21 March, 2000
A Hands-on Way to Antarctica
72 04s 105 40w
90 km (57 mi.) west of Cape Flying Fish, Thurston Island, Amundsen Sea Wind S 9 knots (10 mph), temp -5 C (23 F), barometer 1001 mb, steady Sky overcast, no precipitation
Depth 516 m (1693 ft)
Ship's course 324 @ 6 knots
In heavy pack with occasional open leads
Working out on deck is not so bad when the wind moderates, even if you have just woken up. At midnight, when we were taking a piston core, the wind was almost calm, and the temperature was near freezing. We were in heavy pack ice, and there was no discernible swell. An occasional star or two peaked out through holes in the clouds. I wouldn't have minded taking snowshoes and hiking a mile or two away from the ship, just to feel the dark and the emptiness out there.
Before leaving the coring spot we deployed (we don't just leave things, we "deploy" them) an automated weather station in the middle of a big stable floe. I didn't get to go down on the floe to see it set up, because I was in the middle of labeling and storing the core. I did get a picture of it ready to hoist down to the ice surface though. I'll post it with this journal entry.
When set up, the station looks like a large cylindrical wash tub with a head-high mast sticking up. The wash tub part, which is the base, is dug into the snow on top of the ice, so that the wind won't blow it over. In the base are batteries and a radio transmitter, while in the mast are temperature and barometric pressure sensors. The transmitter is designed to work with the same NOAA satellites that seal tracking transmitters do. The satellite receives identification, position, temperature and barometer information and stores it to retransmit later. The station has battery power for more than a year, but probably will not last that long because the floe will disintegrate earlier, sending it to the bottom.
We are setting up three of these buoys for Dr. H. Hellmer of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany. They are to be set up in a large triangle 60 nautical miles on a side. Their purpose is to track large scale movements of the sea ice. Additionally, their weather information is available to weather forecasters worldwide.
As we were leaving, I caught a glimpse of the station set up on the ice, starting its lonely duty. It reminded me of some NASA planetary probe, radioing information from the back side of the moon.
If you want to plan and conduct your own scientific research in Antarctica, pretty much the only way to do it is to get a Ph.D. and some academic experience, apply for grants a year or more ahead of time, and hope they are funded. But that route is by no means the only way that you can live and work on this cold continent. People like Dee Breger come here because they have special laboratory skills. Still others, like Synte Peacock and Jesse Johnson are along because they are graduate students doing relevant research. Sometimes undergraduate college students, like Melissa Harper, are invited as research assistants, and there are other programs specifically set up for undergraduates.
Besides these are yet other ways. None of the scientific research being done here would be possible without a skilled crew experienced in navigating Antarctic waters. Just as important are people with the skills needed to run and maintain all the scientific equipment, from Zodiac boats, to computers, to Kasten corers.
Steve Ager and Christian McDonald are in that last category. They are marine technicians employed by Antarctic Support Associates (soon to be replaced by Raytheon Polar Services Corporation), a company hired to provide support services for American scientific research in Antarctica. I've worked a lot with them, and can tell you that they know what they're doing. Recently when we had a slow night I asked each of them to tell me how they had come to be on the Nathaniel B. Palmer in the Amundsen Sea.
Steve told me that he went to high school in Tucson, and by his own admission wasn't at the top of his class. In those days he was mostly interested in girls and cars. Later he worked as a carpenter. He bought houses in need of repair, and sold them at a profit. Then he decided to return to school at Fort Lewis College in Colorado, and earned a Bachelor's degree in Geology. About this time he was visiting a friend's house and saw a pamphlet from Antarctic Support Associates advertising employment opportunities in Antarctica.
He was interviewed, and Antarctic Support Associates (ASA) liked his hands-on experience. He was hired for an all around support position for the 1997-1998 season at McMurdo Station, and saw Antarctica for the first time. Returning to Colorado, he went to ASA headquarters and applied for his present job shipboard. Again he was hired, and has been working on either the Nathaniel B. Palmer and sister ship Lawrence M. Gould ever since. After we arrive in Puentas Arenas, Steve will board a five week cruise on the Lawrence M. Gould, and then will head home for some time off in Durango, Colorado.
"It's a good job, the pay is good, and I met my girlfriend down here," Steve says.
I asked him what a marine technician's responsibilities were. He listed some I knew: operating the Zodiacs, coring, CTDs, seismic surveying. There were others also, including carpentry, metal fabrication, tool, spare parts and hardware inventory, maintaining outboard motors and moving cargo. Steve says that about the only things he and other ASA people don't do are "drive the ship, cook meals, and put out fires." (Another contractor, Edison Chouest, provides and maintains the ship and crew to safely run it in some of the worst water in the world. There is a whole other story I'd like to tell.)
Steve and Christian also have another responsibility shipboard. They and other marine technicians are trained as wilderness emergency medical technicians (EMTs.) If somebody were hurt, the EMTs would have to stabilize the injury and provide care for weeks. There is no 911 to call in the Amundsen Sea area, and the nearest doctor is more than a thousand miles away.
Christian McDonald knew in high school that he wanted to work in the marine science area when he grew up. He was on the swim team, and started diving when he was 15.
He studied Marine Biology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, became involved in scientific diving, and later taught the subject there. While at Santa Cruz, his diving skills got him to Alaska for five months. He helped in a study of sea otter ecology in the underwater kelp forests that stretch along the Pacific coast from Baja California to the Aleutians.
"Sea otters eat urchins, and urchins eat kelp. The sea otter population was decimated in the last century, but now they are gradually returning. What will happen to kelp and urchins when the otters come back?" Christian first came to Antarctica in 1997 to help in a study of pollution around McMurdo Station. Although in recent years efforts have been made to reduce pollution at the base, in earlier times people were not as concerned about the Antarctic environment. Parcticularly worrisome are hydrocarbon and heavy metal pollution in Winter Quarter's Bay. Christian placed samples with known pollutant levels on the bottom, and retrieved them later to find out what organisms could tolerate what levels of pollution. The 1998 season brought him back to work in the same study. More recently, he has been at McMurdo working with famed
underwater photographer Norbert Wu (see recent National Geographic Magazine arcticle) making a marine natural history film to be released in February 2001. Christian joined a team of divers filming with high definition television cameras, working through the two meter thick sea ice. He says a drill like those used for phone poles, except larger, drilled a four foot (1.22 m) hole. They worked from a heated dive hut dragged over the hole. He expects to return next season to finish work on the film.
More schooling is in Christian's future. In between diving he plans to start graduate school at Moss Landing Marine Laboratory in California, to study marine ecology.
"I'm itching to get back to school," he says.
As I've been writing this, the sky has cleared to a cobalt blue, setting off the white ice on the blue-black sea. I'm hoping that the weather holds and I'll have a sky full of Antarctic stars tonight.
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