Getting to Antarctica, the most remote continent on Earth, is a challenge in itself. We set sail from the once-rich trading city of Punta Arenas, Chile, aboard the R/V (Research Vessel) Polar Duke, across the Drake Passage - 650 miles of the roughest seas on the planet. En route for Anvers Island, site of America's Palmer Station, lifeboat drill reminds us that danger is ever-present, and that we might need to survive for several days at sea, in a closed metal tube that resembles a submarine. Leaving Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn behind, "the Duke" sails south. For two storm-tossed days, food is on no-one's "to do" list, and simple survival is job #1. Then, we make first land-fall at King George's Island, seeing the Polish and Chilean bases, off-loading mail and supplies and tending to automated weather stations. Now with the Antarctic Peninsula to port, we sail South once more. Whales sport in front of majestic mountains, glaciers and icebergs. Then the Polar Duke slips into Arthur Harbor, and ties up beside Palmer Station to unload some of its researchers, and refresh others before their science cruise continues.
This first program begins our electronic field trip with an adventurous voyage south through some of the most spectacular scenery in the entire continent. But the Duke is much more than a ferry to get scientists to a destination, and the chilly waters provide more than an endurance test. The Duke is a 67 meter long, ice-strengthened research tool, its crew of 14 outnumbered by up to 23 researchers. Below decks, on the voyage south to Palmer, and then on down towards the British base at Rothera, its onboard laboratories will be put to work analyzing the unique creatures of these waters, from the microscopic to the immense, helping its crew and researchers better understand the intricate interaction of oceans, ice and life.
Robin Ross from U.C. Santa Barbara tracks krill, tiny shrimp-like creatures, which feed on the algae, and form the next rung up on the marine food ladder. David Karl from the University of Hawaii contrasts the productivity of these cold waters with the tropics closer to home. On shore, operating out of Palmer proper, Bill Fraser tracks the silverfish which sea-birds eat and the consequences of skua attacks on baby penguins. All these scientists collaborate with team leader Ray Smith on what's known as the Palmer Long-Term Ecological Research project (LTER), patiently accumulating data, year after year, to gain some understanding of when and why which species flourish or die back. They've found clues and causes in the interaction of Antarctica's extreme seasons, the growth of the ice sheet which annually doubles the continent's area, and in how much the ocean blooms with phytoplankton on which the larger creatures feed. It's some of the most challenging and significant science being done anywhere on Earth, for Antarctica's extremes and the relative simplicity of its marine food chain throws into high contrast the secrets of time, life and death-the engines of Darwinian evolution. Their analyses involve the contents of birds stomachs and the latest data from orbiting satellites, high above Earth. Their work takes them out on stormy seas during the southern summer, and then keeps them busy poring over disks full of data back home in the United States; their dedication, a testament to the human ability to find order and patterns in the diversity and complexity of nature.
But sometimes humans and nature conflict. The LTER project began partly as a response to the wreck of the Argentine supply and cruise ship, Bahia Paraiso. In January 1989, it spilled 200,000 gallons of diesel and jet fuel into some of the most pristine waters on Earth. Within four days of the accident, 100 square kilometers of ocean surface were covered by an oil slick. Underwater video shows the wreck today, and we see how well the marine creatures have been recovering. This was the most severe oil spill ever in polar waters, and the scientists are committed to understanding its consequences to help prevent a recurrence. As more and more cruise ships visit these waters, the Bahia wreck raises questions about the impact of tourism on the unique natural laboratory of the Antarctic. The challenge of understanding life and death in the southern oceans is symbolized by the contrast of the active science on board the Polar Duke and the sad sight of the Bahia Paraiso.
"Oceans, Ice & Life" will originate live from on board
the Polar Duke. We'll take a walking tour of this unique vessel,
from bridge to engine room, and meet its Chilean and Norwegian crew and
the scientists who are sampling the marine food chain in Arthur Harbor.
A second live camera will be on shore with researchers at Palmer Station.
Pre-taped reports will show highlights of the passage from South America,
and introduce the key features of this unique continent. Live guests will
include members of the LTER team, many of whom have contributed to the development
of lessons to be found in this Teacher's Guide. (See Activities 1.5, Phytoplankton,
and 3.2, Plants and UV-B.