The light and the dark side of Antarctica

The light and the dark side of Antarctica.

Antarctica is an incredibly beautiful place, worth preserving. There is a global effort to keep the continent as pristine as possible, while still allowing us to tap into its impressive arsenal of scientific resources. On Monday November 2nd, personnel from the Antarctic Support Contract raised the flags of the 12 original Antarctic Treaty signatory nations (Picture 1: twelve flags raised on November 2nd 2015). The flags are only flown during the austral summer (when the sun does not set) right next to “The Chalet” (the main headquarters for the administrative offices of the National Science Foundation, Picture 2) and surrounding a bust of Admiral Richard Byrd, a legendary Antarctic explorer. The treaty (and I paraphrase from an email sent to us by the current McMurdo Area Manager) designated Antarctica as a scientific preserve, established freedom of scientific investigation on the continent, and limited the role of the military to scientific support. The treaty became effective in 1961 and remains a diplomatic expression of the operational and scientific cooperation that had been achieved “on the ice”. The 12 nations active in Antarctica during the 1957–58 International Geophysical Year were the original signatories: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union, The United Kingdom, and the United States; I am proud to be a citizen of two of the original twelve (Picture 3: Belgian flag raised at the Chalet on November 2nd 2015; Picture 4: American flag raised at the Chalet on November 2nd 2015). There are currently 53 treaty member nations. Antarctica is a brilliant example of international cooperation, where politics are set aside in the name of science.

Antarctica can also be extremely harsh. Apart from some of the most severe weather on earth, nature can be cruel in other ways. As of November 3rd, over 460 pups had been born and tagged by our colleagues in B-009. Most of them thrive and quickly gain weight as they get ready to take their first plunge in the frigid water of the Ross Sea. Unfortunately, a minority of newborns does not survive. Some are stillborn (we came across pups still wrapped in the amniotic sac). Some die after birth of unknown causes (moms have been known to stay with their deceased pups for weeks). Some stumble into a crack and drown (the divers from B-307 sometimes come across drowned pups under the ice). And others are abandoned by their (usually young and inexperienced) moms. They have no chance at survival in this harsh environment. We are not allowed to intervene and have to let nature run its course. As one of our goals this year is to collect vascular tissue from deceased animals, we check on abandoned pups regularly. It is extremely hard to see them progressively fade away until they eventually perish and become prey for the Skua (Picture 5: Skua feeding on fresh placenta; we got to it first though and were able to collect our sample!).

Performing a necropsy is not the easiest of jobs. Doing it on the ice makes it even more difficult. To shelter ourselves from the elements, we set up “the onion” (Picture 6), a custom-made igloo-like structure that can be raised and anchored to the ice in a matter of minutes. It protects us from the wind and somewhat from the cold (but not from UV rays so sunscreen is still required). So far, most of the deceased pups we have come across were frozen solid, preventing us from harvesting the tissues we need. Luckily (for us, although we always root for the pups to survive), we came across two recently deceased, and not-yet-frozen, pups before the Skua could get to them. We were able to collect all sorts of vascular tissue (carotid, renal, pulmonary, aortic arch, abdominal and thoracic aorta, mesenteric vasculature) and organs (liver, lung, atria and ventricles, spleen, kidney, cerebellum, brain cortex, longissimus dorsi muscle). We also harvested aqueous humor (the fluid in the eye that maintains intra-ocular pressure, the only modifiable risk factor for glaucoma). Together with the first 2 successful biopsies, the collection of ten fresh placentas, and the tissue culture progress in the lab, our project is coming along nicely, with one month left in our deployment.

Science is cool!

Don’t forget to follow us on Luis’s blog, on Instagram, and on Twitter.

Team B267

NMFS permit 19439; ACA permit 2016-005; Photos by @manu_buys