David Helvarg

Our quarters here at Palmer are somewhat Spartan. I’m sharing a room in the GWR (Garage, Warehouse, and Recreation) building with Mike, who’s overseeing the digging up and removal of the base’s old waste dump. In addition we’re sharing a shower room with over a dozen other men. Still, like any frontier settlement, there are compensations to be found not only in the spectacular but unpredictable environment but also in the shared sense of community required for survival. Along with shared housekeeping and kitchen tasks Ron Nugent, the base manager, reminds us that the southern ocean’s waters can and will kill us if we’re not careful. We’ll go through boat training before any of us can take out or even ride in the black, inflatable Zodiacs that, along with our thick soled Sorel boots, are the main modes of transportation in these parts. Every boater has to wear a bright orange float coat. Every boat has to have at least two people on board and two radios. You call when you head out to an island or other destination, call when you get there, and call if you go off your planned schedule. I’m one of more than half a dozen new people arriving on base as another five prepare to depart on the Gould, which has been unloading vans, crates, and cargo slings full of gear all day. At a certain point the call for volunteers goes out to unload the “freshies”–fresh fruits and vegetables–and most of the base turns out to move the food from the pier to a walk-in freezer behind the main cafeteria. There are Chilean plums and tomatoes, potatoes, avocados, and crates of eggs, whose shells have to be washed in bleach before being thrown out lest some barnyard avian infection spread to the native birds. But today it’s the brown skuas cruising the area who pose the most immediate threat to newly feathered penguin chicks. At 1 p.m. I attend a safety meeting for the ASA employees who keep the base running. This week the topic is working in confined spaces, since they are in the process of adding a protective plastic liner to one of the base’s two 125,000 gallon capacity fuel tanks. The 21 men and five women sitting through the half hour talk reflect both a good sense of humor and casual professionalism. Of course their mission is one of support for some of the most important–although often obscure–scientific research going on today, research supported by the National Science Foundation, which runs America’s three Antarctic bases. Antarctic scientists were the first to confirm the rapid decline of the atmosphere’s protective ozone layer, which led to the banning of CFCs and other ozone destroying chemicals, and Antarctica today is a major center of study on climate change. Of particular concern is the human impact on climate due to the emission of CO2 (from fossil fuels) and other greenhouse gases. Palmer is where scientists expect to first see the impact of climate changes on the Antarctic continent. Globally 1998 set the record as the hottest year in at least 1,200 years, breaking the previous record, set in 1997. The 1990s are expected to rate as the hottest decade since record keeping began, breaking the previous record, set by the 1980s.

“In the early ‘90s the cycles of high and low seasonal ice (in the Antarctic peninsula) fell apart. This year’s winter sea ice was the lowest on record,” scientist Robin Ross told a group of us gathered in Palmer’s cafeteria tonight. Robin’s specific concern and focus of study is krill, the tiny shrimplike animals found in Antarctic waters whose total weight–some 600 million tons–represents a greater biomass than that of any other animal on earth. A 100 ton blue whale eats four tons of krill a day during the summer, and krill make up over 95 percent of the diet of the Adélie penguins I’ve been watching through my binoculars today.

Among the findings of Robin and her crew of researchers is that larval krill feed under the sea ice, chunks of which have been floating in the inlet today. Ice acts like an upside down coral reef, having lots of bumps and crevasses and caves for them to hide in as they grow. Seventy percent of krill larvae are found under this ice, and those that are spawned in the open ocean are less likely to survive.

It’s no great leap to therefore assume that less ice in a warmer world will mean fewer krill to feed the whales and penguins and skuas and leopard seals and orcas that feed on them in the amazing web of life that exists here.

While we may have once thought of Antarctica as the most desolate place on earth, it turns out that we’re the only ones who have the power to make it so. This place I’ve just arrived at is amazing. It’s the rest of the world that’s scary.