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18 March, 2000

Two Ways to Get to Antarctica

73 51 s, 105 30 w

Running seismic line north of confluence of Thwaites and Pine Island troughs -4 C (25 F), winds NE 13 knots (15 mph)

Barometer 997 mb, rising sharply

Sky broken, hazy overcast

Depth 804 m (2638 ft.)

Outside the dawn is breaking, very slowly as it does in these latitudes. The Nathaniel B. Palmer is also breaking, breaking new gray and pancake ice at 5 knots (6 mph.) We are running an air gun seismic line (see 3/2/00 journal entry) west to east across a huge glacial trough. Judging from the seismic output in the dry lab, there is very little sediment in this big underwater valley, just a lot of thinly covered bedrock. It is unlike similar profiles I've seen from the Gulf of Maine. Maine profiles show similar bedrock contours, but they are largely covered with sediment from land. There are no rivers in Antarctica to carry sand and silt offshore, so the bedrock stays bare or nearly so.

The ice surface is remarkably uniform. The strong winds of several days ago blew all the old floes westward, leaving only the largest bergs. As soon as the wind dropped, new ice began to form. Another storm may clear this ice out, but eventually it will reform and thicken fast enough to a point where it is nearly storm-proof, and will remain in place until the Antarctic spring in November.

Behind the ship is a long, perfectly straight slot in the ice, extending in a direct line from our stern to the horizon. There are several large, tabular bergs in the distance, but everywhere else is flat new ice. Our progress across the Amundsen Sea is like driving across a Utah or Nevada desert. The road stretches straight, the land is flat. The bergs here stand in for the distant flat mesas of the desert. Both areas are sparsely populated, although anywhere in Utah or Nevada you are sure to find another human being within 40 kilometers (25 miles.) Here the nearest other human beings are at least hundreds of kilometers away.

In the slot we've made trail cables and hoses, attached to the round orange buoy supporting the air gun. Every few seconds there is a two part reflective flash from under the buoy, caused by the two blasts of air which form the bubble. Then the bubble surfaces in a big white circle, pushing the buoy out of the way and temporarily submerging it.

Roughly thirty or forty kilometers east of us, and roughly in our present latitude, are three groups of islands (roughly because the chart says "position data irreconcilable"). They are the Edwards, Starrett and Lindsey Islands, named after individuals involved in the US Navy's Operation High Jump of 1946. The Navy men they were all men down here then- had just finished fighting World War II. The cold air and seas of Antarctica must have seemed friendly compared to the submarine infested tropical Pacific of the war.

Synte Peacock and Sally Mathieu spend a lot of time in a small but packed water chemistry laboratory near the stern, on the main deck. Under the direction of Guy Mathieu, a retired Lamont scientist, they are responsible for on-ship testing of water brought up by the CTD. They measure the amount of dissolved oxygen and chloroflourocarbons (CFCs) at different depths. Synte will soon complete her Ph.D. at the Lamont-Doherty Geophysical Observatory, part of Columbia University. She came to Columbia several years ago after completing undergraduate work at Oxford University in England. She majored in geology, but also took courses in math, physics and chemistry.

I asked her what led her to the point where she was now, a graduate student in oceanography aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer in Antarctica. She told me that in high school she had thought about the possibility of a career in music, but also liked math and science. She decided quite early that it would be difficult to make a reliable living playing the piano, and that far more opportunities would be available with a scientific background. She also told me that, growing up in England, the educational structure forces students to make career decisions earlier than in the US system. At the age of sixteen students must select just three subjects to study for the next two years (A level exams.) Her success in these, and the encouragement of a high school geology teacher named Steve Whitehead, led her to admission at Oxford.

At Oxford, an advisor, Philip England, was very supportive and encouraged her to apply to study in the United States. She said she was interested in math, physics and geology, and only became fascinated with oceanography after she arrived in the US. Talking about Philip England and Steve Whitehead, she says:

"Having supportive teachers and parents is very important. Without that kind of motivation it would have been easy to have opted for a different path." Synte has applied recently for several postdoctoral positions, and eventually plans to teach and do research at a university.

She was in Antarctica three years ago, aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer in the Weddell Sea. She spent the following summer aboard a Canadian icebreaker in the Arctic. (See http://sheba.apl.washington.edu/default.html.) She says she thoroughly enjoys going to sea, and plans to continue doing fieldwork throughout her career.

"It is a change from the normal routine. It's wonderful to be in New York one week, and aboard an icebreaker the next. Being here and working shipboard also helps me to appreciate the amount of work involved in gathering data, and the errors in the data I use back in my office."

Sally Mathieu has come to be aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer through a course different than Synte's. Her interesting life has had numerous twists and turns. The ability to carefully analyze seawater for tiny amounts of chloroflourocarbons and other tracers is only one of her skills. I asked her how she learned to do what she does.

She said she studied special education as a Columbia University graduate student, but the demands of pre-teen children and her and her husband Guy's desire to buy a house caused her to leave that field. She took the opportunity to do technical work, carbon radioisotope dating, at Lamont, and gradually learned other similar technical skills. She changed gears again in 1986 when she left Lamont to get an MS in library science, and become a professional librarian. She never switched completely though, and has done much scientific fieldwork since then, always looking for trace compounds in water.

This is the third time she has been to Antarctica. The first was aboard the Knorr, a Wood's Hole oceanographic research vessel. Of the second time, she says:

"We were aboard the Palmer from July to September 1997. It was winter and we were cruising along the Antarctic Peninsula. I'm still blown away by the scenery here, but that trip it was spectacular. I remember going by older, worn bergs with caves, windows and terraces. These giant communities of 'high rises' are so eerie that anytime you expect someone to peek out and wave at you."

Sally says things are better for girls and women in scientific fields than they once were. "A few years ago there were very few female graduate students at Lamont. Now it is about half and half."

She tells me that one great advantage of the science work she does is that it has given her a chance to go places that she never would have gone, and have time to appreciate them. Besides Antarctica, she has been to Brazil, the Azores, Scotland, Bermuda, Iceland, Tahiti, remote parts of northern Ontario, the jungles of Jamaica, and elsewhere. She said that when the chance came to come to Antarctica again, she could not pass it up.

In my March 16 journal entry, I talked about Jesse Johnson and his computer model of the Antarctic ice cap. Synte's Ph.D. project also involves a math model, this time a model of the world's oceans, and the way water flows in them. I'll tell you some details tomorrow.

A delegation of Adelie penguins, with knees, visits the Nathaniel B. Palmer. (Dan Naber photo)

Kim Morris and Christian McDonald gather snow data at different depths.

Synte Peacock, Columbia University graduate student and ocean modeler.

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