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!