1000 miles on the ice
Over halfway through our deployment, so we are firing on all cylinders. Last week, we were joined by Rachel (Picture 1: Rachel emerging from EGT ice cave), a veterinarian from Juneau, Alaska, with extensive expertise working with marine (and other) mammals (check out her cool Blog with some candid pictures). Her presence and a stretch of nicer weather (interrupted now and again by conditions too windy [40-50 knots] and cold [-34C wind chill] to work in, forcing us to abort mission after assessing the situation) allowed us to ramp up our effort to collect biopsies from adult seals and necropsy deceased pups. In fact on several days, we were able to perform multiple procedures (2 biopsies and a necropsy or 2 necropsies and a biopsy, with some placenta collection sprinkled in; yesterday, we witnessed a placenta being delivered!). Collecting multiple samples per day also increases the workload in the lab for Kaitlin and Allyson (Picture 2: Allyson and Kaitlin collecting biopsy from 350kg anesthetized Weddell Seal; the dots on its side are where Luis performed ultrasound to determine blubber thickness). Processing samples is a time-consuming process, often stretching into the night. Luckily, after going out on the ice for 9 days straight, Rachel’s birthday was the perfect occasion to blow off some steam in the “Coffee House”, the coolest building in town that serves as a coffee bar in the AM, a lounge during the day, and where wine is served in the evening.
As I mentioned previously, preparation before going out onto the ice is key. Last week, we had 2 consecutive days marred by skidoo engine trouble. Karma caught up with Luis for making fun of my skidoo breaking down (while he was nice and warm in a PistenBully which we take out when its cold and windy, allowing us to keep reagents we use for procedures warm) when his skidoo broke down the very next day (Picture 3: Luis with PistenBully). Luckily, we always travel as a group (or at least in pairs); so we were all able to limp back to town safe and sound, with the broken skidoos in tow on a Siglin sled. Within 2 days, the capable mechanics of the Science Support Center had them fixed and ready to go again.
As the window for placenta collecting is closing quickly (most pups have been born by now, in record numbers, according to our friends from B009), we try to hit every colony as often as possible. Which means we are covering a lot of ground (I have ~1000 miles on the skidoo-odometer so far). As we are skidooing all over McMurdo Sound, we get to see incredible places. We explored two ice caves in the EGT (Picture 4 and Picture 5: Luis and Manu in EGT ice cave) and visited an iceberg (Picture 6: Team B-267 at iceberg) north of Inaccessible Island (renamed, by Luis, Irresistible Island).
During our sea ice travel, we frequently encounter curious penguins (I know we blogged about meeting Penguins before, but we always get excited when we see them!). One day, we witnessed a scene straight out of the “March of the penguins”. A long line of Emperor penguins was walking across the sea ice (Picture 7: Emperor penguins on the move). We quickly turned off our skidoos and quietly crouched on the ice. As soon as the penguins noticed us, they waddled over, walking in between us and checking us out (Picture 8: penguins checking out Kaitlin and Allyson), allowing us to meet these magnificent and beautiful creatures from up close (Picture 9: close encounter with an Emperor penguin).
We also start to know the lay of the land really well. It will be a couple more weeks before the ice breaks out (which would end our season), but its obvious that the sea ice is changing. It is quite an eerie feeling when one hears the ice cracking and sees the ice moving under one’s feet. The greatest change in the sea ice has occurred at the ice edge. When we visited the ice edge early October, it was located farther South than usual (at Cape Barne). In the last two weeks there has been a few miles of new ice growth extending north of this season’s full-thickness (~120cm) ice edge (Picture 10: FS&T map of ice edge). The new ice is as thin as 25cm (10”) at the full-thickness/new ice transition. The new ice is soft and because of the weight of snow on the ice surface the freeboard is almost at the water level. We are warned by Field Support & Training that travel north of Cape Evans should only be done with perfect visibility to enable identification of the old ice edge. There is an obvious step-down at the old ice edge and we are not to travel beyond the step-down/transition since the new ice is not safe for vehicle or foot travel.
This week also marks the visit of a group of DVs (Distinguished Visitors). Members of the National Science Board (Dr. John Anderson, Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan, Dr. James Jackson, and Dr. Ruth David), accompanied by two assistant directors of the NSF (Dr. Jim Kurose and Dr. Fay Cook), the US ambassador to New Zealand (Mark Gilbert) and the Political & Economic Counselor U.S. Embassy in New Zealand (Ms. Lian von Wantoch) visited the Dry Valleys, South Pole, Scott Base, and McMurdo. I was honored to have a chance to speak with some of the DVs at a reception organized by the NSF Division of Polar Programs in the Chalet. Not surprisingly, they were very knowledgeable and interested in our work. Their enthusiasm for the program as a whole was palpable: they described McMurdo and the people working here as a “pocket of awesomeness” where “job doesn’t matter; mission matters”. I hope they can convey that enthusiasm to the folks back home who will decide on future funding for NSF in general and the Division of Polar Programs in particular. Science is cool and has had an immeasurable impact on humanity. It also requires enormous resources. Investing now in basic research is absolutely necessary to guarantee continued progress as a human race. There is a lot of delayed gratification in science, both for the scientists and for the people who eventually benefit from scientific discovery (basically everybody). It takes a very long time and a great deal of effort to develop and test a scientific hypothesis, to report results, and to translate those results into real-world applications. Scientific research is also not necessarily “linear”: many great inventions were made as an inadvertent byproduct while testing an unrelated hypothesis. For example, relevant to our research: did you know Viagra was originally developed as a drug to treat angina pectoris (chest pain or pressure often due to myocardial infarction)? Its use as an erectile dysfunction drug was observed as a side effect during these earlier studies. Nitric oxide (used as a treatment for hypertension, pulmonary hypertension, glaucoma, etc.) was identified as the endothelial-derived relaxing factor, a discovery that would earn Furchgott, Ignarro, and Murad the 1998 Nobel Prize in Physiology or medicine, as a direct but accidental consequence of an overzealous lab tech in Dr. Furchgott’s lab doing too good a job cleaning arterial tissue and destroying the endothelial cell layer in the process (a more detailed account can be found in Dr. Furchgott’s Nobel lecture). It is important to highlight that none of these discoveries could have occurred if the intended project hadn’t been carefully conceptualized and designed, funded, and performed. In fact, if scientists always knew what they were going to discover, it would not be science. It’s imperative for us scientists to keep an open mind while carrying out research, but we have to be given the chance and the support to do so. Shortsightedness is the bane of science, and the reluctance of some policymakers to invest in science is making it increasingly difficult for young, talented investigators to pursue a scientific career (and, who knows, cure cancer). Now, I must confess that, just as Dan Rather recently put some blame on the press for not covering science well, we, as scientists, have to do a better job explaining our goals and “selling” our product. I guess a blog/instagram/twitter account is a start.
NMFS permit 19439; ACA permit 2016-005; Photos by Michael Pfalmer and @manu_buys