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Detectives in Antarctica

Welcome to the edge of the map

CHARCOT ISLAND, Antarctica -- Welcome to Charcot Island, the southernmost point in our series of sampling sites along the Antarctic Peninsula. It looks and feels much more polar.

Air temperatures are in the low 20s Fahrenheit and the sea is near freezing: about 28 degrees.

Small icebergs (known as bergie bits) and larger bergs surround us, seemingly studying our arrival. The sky is gray down to the water.

Hard as it is to imagine in our highly connected world, few people have come here. If you look at the nautical charts that are available (very few at that), there are almost no bottom depths recorded on them. And very often, the positions of the islands are incorrect. The knowledge vacuum makes our captain and crew a cautious bunch. All in all, it's just eerie here.

Our mission is to visit the Adelie penguin colony on Charcot (pronounced Shar-KO) and get some information on the birds' diet and movements; to catch as many silverfish as we can; and to get some basic data on the ocean itself.

Charcot is important to our study because we believe it closely resembles what the area around Palmer Station was like 50 years ago, well before the midwinter temperatures began to climb.

So, you might ask, did we catch some silverfish? Yes.

The marine life here is what we call "high Antarctic," which includes silverfish and a few characteristic invertebrates.

Ice of all different types is present, from the icebergs I mentioned before to newly forming sea ice, to the glaciers that cover the island. When the ocean is just cold enough for ice to form, there is pancake ice and "miles of ice" type ice cover; it can form over a few hours time. The ice may become old hat after a while, but for now it's exciting.

Our constant companions are the snow petrels in the air and crabeater seals, who appear regularly on ice floes. Early explorers noticed that the scat of crabeaters was red and just assumed that they were eating crabs. But they feed almost exclusively on the abundant and shrimp-like Antarctic krill, with the odd silverfish now and again, of course.

We will be here for another couple of days. The weather has prevented our biologists from visiting the penguin colony here, so we are hoping for a change that will allow them to get to shore. More news soon. In the meantime, see if you can figure out what a "sun dog" is.

Welcome to the edge of the map 03/29/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 30, 2010 12:22pm]
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