Antarctic Blog 2013


photograph © 2013 Lorena Lagos Pailla and Leticia Barrientos

Day 5: Bernardo O'Higgins Research Base, Glaciar Infantería, Antarctic Peninsula (23.2.2013)

This day's samples: D3—D5: O'Higgins Research Base

After sailing all night, we left the South Shetland Islands in some substantial SSW winds, the winds that had cause problems in Deception Island. The waves were between 1 and 2 m all night long as we sailed WSW. Pants left hanging in our bathroom swayed through at least 45 degrees. The constant engine vibrations were gentle companions, accompanied by uneven rocking of the ship. The ship's engines throbbed in uneven intensities too as the waves sometimes helped the Aquiles on her way and sometimes acted against our progress. Ever since the first day on this 5000 metric ton displacement vessel, at first I had feared her rocking, keeping my Texas-purchased Dramamine near as I got my sea legs, and then fallen in love with the gentle rolling of this massive vehicle as she plowed though the Antarctic Sea taking me towards my adventure.

Upper passage way on the Chilean frigate Aquiles
Hatch on to upper deck to gangway

When I awoke at 6 am on my 5th day in Antarctica to read a bit before JP got up, we were still about 40 km out from the Chilean base Bernado O'Higgins (-63 19 16, -57 53 55). I couldn't imagine that we'd be able to even get into the zodiacs from the Aquiles. Even if we exited via the more forgiving rope ladder instead of the 30-step gangway (see Day 1), with the seas pitching our zodiacs up and down through 2 meters against the side of the ship, disaster was surely in store. If we couldn't get off the ship we couldn't sample anything.

The base at Bernado O'Higgins is on a bay that faces WNW and as we approached, the ship's rolling decreased and the waves dropped off. By the time we dropped anchor on the edge of the Antarctic continent, the sea was surprisingly calm with only 20 cm waves.

We landed via zodiac (surprise) and took samples around contaminated oil tanks at this base (only vertical 10 meters above the sea) looking for hydrocarbon-resistant microbes whose exposure to the extreme conditions in Antarctica might yield interesting genes.

As a general point about these specific bacteria: The microbes that have not developed the ability to live(in this example) in contact with diesel fuel hydrocarbons (bp 150 to 370°), sea salt, cold and extremely dry conditions, UV light, etc. just won't be in our sample. The conditions in extreme environments have destroyed (or forever prevented the growth of) the kinds of microbes that are common at lower latitudes and have selected for, well, extremophiles. The air temperature at the base was 2.7° that morning.

All of the drinking water at this Chilean scientific base is produced by reverse osmosis (RO) treatment of Antarctic seawater. Extracted salts are returned to the sea. We were treated to a glassful of flowing RO water and it was the best water I ever drank, cold and pure. The conductivity of that water is 10x lower than most common bottled water sold in the U.S. Organic waste at Bernado O'Higgins (read sewage) is treated via filtration and electrochemistry until detectable coliform bacteria were <0.1%. Like almost all human waste generated near large bodies of water, this final stage was piped into the sea.

The glacier immediately adjacent to the Chilean base at Bernado O'Higgins in called Infantry Glacier (Glaciar Infantería). We rode up onto the glacier via snowmobiles and took a few photographs and a panoramic video (see below). The snow that falls on a glacier and gets compacted into ice creates a structure that towers over the ocean down below even as the glacier inexorably flows down, towards the sea. Infantry Glacier was (at least) over 220 m above sea level at the point we stopped on the top according to my GPS. As the atmospheric air flows down the glacier to the sea the air at lower altitudes can be cooled and directly effects the winds and temperature of the atmosphere on the glacier. For instance, as I said, the base temperature where we sampled was 2.7° but the temperature only 2 km away but 220 m higher up on the glacier was a balmy 8.7 degrees C.

The wooden cross you see in the linked video (at 150 m above the sea) is in memory of three Chileans from base Bernardo O'Higgins who died recently in a crevasse near this site. The icebergs you see off in the distance are ~5, 10, 15 km away and so are massive.

Bernard O'Higgins Base
Bernardo O'Higgins Base
Plaque at the Chilean research base Bernado O'Higgins
Sampling for hydrocarbon-resistant microbes at Bernado O'Higgins
Bernardo O'Higgins Base
Bernardo O'Higgins Base
Bernado O'Higgins base from atop Infantry Glacier (Glaciar Infantería)
Blue ice due to preferential absorption/scattering of longer wavelengths

The blue coloration of the small iceberg above (a few tons!) is cause by preferential absorption of the longer wavelengths of sunlight by compressed ice, light that travels a relative long distance through the frozen water instead of being reflected directly off the ice surface. With a long path length, if the reds, oranges, and yellows (long: R O Y G B I V: short) are absorbed or scattered, then the remaining blues are enhanced to a viewer's eye. Voila: blue ice. We saw blue ice at the ocean's edge of many glaciers and floating icebergs we passed in the zodiac, too.

Here is a 1 minute video (18 MB) taken from over 200 m up on Infantry Glacier on the Antarctic peninsula looking down toward the Chilean research base Bernado O'Higgins (beautiful red structures in the bottom left photograph above) and out into the Bransfield Strait.

The multi-sign post below is a common site at Antarctic sites. It connects scientists--a long way from home--with home.

The "easy way" up from the zodiac, the gangplank, had 30 metal steps.

Bernardo O'Higgins Signs
Sign posts at Bernado O'Higgins
JP at Bernado O'Higgins
Juan Pablo Monrás, research scientist extraordinaire
Returning to Aquiles
Using the gangplank to climb
from the zodiac up to Aquiles upper deck

I call this video the penguin hop (8.9 MB).


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