining hall. These take place twice a week and anyone on the base can attend, from lab techs to cooks to mechanics.
We also started to learn a lot more about the schedule for our time here. The plan is to attend two science lectures each day at 8 am and 8 pm, and do research in the field or lab in between. Starting next Thursday (weather and logistics permitting), we’ll begin to conduct field work on the sea ice, provided it’s not too inaccessible. Apparently, the weather has been mostly sunny and near 0ºC for the past two weeks, and the sea ice is partially melted, which is not unusual at this time of year. Weddell seals are coming out through cracks in the ice and dotting the sound. And in a couple of weeks, the massive icebreaker Polar Star is scheduled to make its yearly resupply to the station, which will further fracture the ice. So, we’ll see what we can do! For now, it’s fantastic enough to discover the base and contemplate the stunning Transantarctic mountain range across Mc Murdo sound during every minute of free time.