A Visit to Palmer Station…Felt a Bit Like Home

A Visit to Palmer Station…Felt a Bit Like Home    

Palmer Station, Anvers Island.

Lat: 64° 46’, Long: 64° 03’ W

Wind: 5 Knt E, Temp: 6° C (9 AM)

Today’s visit to Palmer Station felt a bit like home to me.  As Station Manager Bob Farrell and lab manager Randy came on board our ship this morning, I felt a part of what they were introducing the Homeward Bound group to here at Palmer.  All of my previous science research education outreach work has been with the U.S Antarctic Program although I’ve been located at McMurdo Station, on the other side of the continent.  Being part of the U.S. Antarctic Program has been such a huge part of my teaching career and it’s been a huge honor to represent three research projects as a member of education outreach and science communication teams. I’m really proud of the U.S. program and all of the amazing science research being done all over the continent and in the Southern Ocean.  I have always wanted to visit Palmer Station.  Several friends have worked there, so I had a bit of insight into life at this small station.

From left to right:  Randy, Bob (Palmer Station Manager), and Greg (our expedition leader).

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Located on Anvers Island (see map below), Palmer is occupied year-round.  Throughout the summer season, October to nearly April here, approximately 45 people are stationed at Palmer as either science researchers or support staff helping to run the station.  In the winter months, approximately 19 people (give or take depending on the needs of the station) call Palmer home during the long Antarctic winter.  Compared to the two other main U.S. stations…Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station (200 summer/50 winter) and McMurdo Station (1,000 summer/150 winter) this one is quite small.  Regardless of size, a great deal of great science research takes place here in the Antarctic Peninsula.  Palmer Station is the farthest north of the U.S. stations on the continent, located in Biscoe Bay, which is in the Bismarck Strait.

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Much of the research here revolves around marine science, but there is a whole array of work in physical and earth science as well.  Divers are active at Palmer and the surrounding area, studying the benthic (bottom dwellers) creatures of the marine environment.  Many instruments are deployed from zodiacs or small boats, which serve as moving platforms for science research.  Whether collecting water samples, studying the temperature-salinity-current of the water, collecting sea creatures and fish to be studied, or monitoring/collecting other data…the science season at Palmer is a hectic period each year.

Scientists were preparing to head into the bay this morning.  They’ve been waiting for the ice to break free so they could go out to do some of their research.  They will use this small boat as a roving platform, enabling them to maneuver in the waters surrounding Palmer Station.

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The Adelie penguin population is also closely monitored and of concern in the past few years because of its decline.  While there used to be 15,000 nesting pairs of Adelies in this region, now only 1,900 nesting pairs remain.  Overall the Adelie population is shrinking, while populations of Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins has been on the rise.  This region of Antarctica has seen the fastest warming temperatures on earth and of course scientists are very interested in data related to climate change.

Bob and Randy shared the map below, which demonstrates the retreat of a glacier near Palmer, over a 35+ year span.  You can surely see the massive retreat of the glacier since 1975.

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The photo below shows a section of the glacier today.  Randy mentioned that the glacier retreating behind the station has opened up a whole new area of land.  People working at Palmer are very aware of the changes taking place.

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Seen from our boat, Palmer is a small community, with buildings of all shapes, sizes, and colors.  Our tour gave us the opportunity to take a closer look.  We are quite lucky because the staff at Palmer has been very flexible with our timing, looking forward to our unique group of all women in science.  Only 9 ships will have the chance to visit the station this season.

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Two U.S. Antarctic Program ships call into Palmer each season.  The Nathaniel B. Palmer transports both scientists and supplies to/from the base, and the Laurence M. Gould carries helps scientist conduct marine research not only in the Antarctic Peninsula but all around the continent.

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Homeward Bounders got a very warm welcome from everyone at Palmer and there were “guides” ready to show us the base.  Carly, our guide, is an instrument technician and her excitement about both our visit and working at Palmer was contagious.

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Not sure who this guy is…Mr. Bobblehead?

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Originally built in a different location nearby, this version of Palmer Station was constructed by Navy Seabees over a four-year period and opened in 1970.  The base is on Anvers Island, which Carly mentioned is about the same size of the Hawaiian island of Oahu (coincidentally Carly is from Hawaii).  The station has 10 laboratories, a tool shop, utility shop, galley (kitchen) and dining area, a sauna, hot tub (built from an old fuel tank), office space, dormitory rooms, a gym, bar (with a dance floor), lounge area, and a small store where all of us stocked up on t-shirts, postcards, patches, and other Palmer Station goodies!  Here’s the hot tub!

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A couple of the fuel tanks shown below…

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All of the pipes and many of the walkways are built above ground, because of the freezing and thawing here.  Buildings are spaced farther apart, because fire is a real danger in this windy, dry Antarctic environment.

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There is not a lot of storage in the buildings at Palmer, so shipping containers are used for on-site storage, as shown in the photo below.

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Palmer Station doesn’t take up much land area, so there isn’t the need for the amount or variety of vehicles that exists at McMurdo Station. This 4-wheeler below is being used to haul materials around the base, and I saw a mini bobcat, but that was about it.  I’m sure there were more that I missed.

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One thing I didn’t miss was the display of “winter over” photos from years past.  Small groups of scientists and support staff spend the winter months here at Palmer.  Framed photo collages of each year’s crew lined the wall going up the stairs.  I actually picked the winter over photo from 1972 because a friend of mine wintered over that year.  I won’t mention his name…but it was fun to spot him in the collection.  Notice that back in 1972 the winter over crew was comprised entirely of men (and a cool looking dog…dogs are not allowed on the continent any longer because of the Madrid Protocol).

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We headed indoors to the Galley (kitchen) and dining area.  I’m always interested in the kitchen.  Palmer has 2 chefs…a Head Chef and Sous Chef…at least during the summer months.  During the winter season when the population drops from a maximum of 46 to about 20, there is only one chef at Palmer Station.  During our visit one chef was busy making lunch!  I also peeked into the supply room and looks like they have plenty of good food here at Palmer.  The chefs are responsible for managing the food inventory as well as cooking.

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Check out that yummy cake in the photo below!

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Most of the food supplies used at Palmer are shipped two times per year on the research vessels.  They start in the United States, but stop in Punta Arenas, Chile to pick up fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs and dairy products. Frozen meats and vegetables are also part of the inventory, and are used when “freshies” (as the fresh stuff is called) run out.

The Galley is fully equipped and has pretty modern appliances.  Three meals a day are served at Palmer.  It’s hard to cook for everyone’s diverse tastes and dietary needs, but honestly they make great food every day and it seems like they are open to trying all sorts of different foods…French, German, Hungarian, Ethiopian, Thai, Japanese, British, Mexican, and of course American foods!  We were served awesome treats, including Palmer’s famous (what I would call typical “American”) brownies!  We even got the recipe!

I found this cozy library nook off the dining room…

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The station crew came into the dining room to tell us more about life and the science research being done at Palmer and everyone exchanged questions as well.  It was very obvious that this group at Palmer has a lot of camaraderie and works well together.  There were also some discussion questions about our Homeward Bound leadership training and program.  It takes great leadership to run a remote scientific research station, and we could see that in action at Palmer.

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Looks like the people on station have plenty of extra gear!

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It was great to see the American flag today!  I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I saw it flying at the station, and on our ship!

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Most Antarctic research stations have fun signs all over the place and Palmer was no different.  Many people who come to stations to work have extra talents in music and art…and they leave their mark!

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I was dreaming of far off Scott Base and McMurdo Station!

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Our time was up way too quickly!  Time to gear up and get our life vests back on.  Check out the view into the bay!

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And back toward the station…

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Once our zodiac was ready, Pablo took us for a bit of a joy ride around some pretty awesome icebergs in the bay.  Kess, one of our documentary filmmakers on this journey was able to film as we circled not only the iceberg, but also the ship.

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Our afternoon was filled with science symposium talks and we have now finished all 76 talks by Homeward Bound participants.  These 3-minute (or slightly more) talks and question/answer sessions that follow them have been a critical insight into the amazing breadth and depth of knowledge and experiences from our group of women in science.  As the 76 “Science Symposium at Sea” talks have been presented in the past nine days, I’ve been listening to the unique voice of each woman…what’s their story?  How are they making an impact? Where are there connections and opportunities for me to keep learning and collaborating with those who have similar interests aligned with my own goals in education?  Each talk has been a glimpse into these marvelous women of Homeward Bound, and I’ve been thankful for this experience.

There were also several really great science lectures from our science faculty members from the University of Tasmania, Mary-Anne Lea and University of Queensland, Justine Shaw that went from late afternoon into early evening.  It has been fabulous to have them on board for the journey.  Today they talked about wildlife, climate change, and the human footprint on this continent.  There are currently about 50,000 tourists who visit Antarctica (mostly in this Antarctic Peninsula region) each year. We all need to protect Antarctica’s biodiversity and keep this wilderness safe.  With increased human activity come biological invasions, wildlife disturbances, and the risk of pollution.  The members of our crew work very hard to minimize all three of these dangers to the ecosystems here.  Additional people work on the continent each year…either doing scientific research or supporting the research with jobs like being a chef, machinist, being a part of search and rescue or the fire department, being a helicopter or fixed wing aircraft pilot, and so much more.

Justine talked with us about the 73 Antarctic specially protected areas and the 7 Antarctic specially managed areas.  Lessons learned in research point to climate change, pollution, over exploitation of fishing, and invasive species as very real threats. Having more protected areas in the Southern Ocean is critical.

Mary-Anne spoke with us about terrestrial (land) and marine extinctions.  Extinctions on land started 1,00’s of years ago.  Marine extinctions have started more recently.  Who knows what will happen with the warming air and sea of the Antarctic Peninsula.  She did mention that trends in 244 glacier fronts on the Peninsula and islands in this region over the past 61 years show that 87% of glaciers have retreated.  The amount of science that takes place here in this “icebox” of a continent and ocean is truly remarkable.  This is a massive continent, about 1.5 times the size of the United States.  Change IS happening here, and the impact of climate change is variable…changes will depend on where you are around the continent.  Humans have been coming to the continent for well over 100 years. Our impact is felt.

No matter how pristine it looks in every photo I take or how many animals there seem to be, I know that it is still imperative that we protect this incredible place and all of the creatures that inhabit the vast Southern Ocean.  I thought back to Lewis Pugh’s messages from last night…and when I return home I will continue to deliver not only his message but all of the messages that have been reinforced on this journey.  They are not new ones to me, but the reminder of urgency to protect, preserve, and conserve are constantly on my mind.  How will we all begin a new year very soon?  Hopefully with these thoughts leading to positive actions.

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(This photo is from one of my HB colleagues…I have a similar photo, but the penguins are harder to spot on that iceberg!  There are so many photos circulating right now that I am not sure whose photo this is.)

“In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.”  Aristotle

“Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better.”  Albert Einstein

 

 

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