Rough Start but Smooth Ice

We’re off to a rough start this season!  Two of our instruments are down, including our flow cytometer – annoying, but we can deal with it – and Colleen’s instrument for measuring superoxide.  That’s a real problem.  Colleen is only with us for five more days.  When she leaves the instrument stays, but we will no longer have a skilled operator!  Measuring superoxide is not trivial and I was supposed to spend a good chunk of this week learning how to do it.  That’s going to be tricky with no instrument.  Fortunately the instrument tech at Palmer this season is handy with a soldering iron and seems to have some ideas.  We’ll see how that plays out tomorrow.

The one piece of good news this week is that the big storm last Sunday didn’t do much damage to the land-fast sea ice near Palmer Station.  At least for now we can do a little science on the ice.  This afternoon Jamie Collins, Nicole Couto, and I went out with the SAR team to establish a sea ice sample site near the station.  Hopefully we can get a couple weeks of sampling at this site before the sea ice deteriorates.

Jamie measures ice thickness. Right about 70 cm in this case; nice thick ice that will hopefully stick around for a while.

Jamie measures ice thickness. Right about 70 cm in this case; nice thick ice that will hopefully stick around for a while.

Being able to do some science on the sea ice at Palmer Station is actually a pretty big deal and an unexpected bonus for this season.  In some ways this is a very logical place to study ice.  Palmer Station is the United States’ premier polar marine research station, and you can find dozens of papers describing the ecological importance of sea ice in this region.  It’s been years however, since anyone was able to routinely access sea ice from the station.  Considering the amount of ecological research that takes place here this actually seems a little silly; the single most important feature is virtually ignored for practical reasons.  Working on ephemeral, dynamic sea ice requires a set of skills, equipment, and intrepidness that simply doesn’t exist in this day and age within the US Antarctic Program.

The bottom piece of an ice core collected today. It's early in the season and there isn't much happening yet. If you squint though, you can see the faintest green in the ice, a hint of the algal bloom to come.

The bottom piece of an ice core collected today. It’s early in the season and there isn’t much happening yet. If you squint though you can see the faintest green in the ice, a hint of the algal bloom to come.

Our very small adventure today (on relatively thick, static ice) is reason to hope that that might eventually change.  There isn’t a lot of institutional knowledge about sea ice at Palmer Station, but Station staff and management are open minded and seem eager to learn.  As a further indication the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab recently provided new recommendations for sea ice operations at McMurdo Station, a major step toward a rational, data-based policy for traveling and working on ice (which I’ll link it I can find, too tired to search now… must fix flow cytometer…).

Hopefully we can get some good science done on the sea ice this season.  In the Arctic large, under ice phytoplankton blooms are a major source of new carbon to the ecosystem.  In the Antarctic blooms of algae at the ice-water interface are an essential food source for juvenile krill – adult krill being the major food source for virtually everything else down here.  Getting some indication of when, where, and how often these events occur along the West Antarctic Peninsula will tell us a lot about how these ecosystems function, and what will happen to them as the ice season and range continues to decline.

In case you ever have to track a penguin, this is what penguin tracks look like.

And in case you ever have to track a penguin, this is what penguin tracks look like.

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