Antarctic Blog 2013


photograph © 2013 Lorena Lagos Pailla and Leticia Barrientos

Day 15: Last sampling day in Antarctica: the first report of Deschampsia on Ardley Island (5.3.2013)

The morning before I flew off the continent of Antarctica, JP and I finally got our chance to sample from Ardley Island. Since I was scheduled to leave King George Island and fly to Punta Arenas, Chile, that afternoon, Tuesday, and JP was to leave Antarctica two days later, this was our last chance. Days of thick fog and high winds had thwarted all our previous attempts.

Again, Ardley Island (-62 12 39.1, -58 56 24) is quite close to Escudero Base. It is joined to King George Island via an isthmus that is uncovered at low tides and so can be simply walked to if the time is right. Since our last available morning did not coincide with a viable low tide, we took a zodiac to Ardley Island on Tuesday March 5, 2013.

Much of this beautiful place is coated with a thick carpet of moss, and by thick I mean 12 to 15 cm deep. While we were sampling, a team of researchers from Catholic University of Valparaiso, Lea Cabrol and Daniel Valenzuela, were drilling down with a hand drill ( a ~6 kg mass device they carried for each sampling trip) to harvest methanogenic bacteria. They are interested in improving anaerobic digestion of wastewater in cooler climates.

If you cut and paste the coordinates taken where we took one sample on Ardley island (-62 12 39.1, -58 56 24) you can clearly see the moss meadow in the Google Earth satellite photograph of February 20, 2006 as well as the isthmus. This satellite photograph was taken only a few days earlier in the year than our March 5, 2013 sampling event.

Ardley Island
Ardley Island
Shot down into the bay from Ardley Island
toward The Great Wall Research Station across the bay
Very thick moss on Ardley Island
Ardley Island
Ardley Island
Drilling for methanogens
The team from Catholic University of Valparaiso
Panorama of Ardley Island
Panorama of lake on Ardley Island looking south (-62 12 46.71, -58 56 20.83)

I would like to comment here on the sampling process that we were trained to use in Antarctica by the Chilean Antarctic Institute (INACH) in Punta Arenas before we even set foot in Antarctica.

A good rule of thumb would be do your science but change as little as possible. Only disturb what you feel you must.

The environment of Antarctica is so unusual and pristine that there are many unknowns and important variables:

among many others.

The best approach in my mind, and Juan Pablo Monrás, my research partner and I talked a lots about this, is to change only those things that are necessary to continue the important job of helping to preserve Antarctica.

For us, this meant, in the main, that we understood that we had collaborated in (negatively) changing conditions on King George Island because we needed to get there.

Examples of some of those changes are obvious in our Day 11 photographs.

We didn't put the oil tanks on King George Island, but as residents of the island and merely traveling to Antarctica, even for the short period of time we were there our presence contributed to the pollution of the island by, for instance, combustion of garbage (see Day 12); generation of electricity used to heat, power, and light the base; fuel combustion exhaust from ships (Aquiles), boats (zodiacs), and airplanes; etc.

We obviously took airplane flights in and out of Antarctica, powered by jet fuels, (in some cases) shipped to and stored on the island, but obviously combusted by the flights we used. Oxides of nitrogen and unburned hydrocarbons react in the presence of sunlight to produce ground-level ozone. JP and I also used four wheelers to travel around King George Island and sample the Russian tank farm and Chinese base sites. These were powered by gasoline.

We travelled on the water in zodiacs powered by gasoline and lubricated by heavy oils; hydrocarbon slicks could be seen in the sea water around these engines in the zodiacs I personally traveled in around King George Island and on my sampling trips from Aquiles. We generated garbage and sewage during our stay, etc. These were acts that we, the visitors to Antarctica, committed, and I take responsibility for those acts.

I think that this is analogous to driving a car. Even my gas/electric hybrid automobile generates oxides of nitrogen and some unburned hydrocarbons, the precursors to ground-level ozone, and yet I choose to drive my Prius.

Maybe a better analogy would be driving a gasoline-powered ambulance to get a patient to a hospital. Most people would see the advantage to humans, and many would argue to the planet, of choosing to damage the atmosphere/biosphere with ambulance emissions while saving human lives.

After accepting responsibility for that damage even as we were sampling Antarctic sites documenting it, JP and I tried to minimize the impact we had.

Examples of our efforts:

When we walked from the beach into the island interiors for our sampling, we chose to travel on rock surfaces instead of using moss- or other plant-covered routes (see photographs above). When we needed to sample plants like Deschampsia (see Day 3 for example) we took care to approach the sampling site with what we felt was the minimum surface damage, often involving longer circuitous routes up hilly grades to get to the sampling point. As we moved around the islands, if possible we chose to walk on snow instead of soils.

Will either of these behaviors have as much effect in Antarctica as our not going there in the first place? Or the scientific project not being proposed or funded in the first place? Or taking a sailing vessel instead of diesel-powered ships, boats, and planes?

Let's see what happens with this blog.

Deschampsia antarctica on Ardley Island

When we went to INACH (6.3.2013) in Punta Arenas to turn in our wonderful INACH-provided Antarctic clothes, thermometer, GPS, etc., I mentioned to Verónica Vallejos (one of many of INACH's wonderful staff) that we'd found and sampled Deschampsia antarctica on Ardley Island the day before (5.3.2013). This was a sample taken by Juan Pablo Monrás and Daniel Venezuela.

Verónica expressed pleasant surprise to me, since a quite thorough 2009 Ardley Island survey did not show a Deschampsia presence on that island. Apparently this is the first report of Deschampsia on Ardley Island. And the individual plant that JP and Daniel found (I walked obliviously right by it) was indeed growing low on the island on a wind-swept beach with a prevailing wind from King George Island (only 350 m away) where D. antarctica germinating seeds could arrive on the wind, by bird transport, or on the boots or equipment from visiting scientists....

The exact location of that plant's sampling site is (-62 12 36.38, - 58 57 0.91). As described before this coordinate can be cut and pasted directly into Google Earth. The February 20, 2006 (summer) satellite photograph available in Google Earth is especially clear, showing the beach and the adjacent isthmus.

Antarctic Continent




I'm leavin' my family
Leavin' all my friends
My body's at home
But my heart's in the wind
Where the clouds are like headlines
Upon a new front page sky
Shiver me timbers
I'm a-sailin' away

--Tom Waits, 1974

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