The team has started the next exciting phase of research, by presenting the outcome of our first run of data analyses at scientific conferences. I was honoured to be chosen to give a Keynote talk at the recent Society of Experimental Biology conference in Brighton and three posters from our team also featured there.
There is still quite a bit of additional work to be done before they are ready for publication in journals, but the response from the audience was very good so hopefully the referees will be kind to us when we submit them!
I have visited Antarctica 7 times since 1989, and have observed a gradually increasing rate of change in the environment that is of concern.
Recently, I was invited to share some of my thoughts about these changes by way of an illustrated talk. I share a few of the images here. First, it is important to recognise that environmental change is always happening – Antarctica was once at the equator! Man’s influence of course isn’t restricted to indirect effects on temperature. When I first visited the South Orkneys there were moss banks near the shore.
But many of these were destroyed by the explosion in seal population that resulted from hunting whales and the consequent massive rise in standing stock of krill.
This last trip I experienced rain for the first time: whereas the global average temperature has risen by 1°C, over the last 50 years the Peninsula has seen a rise of 2.5°C – potentially disastrous for life adapted to a stenothermal (largely unchanging, cold) environment.
This rise in temperature has allowed the redistribution of animals and plants. Adelie penguins, the most southerly breeding species, have now been replaced by Gentoo penguins on Anvers Island. The expansion of moss has been accompanied by appearance of the only flower seen in Antarctica (Colobanthus, or pearlwort) and tussock grass (Deschampsia). The picture below show running water at a green oasis among the more common lichen.
Ice is very important for keeping the planet cool (reflecting solar radiation back into space), and the Antarctic ice caps hold 70% of the world’s freshwater. The sight of melting ice is increasingly common.
Retreat of the glaciers has meant some major changes to scientific activities, too. Flying into the research station on Rothera Point, Adelaide Island is now via a crushed rock runway, constructed because landing planes on the glacier (to the right) is no longer safe.
On Anvers Island, the glacier retreat has left obvious signs from when it was much closer to the research station.
More striking impression of the scale comes from aerial photos. This is a NASA image of the Erebus Ice Tongue – a flow of ice from the active volcano of that name, that floats on the Ross Sea. Annual sea ice is to the left, the rock point to the right is where Scott Base and McMurdo Station are found, the straight lines are the ice runways. In 2001 it was 11km long.
When I visited in 2006 it was a mere stub.
Ice breakouts can have major consequences for wildlife. After one particularly large chunk of ice prevented the seasonal break up of the frozen Ross Sea, Adelie penguins from Cape Royds had a much longer march to find open water to feed whilst nesting, with the consequence that the colony was seriously depleted due to starvation.
The US Centres for Disease Control, like many other such organisations, have summarised the major impacts on humans to be expected from global warming.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assesses current evidence and revised climate models to assess the amount of global change already experienced, and prognosis for the future. Headlines from the latest report can be found here, along with a table and cartoon exploring some of the issues.
The rainbow has been a symbol of hope for millennia. As world leaders meet at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris at the end of November to discuss a collective response to environmental challenges, we must hope they manage to find an effective consensus.
Last night I had the pleasure of addressing an enthusiastic audience at the Otley Science Cafe (http://otleysciencefestival.co.uk/whats-on-2/) on the subject of ‘Antarctic icefish can’t take the heat’, and look forward to more opportunities to share the science and my experiences in a non-academic environment.
The next event is on Thursday October 22nd when I will be giving a presentation entitled ‘Climate change – personal observations from repeat visits to Antarctica’ to the Roundhay Environmental Action Project (their advert is reproduced below). I hope to see you there.
Personal observations from repeat visits to Antarctica
Professor Stuart Egginton DSc, University of Leeds
I’ve been back a month now, and it was suggested that it may be interesting to offer a personal reflection on what it’s like returning from such an isolated community: a feeling shared by most of my colleagues is that the contrast is so great that life at Palmer now seems unreal, akin to a dream world, and exposure to the ‘real’ world can be quite a shock.
The changeover was helped by a period of enforced inactivity – 4 1/2 days on ship and 2 1/2 days on 6 flights – which allowed for some reflection and mental adjustment. Relaxation was, however, in short supply. Following a rough crossing of the Drake Passage, all shipping in the area was halted just after we entered the Straits of Magellan for reasons of safety. During a relatively calm period I managed to grab a few snaps, and a video can be seen here (http://youtu.be/JYBd471O-40); even being firmly wedged on the bridge (five stories up) the force of a wave hitting the ship sent me spinning!
I missed my family the most so it was great to spend some time with them again. As I was working hard there was a strong focus that made the time pass quickly on station, but it’s harder for those back home. I’m really grateful I have a very supportive spouse – unfortunately that’s not the case for everyone out there – and for family and friends who have looked out for her while I was away. It took a week or so to regain a good sleeping pattern and feel normal again, but in the meantime it was a great pleasure to see blue skies and feel the warmth of the sun! Simple enjoyments like familiar foods were a real treat, while the sights and smells of the countryside were marvelous after a bleak, odourless landscape.
In common with others returning from remote places, it takes some time to be at ease with large numbers of people – after my first trip I found city centres quite traumatic and parties uncomfortable – and although this improves with repetition, it’s never an easy transition. Conversations about the experience are frustratingly difficult. While most returnees would happily talk for hours, it’s not appropriate to do so in response to a polite query about ‘how was it?’, and in truth difficult to describe to anyone unfamiliar with the lifestyle. How can you convey a sense of wonder at the sights – even the best photographs are a pale imitation of reality – or the emotions involved with research under trying conditions? Best not to try, unless the listener is really interested!
Getting back to my regular job involved a change in mind-set, and it took some time to get to grips with quite a different set of challenges. An obvious issue was the sedentary work pattern that we so easily fall into, staring at a screen most of the day. While standing up in the cold for hours on end was uncomfortable, the regular bouts of physical activity in between kept me in trim – I lost half a stone while away, despite the mountain of food consumed – which will be a challenge to maintain. However, there are fortunately lots of interesting things happening at work, so it’s easy to lose myself in new tasks and this certainly quickened the adjustment. It will take many months to complete the data analysis, and that will inevitably raise some conflict with other duties but it’s a good problem to have! The tissue samples for analysis have arrived, although the scientific equipment is still lumbering through the cargo process and I don’t expect to see that for some time yet. It’s good to be back, and while I look back on the trip with fond memories I am also aware of the great privilege it is to be able to work in such a special place.
Thank you to Class 4 at Urmston Infant School for asking Professor Stuart Egginton some great questions about his time in the Antarctic conducting research on icefish.
What is the most interesting thing you have seen?
There’s quite a long list! The pink mountains and red sky during sunset was sometimes really stunning, sailing close to icebergs, I had a real thrill at seeing the Neumayer Channel again after 25 years (as I mentioned in the blog), and of course the science questions we’ve been asking are fascinating. But perhaps the most memorable sights have been encounters with wildlife, and two in particular will remain with me for a long time. First was a leopard seal that swam alongside the zodiac I was in, then suddenly swerved to dive under the boat. These dangerous, but beautiful creatures are so sleek they seem to glide through the water. Just as it reached the small boat it turned on its side to reveal the attractive markings along its side, clearly interested to get a peak at those of us peering over the side of the boat.
The second was during a fishing trip on the ship, late at night I was taking a break on deck admiring the moon reflecting on the water when I noticed a minke whale swimming alongside. This was during a trawl so we had slowed down quite a bit, and it maintained position for some time. There were a number of small icebergs in the vicinity, and in order to avoid one it moved sideways towards the ship so that it was only about 20 foot away from me when it breached, and I caught a glimpse of its face. There is something really special about making eye contact with wild animals, a real privilege.
Have you done any skiing or sledging?
Unfortunately, not this time. When we arrived on Anvers Island there was lots of snow, but the first month was really hectic assembling the laboratory, testing equipment, and making sure all the experiments would work. By the time we managed to take any time off the seasonal winds had picked up, making it too dangerous to ski on the glacier. Then it rained and all the snow was washed off! Temperatures dropped again but this just left a slippery sheet of ice, not too much fun for an amateur skier such as myself. I have done some sledging at other bases where there is either deeper snow, or over the frozen sea. Palmer Station is surrounded by rough rocks now the ice has retreated, but not enough packed snow to make that a suitable mode of transport – walking requires sturdy boats and a strong stick!
I hope that answers your questions, I am always happy to talk more about the experience.
As you read this I should hopefully be ploughing my way across the Drake Passage with no internet access, so some final thoughts before I go. A few big blows have broken up a lot of the ice that was starting to form a thick layer, which gives nice views when the sun pays a visit, though Hero Inlet adjacent to the base is solid with its winter coat of snow there to stay.
One of the most important people on base is the cook; such a small community cannot afford discontent based on bad food.
In addition to morale, he also plays an important role in maintaining good health. The heroic age of Antarctic exploration was dogged by poor nutrition, though with ready access to frozen food and delivery of ‘freshies’ every 6-8 weeks that is not a problem here. Nevertheless, I have of necessity eaten food well beyond the ‘sell by’ date over the years at different bases, and get very angry at the profit motive that leads to an obscene waste of discarded food as people slavishly adhere to a very conservative ‘best before’ timescale. Treated well, it takes months for fruit to go off, eggs last an age, and someone last night told me how they used to eke out vegetables for the 9 months isolation experienced at South Pole! Some people get obsessed by taking vitamin supplements, but in reality Vitamin D is probably the only one needed (we hide our skin from UV burn in the summer, and frostbite in the winter).
Ever had to plan a family shop for more than a week? Spare a thought for our logistics team that have to cater for a variable ‘family’ of between 24 and 64 for 3-6 months at a time, planning in advance for both variety and sufficient stock in case the boat can’t make a delivery for a while. They also need to take care of supplies for the carpenter, plumber, electrician, boatman, electrician etc. And at this time of year they have the additional responsibility for ensuring everyone’s luggage gets here/leaves on time – quite a task!
Entertainment on base is of course home-grown. The day starts with most people glued to the NY Times news summary, but more importantly the crossword (which keeps many going until evening). The base band practices regularly, and has a number of talented musicians: Harry (carpenter) on lead guitar, Kris (waste management) on bass guitar and sax, Adina (electronics tech) on fiddle, keyboards and vocals. Bob the base commander holds it together on drums and vocals. The very good farewell jam session was much appreciated.
And that’s it – cargo and samples are packed away, now its time to catch up on lost sleep and think about how we’re going to process the huge amount of data we’ve accumulated over an intense 3 months of experiments. It was exhausting but (I hope!) worthwhile, and certainly enjoyable. I have lots of memories to take back with me, including surprise visitors (see http://youtu.be/EnD9rJ-A95M – this is the view from outside my lab , look out for the Leopard seal popping up for air before diving under the ice) and some stunning sunsets.
A long-standing Antarctic tradition is to celebrate the winter solstice with a rest from work on the shortest day, and have a party. Importantly, all the bases send each other greetings, a nice way of maintaining the sense of international cooperation and friendship that the Antarctic Treaty encourages. We even got a letter from the US President (though he doesn’t mention the importance of fish research, I’ll have to have a word about that…).
Another tradition is to jump into the sea (approximately -1.5oC) – the Polar Plunge. While hands get sensitized to cold by constant exposure, the rest of the body becomes more tolerant (not all that tolerant, however; the sea is breathtakingly cold!!) so despite little daylight outdoor work goes on around the base.
This is the last week of experiments, and the final piece of the puzzle is falling into place. We’ve demonstrated cardiac limitations facing the icefish – poor ability to cope with either increased pressure or temperature – now we complement that with investigating vascular limitations. Given the very large heart necessary to pump huge quantities of blood around the body, we reasoned that they rely more on tissue perfusion than diffusion to supply adequate oxygenation (unlike almost all other vertebrates). It follows that their vessel diameter (smooth muscle tone) is probably not as well regulated as other fish – and that is so. They respond to a reduced range of vasoactive substances, and require higher concentrations to elicit a response: they are wired to avoid hypertension and so prevent heart failure when under stress!
The last fishing trip was almost a disaster. Having caught a load of fish in terrible weather, it looked for a long time like our exhausted companions would not be able to land the catch, as bad weather had driven too much ice into the bay for the ship to dock.
There were also people due to leave base, and for a while it looked like the ship would have to head North leaving them behind and releasing our fish on the way! However, the Captain used bow thrusters to spin the boat on its axis and clear some ice, while our boatman used a lot of skill (and patience) to navigate though the local fused pancake ice. A close call!
Winter is definitely on us now, with breaks between storms bringing surprisingly calm periods where sea freezing is increasing at an alarming rate. First the water appears to have a sheen (grease ice, a suspension of tiny crystals), which when there is relatively calm water grow into plates (pancake ice) that eventually fuse to complete the winter dressing. For a zodiac-level view see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GrgTGp2Ed8
Most of the research is now completed on base – the ELF station (extremely low frequency electromagnetic radiation, travel long distance so we can pick up rainstorm activity in the northern US from here) and monitoring for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty organisation (signature iodine isotope readings on continuously spooled tape) are now fully calibrated and on automatic 24/7 readings; the LTER (long term ecological research network, running since 1990 to follow ecological processes linked to the extent of annual sea ice) has taken the last readings before the ecosystem goes into hibernation. These scientists left on the last northbound shuttle, the ice-strengthened LMG ploughing its way out of the harbour before dawn, its powerful headlamps picking out icebergs to be avoided on the way!
The final member of our team is Dr Iskander Ismailov (Virginia) who is trying to correlate behavioural changes on acute temperature increases with changes in CNS function. We have shown that fish lose their righting reflex before serious cardiac arrhythmias are evident, suggesting it is a breakdown of neural integration rather than nerve dysfunction that is most temperature sensitive. Iskander is recording from Purkinje cells in the cerebellum, and comparing the response to whole body and local brain warming on discharge frequency.
Some have asked about working in the cold, so a quick summary is: use lots of layers of clothing (thermal underwear, thick trousers, thick shirt, fleece jacket, down chest warmer and either windproof or waterproof over-trousers and jacket). Although you may look like the Michelin Man it keeps you warm, but when working you need to be able to lose a layer or two to avoid sweating (frozen sweat is not pleasant). Head cover is of course essential, usually a beanie plus outer cover; there is a style competition going on that Harry the carpenter seems to have won (here wearing his snazzy woollen hat while driving a zodiac).
For the hands, waterproof or windproof gloves, with liners and an inner thin glove is helpful. This is impractical when working with instruments, so for experiments I wear fingerless gloves (cycling gloves are great) using chemical hand warmers held in pockets when the fingers go numb. For surgery there is no option than bare hands (surgeons gloves get shredded by teeth and spines on these animals), and no avoiding the pain of working in ice-cold water. You need to organise procedures in bouts, allowing periods to warm hands and get fingers moving again. The helpfully provided warm air driers are not a good idea – concentrates the saline into all the cuts and gashes that you didn’t know were there – a mistake you only make once!
Q: Where do penguins come from?
A: Although we think of penguins as Antarctic species (and most do live here) they are found off the southern shores of New Zealand, Australia, Africa and South America – up as far as the Galapagos. They developed from early bird ancestors with heavy bones and stumpy wings that are useful for diving, sacrificing the benefit of flight for more efficient swimming.
Q: Why is sea ice so important?
A: For two reasons: it reflects solar radiation and keeps the planet (relatively) cool, and as weather/ocean currents are driven by temperature differences loss of polar ice will (is already) playing havoc with the climate.
On the rare occasion of a clear night we get treated to some lovely views of the southern sky, some strange star formations and beautiful reflections from the moon. A suitably relaxing end to busy days!
Everyone likes pictures of penguins, right? So here’s one of an Adelie penguin (the most southerly breeding bird) taking a stroll over the snow. Quite a comical waddle.
For those who like maps, I include a track of the boat during our last fishing trip (Key: star represents the base, 1 Anvers Is, 2 Neumayer Ch, 3 Wiencke Is, 4 Brabant Is, 5 Dallmann Bay, 6 Gerlache Strait, 7 Andvord Bay) with GPS location superimposed on a montage of satellite images.
The data are starting to get really exciting. First, icefish (C. aceratus) hearts fail at an amazingly warm 15oC – this from an animal that would die of heat exhaustion in your fridge at home! Next, the high sensitivity of icefish hearts to resistance against which they have to work (so-called afterload; they can’t maintain cardiac output against just a few cm of water pressure head) is not observed with the rockcod (red-blooded N. coriiceps), which copes with the maximum resistance we can generate in the rig (10X that of icefish, but developed using much smaller hearts) – this presumed sluggish beast is the polar equivalent of a high-performance tuna!
The LMG attempted to dock this week in preparation for the next fishing trip, but had its space at the pier taken up by a number of icebergs that had floated in during a high pressure lull in winds; no way in so they went off to do some survey work and will try again later.
The social hour was hosted by the lab manager (Emily) and lab tech (Adina) who decided to offer scientific cocktails – glow in the dark gin & tonic (the ring structure of quinine in tonic water gets excited by UV illumination) – which were a great hit.
Here are some of the more common questions I’ve been asked:
Q: Is it cold?
A: Yes! Though not as cold as other Antarctic bases I’ve worked at, due to a combination of being surrounded by open water and the constant cloud cover, but it’s getting cool now and the wind chill can be vicious.
Q: Are icebergs really blue?
A: Yes! Well, at least the bits that have broken off from older glaciers are (they have been under tremendous pressure so contain less trapped air, therefore have fewer reflective surfaces for light to bounce off, so longer (red or green) wavelengths in the visible spectrum are absorbed).
Q: Do you get ice growing in your beard?
A: Yes! Walking up the glacier or any heavy exertion that causes panting makes your humid breath freeze onto the nearest surface (best to let it melt afterwards, rather than try and snap it off!).
Q: Are there polar bears?
A: No! They’re at the other end of the planet, and never made it this far. They adapted to life in the developing Arctic cold by adopting a carnivorous diet, quickly separating from their close relatives the largely vegetarian brown bear.
Q: How do you pee outside?
A: Quickly! There are strict rules about travelling inland, including bringing all your waste (liquid and solids) back with you. Partly this is to avoid spread of human pathogens, but mainly to limit impact on the environment. Terrestrial and snow/ice ecosystems have often developed relying on wind-borne nutrients, and relieving yourself could add a decade’s worth of nourishment. Along the coast the rules for liquid waste are less strict: there’s plenty of yellow snow around seal beaches, and pink snow around penguin colonies!
The project lead, Prof Kristin O’Brien is trying to determine whether mitochondria limit an animal’s thermal tolerance. Mitochondrial respiration rates are being measured from preparations of cardiac and skeletal muscle of notothenioid fishes that differ in haemoglobin and myoglobin expression, held at either ambient temperature, exposed to their critical thermal maximum, or acclimated at 4oC to gain insight into possible consequences of global warming. Mitochondrial samples will also be shipped to Alaska for identifying oxidised proteins, and quantifying levels of oxidative damage to membrane phospholipids. Hopefully, the physiology results will tie in with these cellular mesurements…
The last fishing trip started well in Dallman Bay (named after Eduard Dallmann, leader of the German 1873-74 expedition), with a record catch of icefish in one trawl, but that didn’t last long before bad weather hit; rough seas started to deposit the 2 ton nets on the deck rather than wait for us to winch it safely, so we had to run for shelter in the lee of some islands. We moved onto baited pots to catch the red-blooded coriiceps, but the rough weather had sent fish scurrying for shelter so we caught very few. We then went for a deeper water species and wrecked a net when we caught a load of rocks, one of which took 3 men to dump it overboard, which didn’t do the fish any good at all. I think this is why wise men talk about ‘going fishing’ rather than ‘catching fish’! Ah well, the remaining animals were safely delivered ashore, there is time for one last fishing trip before we wrap up the program, and still plenty to be getting on with.
Some have asked to see my temporary home, so I have uploaded a video of the base and its surroundings as we were returning from the fishing trip at https://youtu.be/QaKCubO2-eI. The advantage of cutting short the trip was that we returned at dawn through the Neumayer Channel (named after Georg Balthazar von Neumayer, 1826–1909, a German polar explorer who promoted international scientific cooperation) separating Anvers Island from Wiencke Island – one of the most stunning places I’ve ever visited.
The winter weather has started to bite, and days are getting noticeably shorter (sunrise at 11, sunset at 3:30) so the last of the Giant Petrels have now fledged, and left us with just a few seals and Antarctic terns for company. Storms bring other visitors, though, like this impressive iceberg grounded close by.