Posted by: David Gallagher | December 10, 2010

Hitchhiking Penguin

Susan Moran has posted a video on her blog of a recent encounter with a lazy chinstrap penguin:

While out on a Zodiac earlier this week a chinstrap decided he’d had enough swimming and wanted a free ride. The video was shot by Chris Schvarcz, a doctoral student at the University of Hawaii who’s here at Palmer Station researching the role viruses play in the marine ecosystem along the western peninsula.

Here is the video:

Posted by: MBL Fellow | December 7, 2010

When Light is Right

Marine Biological Laboratory Logan Science Journalism fellow Jane Qiu lowers a LiCor light sensor over the side of a Zodiac to measure how deeply light penetrates the water near Palmer Station. Photo by Jennifer Bogo.

By Chris Neill

Journalist Jane Qiu lowers a light sensor into the water at Station “B” just off shore Palmer Station.

The device, which looks like a light bulb on an a J-shaped metal piece connected to a rope and a black electronic cable, measures the amount of light—specifically the number of photons hitting a detector that generates a small electric current, which we read from a hand-held box at the surface.

As the sensor slides down into the water, the readings decrease. And not just slightly. A meter down light is barely ten percent of what it was at the ocean surface.

This is one of the physical properties of water. It absorbs a lot of light. Light below the water surface—even in the clear waters at Palmer—is relatively dim.

The Southern Ocean’s tiny plants, the phytoplankton, need light, which they use carry out the photosynthesis that converts dissolved carbon into the sugars that drive the growth of phytoplankton cells.

When the phytoplankton are in the upper, light layers they grow. If they sink down to where light is low, they grow more slowly or actually lose mass because they respire carbon away faster than they can fix it by photosynthesis.

Phytoplankton don’t move up and down in the water much on their own. Because they rely on mixing of the ocean waters to push them into the light, the depth to which the ocean remains mixed controls phytoplankton growth in a major way.

When the ocean mixes only shallowly, phytoplankton spend more time in the light. When the ocean mixes deeply, phytoplankton spend more of their time deeper down where the grow much more slowly.

So how deep the ocean mixes near Palmer Station therefore controls how much plankton the ocean produces.

And because the Southern Ocean foodweb is a few short steps from phytoplankton to Antarctic krill to Adélie Pengins, changes to the physical mixing of the ocean ricochet quickly through all forms of life here.

Here’s where the disappearing ice enters into the story. Mixing is driven mostly by wind. The more wind the deeper the mixing—and the less phytoplankton the ocean produces.

Because ice protects the surface of the ocean from wind, longer ice-covered periods lead to a shallower ocean mixed layer. Less ice means more mixing.

Less ice also means less fresh water melts into the ocean surfaces. This fresher and less dense water tends to stay at the surface and also reduces mixing. So disappearing ice a double whammy—there’s more wind that hits and stirs the ocean surface and there’s less fresh water to create a surface layer.

Scientists at the Palmer Long-Term Ecological Research Project have been documenting these critical responses to disappearing sea ice around Palmer Station. There are now 80 fewer sea ice-covered days per year near Palmer compared with 1950.

Maria Vernet, a member of the Palmer LTER science team from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, showed that earlier ice retreat leads to a deeper mixed layer and lower plankton production. Martin Montes-Hugo, another Palmer LTER scientist from Rutgers University, used satellite images to show that in the northern part of the Antarctic Peninsula, where ice is disappearing, phytoplankton production is decreasing. Farther south, where ice is also declining but where much ice still remains, phytoplankton production is increasing because less ice cover means more light reaches the water.

Montes-Hugo showed there is a mixture of ice and open water that leads to maximum phytoplankton production. Climate changes have already pushed waters near Palmer past that point.

Posted by: MBL Fellow | December 5, 2010

Birds of Palmer Station


This Kelp Gull foraged on the ice next to Palmer Station's Hero Inlet. Photo by C. Neill.

Southern Giant Petrels nest on the islands around Palmer Station. Photo by C. Neill 

Cape Petrels are uncommon near shore at Palmer, but this one stayed for most of the day December 4. Photo by C. Neill.


Posted by: MBL Fellow | December 4, 2010

Albatrosses at Risk

A Black-browed Albatross doing what it does best--flying effortlessly over the southern ocean between southern Argentina and Antarctica. Photo by C Neill.


By Chris Neill

Sometimes common doesn’t necessarily mean safe.

Black-browed albatrosses were the most common seabird we observed on the voyage to Palmer Station from Punta Arenas, Chile.

These majestic flyers played tag with the L. M. Gould for most of the four-day crossing—one was rarely out of sight of the ship.

But their abundance is deceptive.

Black-browed albatrosses are listed as endangered in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.  Like many large seabirds, fishing poses the largest threat.

There are about 680,000 pairs of black-browed albatrosses across their circumglobal southern ocean range. More than 70 percent of those nest in the Faulkland Islands off Argentina. The population there is declining just under 1 percent per year.

Carl Safina poignantly describes the plight of seabirds in his book, Eye of the Albatross.

Posted by: MBL Fellow | December 3, 2010

Bloggers at Work (III)

Journalist Jane Qiu captures the action as she arrives at Palmer Station.

Jane Qiu is blogging for Nature:

Posted by: MBL Fellow | December 3, 2010

Bloggers at Work (II)

Journalist Jennifer Bogo watches seabirds from the deck of the Laurence M. Gould as it sails to Palmer Station.

Jennifer Bogo is blogging for:

Popular Mechanics



Posted by: MBL Fellow | December 3, 2010

Bloggers at Work (I)

Susan Moran interviews Raytheon Polar Services Marine Projects Coordinator Herb Baker as the Laurence M. Gould pulls into Palmer Station.

Journalist Susan Moran is blogging for:

On Earth

She’s hosting a radio show:
Also, check out her personal blog:
Posted by: MBL Fellow | December 2, 2010

Looking for Signs of Change

By Chris Neill

Palmer Station is like a ship—and not only because it is self-contained and isolated. It’s also because this tiny outpost very firmly anchored to the land is a perfect platform to conduct science on the ocean.

When world’s largest ocean conveyor belt, the east-to-west running Antarctic Circumpolar Current, slams into the western shore of the Antarctic Peninsula, scientists at Palmer can hop in a Zodiac and in about ten minutes be in a place where the water they collect by lowering a sample bottle into the water until it disappears into the blue tells them something about one of the largest water masses on the planet.

It’s oceanography without the 20-foot swells of the open southern ocean and the dreaded Drake Passage.  Scientists at Palmer can collect repeated samples throughout entire growing seasons (which here in the Southern Hemisphere runs from October to April) and over many years—something not typically possible from large ocean-going scientific ships like WHOI’s Knorr, which serve many masters and therefore can’t stay in one place for many months or return to exactly the same spot year after year.

The water less than a mile off of Palmer’s Zodiac “parking lot” receives almost no input of water from land. Palmer can get up to about a meter of precipitation a year, but the Antarctic continent is more than 98 percent covered by ice. There are no streams or rivers. Fresh water reaches the sea as huge chunks of ice that calve from the faces of glaciers at the ocean’s edge. But water near Palmer is like the open ocean, smack up against the land.

So Palmer Station is the perfect place to repeatedly sample the southern ocean to look for for signs of how climate change affects ocean dynamics and food webs leading from plankton to penguins

Standing watch--a single gentoo penguin watches the ocean near Palmer Station, Antarctica. Gentoo penguins are increasing near Palmer while the once-abundant Adelie penguins are declining. It's one of the many signs of climate change being observed by the Palmer Long-Term Ecological Research Project. Photo by C. Neill.


Palmer is the site of the Palmer Long-Term Ecological Research Project led by MBL Senior Scientist Hugh Ducklow.

Palmer Station is our home for the next two weeks as three journalists in MBL’s Logan Science Journalism Program get hands-on experience with the range of experiments that are now in full swing during Palmer’s busy summer research season.

Posted by: David Gallagher | December 1, 2010

Arriving in Palmer, continued…

Over at, Jane Qiu is blogging about her arrival at Palmer Station:

In the distance, the Palmer ecological research station – consisting of a few buildings that perch on the rocky coast of the Anvers Island in the western Antarctic Peninsula, just north of the Antarctic Circle – begins to emerge from a curtain of thick fog. Parts of the island are covered by the gigantic Marr Ice Piedmont glacier, which is about 64 kilometres long and up to 32 kilometres wide, and reaches an elevation of over 2,800 metres.


Read the full post here.

Posted by: MBL Fellow | November 30, 2010

MBL 2010 Science Journalism Fellows Arrive at Palmer Station

Journalists Jennifer Bogo (l), Jane Qiu, MBL scientist Christopher Neill and Susan Moran (r) arrive at Palmer Station, Antarctica.

The US Antarctic Program’s research vessel Laurence M. Gould delivered MBL Logan Science Journalism Fellows Jennifer Bogo, Jane Qiu and Susan Moran to Palmer Station Antarctica just after noon on Monday, November 29. There they and MBL Senior Scientist Christopher Neill join more than a dozen scientists investigating the consequences of rapid environmental change in this oceanic outpost on the western edge of the Antarctic Peninsula.

The region around Palmer is the fastest-warming place on earth. It’s the main study area of the Palmer Long-Term Ecological Research Project led by MBL Ecosystems Center Director Hugh Ducklow.

Winter temperatures at Palmer have warmed 11 degrees F since 1950. The disappearance of sea ice that has accompanied that warming is reshaping ocean foodwebs by changing where and how fast phytoplankton at the base of the marine food chain grow. A warmer and earlier ice-free ocean leads to deeper ocean mixing, less light and lower growth for these microscopic plants. Less phytoplankton means less Antarctic krill, a critical food for the Adelie penguins that are now laying eggs on the Torgersen Island, which is visible out the window of Palmer Station’s dining room.

During the next two weeks, Bogo, Qiu and Moran will visit penguin colonies, measure plankton in seawater they collect from Zodiacs and accompany other scientists at Palmer who study everything from viruses to the large sea-going Southern Giant Petrels that nest on nearby islands.

Jennifer Bogo is the Science Editor for Popular Mechanics Magazine. Jane Qiu is a correspondent for Nature in Beijing.  Susan Moran is a freelance science writer and radio host who lives on Boulder, Colorado.

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