Antarctica: The Older Gentleman and the Ross Sea

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Bring up the subject of global warming and you’re sure to get a heated debate.

Not exactly an icebreaker.

Before the ships arrive
Before the ships arrive

Consider “Do Antarcticans Dream of Electric Penguins?” A nod to PKD. Or: “The Older Gentleman and the Ross Sea,” Hemingway. Although … Old Man sounds rude. “Trout Fishing in Antarctica” Brautigan, or better perhaps “Toothfish Fishing in Antarctica.” All stories waiting to make their way from someone’s mind to print. Who’s mind?

A real, compelling and more intricate story is unfolding instead here on the ice.

Consider whether the ozone layer hole, over Antarctica, is currently effecting global climatic change. You can probably guess. Now I’m not a scientist but wearing sunscreen everyday just to keep from getting burnt in Antarctica seems unusual. Sure it’s bright white from the ice and snow, but there appears to be more to it.

Since the 1970s, coinciding with the presence of the growing ozone hole: by setting up a pressure differential between the stratosphere and the troposphere, (the Southern Annual Mode, SAM,): air moves over the Andes Mountains of South America, descending to Antarctica and the higher winds are present. This in turn has led to less ice for East Antarctica and more for Western Antarctica. Ironically, the melting of ice leads to more ice in the Ross Sea. Ice melts, re-freezes in open waters as it is colder. It has been demonstrated that “Extreme Ice Events” are the new norm. Tourists now hope to see massive ice sheets of glaciers collapse on their assorted cruise ships and get a few pics.

While chlorofluorocarbons have been banned since the 1980s, well at least for those that signed the accord, they are still manufactured and provided for developing countries. They make their way back in a black market, bigger than the drug trade it is said. I’ve known of people going across the state line, back in Wisconsin to Illinois, because they knew of some auto parts store, some guy, that still sold Freon, the principal player, a refrigerant, more effective and cheaper than the legal replacement. So effective it’s destroying the planet.

Some guy.

On a personal level, for now it’s having to use the sun screen every day, with it available in big containers at the hand washing station, just outside the galley here at McMurdo Station.

The Polar Star in Antarctic snow
The Polar Star in Antarctic snow

But, no one’s talking about the ozone hole really anymore, especially since that was supposed to be fixed. It’s not and it’s growing.

Not even global warming, really, is talked about. It’s taboo. There are so many adversaries attacking. And it’s a subject some insist isn’t even happening. So, step right up and get a front row seat for Anthropomorphic Climatic and Ecosystem Interference. Now playing on a planet near you. Showing in a fast run, quickly here in Antarctica.

More ice. More wind. Palmer Station had winds as high as one hundred and five knots last winter.

At present, it means more Adelie Penguins on this side of Antarctica, as more ice favors their habitat. Along with polynyas, a Russian word invading that literally means open water. A delicate balance of both. That balance and an increase in available food as both the penguins and Antarctic Tooth Fish compete for the Silverfish for their sustenance.

Things are changing.

The Tooth Fish population has been decimated by fast moving commercial fishing operations. Moving quickly into open waters on the Ross Sea. The Ross Sea: more than the answer to a trivia question. Once caught and processed, worth as much as one thousand U.S. dollars a fish, it is known as Chilean Sea Bass. Good perhaps for the penguins, not so good for a fish that has seventeen years to reach maturity and the older adults, some as old as fifty, have been removed from the ecosystem.

Whales play a role too in this drama, their population down and up.

Things are changing.

The Adelie penguin waits with the other inhabitants of Ross Island.
The Adelie penguin waits with the other inhabitants of Ross Island.

That’s what some people talk about at McMurdo Station, Ross Island, on the Ross Sea, Antarctica.

Dr. Dave Ainley, marine ecologist, who has studied here for decades, making some thirty-five trips to the continent, he spoke a few Sunday evenings ago in the galley at McMurdo Station. As founder of FORSE, Friends of the Ross Sea Ecosystem and co-founder of Last Ocean Trust, — organizations dedicated to persevering the Ross Sea, (the most pristine ecosystem here on Earth); he is passionate about the sea’s preservation. It could be lost forever as a sanctuary for scientific research. In our lifetime.

I don’t claim to be an expert but there appears to be a loophole in the Antarctic Treaty. Created for the continent to be set aside for non-interference and research, yes, but not the surrounding waters. And as can be expected, commerce has sailed right in to exploit the resources.

Dr. Ainley in his presentation detailed the complexities of the changing systems and suggested sticking to safer research, lightheartedly suggesting: physics. Seriously however Antarcticans as well as fellow Earthers hope his efforts, and those others concerned, save the Ross Sea, as there is still a lot to be learned from this last frontier. What? Well, we’re still learning. Earlier this season, a documentary The Last Ocean, describing his quest and the difficulties presented by the fishing industry was shown here at the galley’s big screen leaving people saddened. Long faces over shadowing the 24/7 pizza and Frosty Boy soft serve.

“Well that was depressing,” a person was heard to say.

Meanwhile, the icebreaker Polar Star has come and gone, lingering about, doing its thing out at sea, still breaking ice, with the resupply vessel the Ocean Giant having moored. Volunteering as a line handler, I took part in helping the ships come in, in addition to my day job. Talk about upper body work. A helicopter soars overhead with our ropes in hand, making a documentary for National Geographic.

Everything changes with the ship coming in. Cargo, and its affiliates, start a seven day workweek and as long as fourteen hour days. Areas we could hike to, such as Hut Point, (in our quest to see penguins,) are only accessible the long way around, all the way up toward Arrival Heights and then back down. Even Highway One, the main thoroughfare, albeit inside and a foot thoroughfare through Building 155, where we eat, and perhaps more importantly have internet — it has a detour adding precious minutes to our movements.

Long Duration Balloon launch closes the road.
Long Duration Balloon launch closes the road.

And it is on the far side, away from the dorms. At least it’s warm outside. Mid 30s Fahrenheit, sometimes as it’s summer, but when the wind kicks up the dust, it can still be nasty. It is Antarctica after all. As winter approaches, the temps go from like up north to like that off-world. Downright Martian.

The weather cooperated for the LDB, NASA’s Long Duration Balloon launch to get the GRIPS, Gamma-Ray Imaging, Polarimetry and Spectroscopy experiment underway. At the tail end of Solar Cycle 24, hopefully space weather cooperates: get a solar flare head on for their studies. Learning more about the wind from the sun — and to perhaps even predict flares. Its importance grows as its activity effects a myriad of electromagnetics: satellite communications and the electric grid propagating power on Earth. Massive blackouts have occurred due to solar activity. What can be done? Brace for the storm? Mars lost its magnetic field and now look.

GRIPS was set to go for days — with weather on the ground, and up around three thousand feet not right to get the helium balloon (as long as a football field) aloft. To a height of one hundred and twenty thousand feet, it enters “near space” at a fraction of the cost to launch a space ship. Space ship good, saving taxpayers even better.

The second experiment, STO2, the Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory, didn’t get up this season and has been rescheduled for December of 2016. It’s getting late with winter just around the corner. Its mission: to map the Milky Way Galaxy looking for the chemical components of habitable worlds as seen in their electromagnetic signature. The count was re-estimated from thousands of habitable planets to billions in 2015. We have to get out of here eventually so we’ll need a roadmap.

In Antarctica as it is so dry, radio signals of the size needed for their research can be received more readily, in this climate: terahertz wavelengths, more minuscule than a water droplet. They do not adversely impact the study as would be the case elsewhere on Earth. Radio interference, with so few humans, is minimal as well.

I ran into Dr. Ainley along Highway One, after my five hours “rope tending,” working on the Polar Star, where the water gets two hundred feet deep just meters from shore. Even though I wore a life jacket there was probably a greater chance of being impaled by jagged ice.

I said hello.

The front row seat: the author taking a selfie with McMurdo Station below, on Ross Island in the Ross Sea, Antarctica.
The front row seat: the author taking a selfie with McMurdo Station below, on Ross Island in
the Ross Sea, Antarctica.

He talked about viewing penguins by helicopter out at Cape Royds, that his back was sore twisting to look out at them.

I talked about my workout with the Ocean Giant, that I probably would feel it tomorrow. Lattimus Dorsi overload.

Replying he said, “Pulling in a ship, that’s something to write home about.”

Pales in comparison to pulling for the ecology of a continent — saving the Ross Sea. Or being in the company of space pioneers.

But I do get a front row seat.

 All photos by Jeff Worman — top photo: the two ships: The Ocean Giant and Polar Star
at McMurdo Station, the Ross Sea, Antarctica.

Part One: Fear and loathing in Antarctica