Monday, December 9, 2013

We're getting really sick of all this beautiful weather

Palmer Station, like most of Antarctica, is infamous for it's wind and terrible weather; 88% of our days here are overcast, we average 11 feet of snowfall per year and wind gusts over 80mph aren't uncommon.  On the rare occasions that we get a day of clear and calm weather, it's almost a cause for station-wide celebration.  Everyone hurries to get done the outdoor work that requires calm weather, and we'll all go have lunch up on the decking for the new Haz Waste storage area.

Million dollar views, but the furniture arrangement needs some work.

For most of the last month, the sea ice had been a major problem; it was frozen so solid in early November that even our ice-reinforced supply ship (The Lawrence M. Gould, or just the LMG) couldn't punch it's way through.  It made it to within two miles of station but just couldn't get any farther, even after a couple days of repeated ramming.

Eventually they gave up and turned back north, heading to Chile.  This left us with five extra people that we weren't supposed to have; they had intended to go back north on that ship, and now they would be here for another month.

This wasn't a problem until the LMG returned a couple weeks ago (after the ice had thinned out enough that it could push through), bringing with it even more scientists and some specialized construction workers.  These new additions swelled our population to 48 people, in spite of there being only 43 available beds on station.  Temporary accommodations were made wherever they could be; some people slept in tents, others in linen closets, some in a disused science building up the hill, anywhere that could be found.

And yet even in that month since the LMG left those extra people here, the sea ice still hasn't gone away.  It's thinned out plenty, thin enough that the ship can easily punch it's way through to station, but far too much to allow zodiac operations.  We had a couple of days, a few precious days, where we had enough open water that some science could happen (my room mate actually won the pool on the first day of active boating science), and a few bouts of the local wildlife showing it's face again.

Living someplace where you can find yourself in close proximity to penguins every day is exactly as strange as you imagine it to be.  They don't have any land based predators and as such have never developed any fear of humans, although they are skittish as most birds are.  They seem to view us and our station as a curiosity; they saunter around like they own the place, which according to the Antarctic Conservation Act, I guess they do.

But those few days of sort-of open water didn't last; the winds blew all of the sea ice back in a couple weeks ago, and since then we've had the longest stretch of calm weather that anyone on station can remember.  Most of the days have been clear and sunny with the winds barely peaking over 5mph, and some being completely still.  It's a nice opportunity to take care of some of the tasks around here that require this sort of weather, such as the yearly painting of the handrails.

As beautiful as the calm weather is, it means the ice that was blown back in is still here; it's not frozen solid and the LMG can push through, but our Zodiacs wouldn't stand a chance.

The problem is that the small amounts of winds we've gotten have all been out of the south, blowing all the ice flows right into us.  There's a giant pack that's gotten stuck on the whole southern edge of the island that our station is on, and until we get some strong northerly winds, it's not going anywhere.

Being iced in for such prolonged periods of time is incredibly rare, especially this late in the season.  Usually a combination of warm weather and north winds would have taken care of this already, but not this year.

So that was our situation; unable to do most of our science with five more people than we can technically hold, and the LMG not going north until the middle of December, still a couple weeks away.  And yet . . . it's possible to get out of this station in another manner, if one is incredibly lucky.

The National Geographic "Explorer" is the first cruise ship of the summer to swing by our station, and our five leftovers were fortunate enough to hitch a ride home.  It's not entirely uncommon; quite a number of both science and support personnel have either arrived or departed on cruise ships.  It's not a cheap means of getting people to and from station, but given how expensive operating the LMG is (I've heard ballparks of $35,000 per day), it's often the less costly option if just a few people need to be transported.

Usually when these smaller (sub-200) passenger ships stop by we'll let everyone come ashore in Zodiacs as we give them a tour of the station, to let people see what real science in Antarctica looks like.  And even though the sea ice prevented everyone from coming ashore, the ship got as close as they safely could so we could all take pictures and shout greetings back and forth.

So while it was disappointing that the tourists couldn't come ashore for a visit, getting five people and their stuff over?  That we could manage!

The ship got as close to our pier as they safely could, and cast a line ashore.  To this line was attached an inflatable kayak, which was pulled back and forth to move the luggage on board (I'm the one in the video pulling the shore-side of the line, wearing the orange life vest).  Eventually the ship's bow thruster cleared enough of the ice that a Zodiac could be dropped into the water; one of the shortest zodiac trips in history got everyone aboard in no time flat.

That's where we currently stand; we're at maximum population now, but at least everyone has a real bed.  We've got the LMG coming back to station next week to take even more people out of here, dropping our population down into the low 30s until next year.  Trying to forcast the weather any more than a couple days in the future here is impossible due to the frequently changing conditions, but word is that some storms are brewing in the Drake; with any luck, they'll give us the north winds we need to clear all this ice out.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Great time-lapse of Nat Geo Explorer, perfect framing.