The past two days have been so amazing, it’s hard to find where to begin. Let’s start with the science. We got broken up into two groups; I was part of those who stayed in the lab the first day and went in the field the next. In the lab, we set up an experiment to measure metabolic rates of small animals (the babies of shrimp-looking amphipods, which we finally caught by the jetty), while others prepared growth media or filmed clams to determine their mechanisms of motion. For our metabolic experiment, we’re trying to measure how respiration (oxygen consumption) varies depending on the temperature of the water that the amphipods are in. In Antarctica, the water is very cold: about -2ºC in Mc Murdo sound, the salt keeps it from freezing. The cold slows down chemical and biological reactions, just like you put food in the fridge to prevent growth of microbes. Except this is colder than a fridge, which causes all kinds of experimental challenges: keeping things between fridge and freezer temperatures; avoiding any freezing that could damage the instruments; getting rid of air bubbles that would skew oxygen measurements; waiting a long time (days?) because reactions are so slow, etc. Our first attempt was promising, though.
The other half of the group went to the field, for the first time using snowmobiles. They had logistical issues getting helmets and having science cargo fall off from towed sleds. Thankfully, those kinks were ironed out yesterday when it was our turn to go. Riding a snowmobile on the ice shelf and then getting to the sea ice was such a blast. We couldn’t avoid passing by a couple of placid seals that perked up as we approached but quickly dismissed us and went back to resting. Another seal tried to come up our sampling hole. At first, it went back down, and we were told to be quiet in the event it’d come back, but I couldn’t help gasping when a few minutes later we heard a loud, whale-like blow. It must have been holding its breath for over an hour.
The seal didn’t come back once we started lowering instruments and nets into the hole. Our sampling was super successful: in just shy of three hours, we acquired a salinity-temperature-depth profile of the waters below, sampled phytoplankton and krill, retrieved water samples from as deep as 200 m, and measured visible spectra (absorption of light as a function of wavelength) down to 70 m. It’s amazing to see in real time how the light dims 500x below surface levels and turns blue-greener. With so much data and so many samples, we’re going to be busy in the lab in the next few days, organizing science questions and research plans for the remainder of our time here.
Two days ago, we also got the green light to wander off on the trails around the base. I borrowed a snow bike and a pair of skating skis. I’ve only used the former so far on short trips to Hut Point where the Discovery hut stands. I was very lucky: just as I was contemplating the surrounding mountains, three Adélie penguins came around the peninsula. They merrily strolled along like uncoordinated toddlers, at times adorably sliding on their tummy, or stopping by a seal before marching along.
I also hiked up Observation Hill, a prominent landmark overlooking the station, probably an old volcanic cone given how steep and treacherous the ascent was on loose volcanic rock and gravel. The weather was exceptionally clear, and in addition to the Trans-Antarctic mountain chain to the west (which doesn’t get old), I could see the distant open sea and floating icebergs to the north, smoking Mt. Erebus (the southernmost active volcano in the world) to the east, and toward the Pole the vast, flat, white expanse of the Ross ice shelf, dotted by the airfields and long-duration balloon launch facilities. Atop Ob Hill is a cross commemorating the lost lives of Scott, Wilson, Oates, Bowers and Evans on their journey back from the Pole. Coming from the open sea, the icebreaker Polar Star was carving a channel into the sea ice so that the annual resupply and fuel ships can make their way to the base in the next couple of weeks. Yesterday, I could see the icebreaker go back out to widen the channel when I hiked up the other side the station.
Tonight, between lab work and our evening lecture (on how cells maintain their sodium content), I hope to make it to New Zealand’s nearby Scott Base and visit the hut built by Edmund Hillary’s 1956 expedition. History time!