As the National Science Foundation icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer sails the frigid summer waters off the Antarctic continent, researchers run through their frantic paces, sampling and analyzing the pristine environment, struggling to complete their work before polar ice and darkness set in.
Scientific cruises to Earth’s extremities can be intense and stressful, but for most researchers starting their careers in polar sea science, the chance to experience one of Earth’s most desolate yet beautiful habitats makes up for any hardships they encounter. “When I feel like I am totally stressed out and exhausted, I go out on the ship’s bow and soak in my surroundings and recharge,” says Amy Shields, a biological oceanography Ph.D. student and veteran of eight voyages to the Ross Sea. “I can’t help but think that this is the most beautiful place I have ever seen, and that it’s grander than I could ever imagine.”
The clock is ticking
Shields is part of a research team that runs a water-sampling project called IVARS (Interannual Variability in the Ross Sea), which looks at annual changes in the biology, chemistry, and physics of the Ross Sea. For Shields and her shipmates, the intensity of these multiweek expeditions comes from the tight schedules they have to adhere to. Researchers must work quickly because the Ross Sea ice disappears for only 1 or 2 months during the peak of summer, freezing solid again within weeks.
Based at the College of William and Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science at Williamsburg, Virginia, IVARS aims to elucidate the changes occurring in marine biogeochemical cycles and to determine how they relate to global warming patterns. A large part of their work is measuring the productivity of the diatom and phytoplankton communities found in Antarctic waters.
According to project leader Walker Smith, the Ross Sea provides a unique locale to study year-to-year changes in the critical components of the Antarctic marine food web because of its low species diversity and the long scientific records of annual changes in physical and chemical processes. Quantities such as CO2 and ice concentration have been tracked for nearly 3 decades, but historical data on the ecosystem’s biological components are more limited. “In terms of biology, … it’s a lot harder because we don’t have the long-term records for many of the critical elements of the food web, so that’s hindering our understanding dramatically,” Smith says.
Voyages to the ice-free sampling sites off the coast of Antarctica last about 30 days, including the 10-day transit sail from a small town just south of Christchurch, New Zealand. This leaves only about 10 days in the Ross Sea for the cyclical-but-hectic routines of sampling and analysis. Smith says that everyone onboard has a keen sense that the environment they’re working in is going to last for only a couple of months. “I am always struck by the fact that you have to define your experiments extremely precisely, well in advance, in order to understand what you are observing, because you might not get another chance,” Smith says.
Although the pace is hurried, the beauty and majesty of the surroundings aren’t lost on the researchers. The absolute silence and subtle shades of color in the surrounding ice entrance some researchers. “The only other place I experienced such silence is in a very deep underground cave,” says Sasha Tozzi, a Ph.D. student on the IVARS program with 10 years’ experience in the Antarctic. “The ice comes in infinite shades from white to celeste [sky blue], at times with brown and green layers of algae, and in myriads of different shapes. For miles and miles, everything looks, feels, and smells pure and uncontaminated.”
For others, it’s the isolation and wildlife that captures the imagination. Even after 6 years of sailing Antarctica’s waters, says Shields, it’s being in such remote places with only whales and penguins as company that takes her breath away. “Just imagine yourself standing alone on the bow of the ship with seawater splashing against your face–and here comes an orca whale that has traveled further that you have, spy hopping, searching for its next meal.” That, she says, is “what brings humans back into the animal kingdom. We, like the other organisms down there, have a reason to return to this place. It’s in our blood. It’s our home, too.”
Careful planning and preparation are essential for polar sea research. “It’s nothing like doing fieldwork where you just pack up and jump in the car,” says Tozzi. Several months in advance of setting sail, all the necessary supplies are put on order and sent down to New Zealand to the shipyard. Meanwhile, Tozzi and his teammates execute practice runs, doing mock experiments to make sure everything works. Once the team members arrive at the harbor in New Zealand, it takes the better part of a week to unpack, set up their lab space, and retest all the equipment before setting sail.
It’s at this point, Tozzi says, that you cross your fingers and hope that you haven’t left anything at home and that everything works. “The last thing you want to have to do is reorder anything, but sometimes instruments do get shaken and damaged during transport,” he says. “If you count the actual hours that you spend planning and transferring versus the time spent in the field, the ratio is totally skewed toward preparation and travel.”
Like Tozzi, Shields has learned to deal with the pressures. She keeps a cool head while trying to work efficiently within the team. “I’m trying to maximize the time that I have down there because every minute counts and every second is expensive,” she says. “It’s also extremely intense because you not only have very short time, you’re also sharing space and samples with other people.”
Despite the careful preparations, people working in close quarters, under extreme conditions, and for long periods of time inevitably experience some social strain. The biggest potential for tension and conflict occurs during sampling, when all the researchers are jockeying for the limited space and time on the deck. “You just have to claim your territory,” she says. The principal investigator and a pecking order usually keeps the peace. You have to respect everyone’s space, sleep, and sanity, Shields says. “If you don’t do that, you will be put in your place quick!”
The experience of working at sea can be particularly challenging when you’re writing your dissertation. That’s what Jill Peloquin, a former Ph.D. student and a postdoc with IVARS, had to do on the last cruise of more than 10 that she has participated in. Juggling sampling duties with writing was a real challenge. “It’s a real balancing act down there between making sure the project goals are … accomplished while getting some of your dissertation work done too. It makes for a pretty intense time,” says Peloquin.
Because the sampling periods are so short, two teams work 12-hour shifts. “We sample the water, rush back to the lab below, filter and sample for all the components we’re interested in, and then get ready to run back out with our bottles and do it all over again,” Peloquin adds.
Despite the frenzied schedules and long periods of time away from family, she loves her time in the frozen seas at the bottom of the world. Peloquin finds that work is efficient and she gets a lot done on cruises, but it’s the dramatic encounters with nature that draw her back. “It’s hard not to be awestruck when you look up from you lab bench and see giant icebergs floating by out your porthole.”