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Looking Back

A photographic record of touring Antarctica by boat with Students On Ice

A photographic record of touring Antarctica by boat with Students On Ice

A Zodiac visit to Gourdin IslandMaryam AljoaanA Zodiac visit to Gourdin Island
Fur seals play fighting in the surf at Brown BluffBruce KlockFur seals play-fighting in the surf at Brown Bluff

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Passing the Torch

A letter from the home office, after a journey to the bottom of the world

A letter from the home office, after a journey to the bottom of the world

Deception IslandDavid RusakDeception Island

Despite — or possibly because of — all the unspoilt natural beauty I took in during Students On Ice’s Antarctic University Expedition 2011, one of the most striking sights was a place of human intervention. Our group’s last day of visiting Antarctic terrain began at six a.m., landing inside a horseshoe-shaped caldera, the appropriately sinister-sounding Deception Island. The sun we had so consistently enjoyed throughout the trip had given way to a gloomy fog. This enshrouded the rundown structures and detritus left behind by early twentieth-century whalers, who made great use of the island until the Depression. The excesses of this industry were horrific: after hunting blue whales into scarcity, the hunters moved on to the next-most-profitable species, and then the next one after that, until a combination of ruined populations, changing public opinion, and long-overdue regulation put a stop to large-scale whaling in the ’60s. As if chiming in, the volcano at Deception Island erupted near the same time, laying waste to both more recent scientific stations and the whalers’ old boilers, tanks, and other structures. For our part, we wandered from over the ashy earth, stepping around chunks of brick and fragments of barrels, jarred after our time together in nature to see a place so littered with human debris.

Trip DiaryDavid Rusak’s posts about the Students On Ice Antarctic University Expedition 2011Orientation
From Argentina: prepping to set sail for Antarctica with Students On Ice

Crossing Over
Outbound from South America to Antarctica with Students On Ice

Landfall
Putting boots on the (dung-like, muddy) ground of Seymour Island, Antarctica

My Life is a Movie
Of penguins, seals, and humpbacks: the scene in Brown Bluff, Antarctica

Enjoy the Silence
Paradise Bay, Antarctica lives up to its name

Antarctic Meltdown
Reading cracks in the dramatically shrinking glacial ice at Neko Harbour

The Pursuit of Curiosity
Pristine Antarctica: the final frontier of modern wilderness tourism

It’s hard to conceive of the gulf between world views: the whalers hunted down, boiled, and dumped the remains of thousands of whales into this bay; mere days before, we had been scrambling out onto our ship’s outer decks in forty-five-knot winds, whooping and cheering at our first glimpse of a humpback fluke. We cherished their company as mysterious fellow mammals; the whalers created giant factory ships for the most efficient extraction of whale oil, and resorted to tactics like the deliberate wounding of calves, whose cries would attract still more victims. At least this insane style of hyper-exploitation — of those animals, in this area — has now ended. It’s a sign that humanity can, in fact, do better.

Another good sign is the quality of character of the students I travelled with. The gravity and complexity of conservation, particularly in a place as distant and different from home as Antarctica, was made clear to us by the professors and other experts who taught us about their respective fields on the trip. But, seeing the questions and interest at their presentations, it’s not hard to imagine a group this motivated and curious rising to the challenge. Students On Ice provided an ideal venue for this needed cross-pollination of disciplines, for making the connections the students will need if they want to do science in the polar regions, and for fostering the kind of personal engagement that really drives people to make a difference.

In his talk to us at the end of the expedition, one of the favourite phrases that SOI founder, executive director, and expedition leader Geoff Green returned to was “passing the torch.” It scarcely needs saying what a pleasure it was for me to join his group on this journey — but seeing in action their earnest commitment to spreading these values and knowledge was another pleasure besides.

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The Pursuit of Curiosity

Pristine Antarctica: the final frontier of modern wilderness tourism

Pristine Antarctica: the final frontier of modern wilderness tourism

Tourists

“But, after all, it is not what we see that inspires awe, but the knowledge of what lies beyond our view. We see only a few miles of ruffled snow bounded by a vague wavy horizon, but we know that beyond that horizon are hundreds and even thousands of miles which can offer no change to the weary eye, while on the vast expanse that one’s mind conceives one knows there is neither tree nor shrub, nor any living thing, nor even inanimate rock — nothing but this terrible limitless expanse of snow. It has been so for countless years, and it will be so for countless more. And we, little human insects, have started to crawl over this awful desert, and are now bent on crawling back again. Could anything be more terrible than this silent, wind-swept immensity when one thinks such thoughts?” — From the diary of Robert Falcon Scott, written before turning back to end an expedition that took his party 320 kilometres onto the plateau

Aside from killer whales, if there is one thing I regret having been unable to see on this trip, it is the above. The ice sheet that covers 96 percent of the surface of Antarctica is so massive as to literally press the continent into the Earth; it averages 1.6 kilometres in thickness, making up 70 percent of all the world’s freshwater and 90 percent of its ice. Our expedition touched down on its friendliest shores on the Peninsula, never seeing the great frozen plateau. One tiny scion of this desolate world floated by us in the form of a brutally rectangular iceberg, maybe 400 metres square, which towered over our ship and touched bottom another 270 metres underwater. In comparison, the white wastes that Scott and the other adventurers of the “Heroic Age” trekked across are still unfathomable. It boggles the mind to imagine a continent two-thirds the size of North America which stands so astoundingly bare. (more…)

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Antarctic Meltdown

Reading cracks in the dramatically shrinking glacial ice at Neko Harbour

Reading cracks in the dramatically shrinking glacial ice at Neko Harbour

Photograph by Lee NarrawayLee Narraway

The other day the Antarctic University Expedition 2011 had a quick landing at Neko Harbour, a glaciated spot on the Antarctic Peninsula. Rather than hanging out with the penguins at the shore, this time I hiked up a snow-covered hillside with the glaciology students who had come to collect samples from it. The snows of the glaciers all around us were riven with cracks running along and across their course — a sign, University of Ottawa glaciologist Luke Copland told us, that they are under pressure, highly active despite their apparent stillness. Our group stayed within a box of footprints laid out by the professors (a safe area from any such crevasses) as the students laboriously shovelled through 1.5 metres of snow to reach the solid ice at its base. From there, they could extract the cores: thick, translucent cylinders, bubbled with air that was trapped inside the ice as it formed. These surface-level cores only go a few years back; the record to be found in deeper cores reaches as far back as 800,000 years ago. Glaciologists are consummate analyzers of gradual change — but, as the occasional crackle or boom echoing out of the surrounding area reminded us, those changes can culminate in very sudden and serious results.

Just those kinds of results are happening (and are expected to continue) as Antarctica responds to the Earth’s changing climate. Olle Carlsson, a Swedish naturalist and guide now in his twenty-first season of extensive visits to Antarctica, has been to these sites every year since 1991. He has watched them change with his own eyes. He says these glaciers at Neko Harbour were not so crevassed, and came closer to the beach, when he first saw them; ten years ago, part of Brown Bluff that we’ve walked freely through was frozen and impassible; ice all around is thinning or disappearing. Our expedition kept hearing that the insufferably adorable adélie penguins should be at the sites we were visiting; but they have moved increasingly southward, and only showed up in handfuls among the gentoos, who thrive better in low sea ice conditions.

Studies have been somewhat ambiguous on whether Antarctica, taken as a whole, has warmed significantly since record-keeping began. But at the local level things look much scarier. While high-elevation, thickly iced-over east Antarctica has kept relatively stable, the warmer western parts of the continent — the Peninsula, where we have been, and the Amundsen Sea — are showing serious warming effects. Temperatures in the Peninsula have been going up about 1˚C per decade, one of the fastest rates of warming on the planet. (more…)

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Enjoy the Silence

Paradise Bay, Antarctica lives up to its name

Paradise Bay, Antarctica lives up to its name

Photograph by Lee NarrawayLee NarrawayStudents on rock: Look closely, and you’ll see several members of the Students on Ice expedition at the summit

On our final outing yesterday, I ended up with a small group riding in a boat driven by Sonja Heinrich, touring the aptly named Paradise Bay. She’s a teaching fellow at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, and the leader of its contingent of marine biology students, who have been (I hear) taking to the outer decks of the ship at obscenely early hours each morning to count wildlife. She introduced us to the animals we were cruising past, like the continent’s only land-based bird, the white, chicken-like sheathbill (which subsists, unglamourously, on guano and whatever else it can grab, earning it a variety of shit-themed nicknames). We idled in the ice-riddled bay — towering glaciers loom over it precariously, coming down from the peaks on all sides, and distant thunderings had us hoping to see some ice fall in. But with only a few falls of snow making their way down the mountains, and with dinner looming, we eventually headed out to see something more exciting, particularly for someone with Sonja’s interests: seals had been spotted a little further out.

It didn’t take long to find the group of four crabeater seals out basking their pale, torpedo-like bodies on an iceberg about the size of a small house (which qualifies it as a mere “bergy bit,” according to our group’s glaciologists). Sonja advised us to stay quiet: these seals were more skittish than other breeds we’d been encountering, liable to disappear if disturbed. As our Zodiac drifted up to the berg, however, another crabeater showed up in the water, nosing its way over to us. As it spent more time near the boat it became emboldened, sticking its head up right beside us, swooping around and under us, circling the iceberg only to suddenly pop up again on our other side. As it became clear the seal had decided to hang out with us, Sonja started taking out her hydrophone, an underwater microphone on a long cord, hoping to get a recording of its sounds. While we stood and craned our necks trying to get photos and video, she wore headphones, listening for seal vocalizations. (The only distinctive sound she could make out was what she thought might have been our buddy briefly nuzzling or mouthing at the mic.) Sonja was as shocked and thrilled by this encounter as the rest of us — she’d never seen a crabeater so curious. (more…)

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My Life is a Movie

Of penguins, seals, and humpbacks: the scene in Brown Bluff, Antarctica

Of penguins, seals, and humpbacks: the scene in Brown Bluff, Antarctica

PenguinBruce Klock

“I felt as if, all my life, I’d been mistaken about something important. I followed… in agreeably engrossed disbelief, as in a dream in which yellowthroats and redstarts and black-throated blue and black-throated green warblers had been placed like ornaments in urban foliage, and a film production unit had left behind tanagers and buntings like rolls of gaffer’s tape… as if these birds were just momentary bright litter, and the park would soon be cleaned up and made recognizable again.” — Jonathan Franzen, on being introduced to the world of birdwatching

After a couple of landings here in Antarctica, it is hard to shake a feeling like Franzen’s above: that the scenes I am witnessing are unreal, that the wild drama on open display before me could only be a contrivance, some tableau from a nature documentary. Maybe it shouldn’t be shocking, in the most hospitable parts of the world’s largest wilderness area, to see a couple of dozen penguins skipping across the water; fur seals basking, backs arched, on rocks; the occasional pair of whales breaching; a leopard seal cruising sleek and serpentine through the water around a great guano-plastered penguin rookery. Disbelief and detachment at seeing this kind of thing surely reflects the extent of the depletion we have created in our own surroundings, and it suggests that televised nature alone has made a poor substitute. But, regardless, the sights of the last couple of days have felt surreal.

Wildlife sightings thus far on the Antarctic University Expedition 2011 have largely taken place from the ship, but this morning our visit to Brown Bluff put us straight onto a rocky beach amongst a large, scattered crowd of fur seals, penguins, and a few shorebirds. Most of us without glaciers to examine or animal counts to complete wended our way past the grumpy seals and sat down on the rocks with our cameras, taking in the sleepy scene. It’s forbidden to approach the animals so closely as to disturb them, but with a sufficiently disarming visitor, penguins will sometimes get curious, wander up, and maybe take a peck — as one did to the hand of Fabrice, a student from Bordeaux. It was interesting to watch the seals barking, whining, challenging one another for good spots, and play-fighting in the surf, and the penguins dozing, squabbling, and pecking at their as-yet-un-moulted down; but we watched with anticipation, a certain focus in mind: a common desire to connect with a wild animal. (more…)

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Landfall

Putting boots on the (dung-like, muddy) ground of Seymour Island, Antarctica

Boots on the (dung-like, muddy) ground of Seymour Island, Antarctica

Seymour IslandSeymour Island

The most dedicated members of the Antarctic University Expedition 2011 roused themselves at 5 a.m. today to witness our entry into the Weddell Sea, the great, ice-riddled body of water from which we will be visiting the Antarctic Peninsula and surrounding islands. Several wildlife sightings and a breakfast later, we got the news we were waiting for — the winds were high, but we would still be able to make our first landing on Antarctic soil today. The expedition’s ship, the Ushuaia, took us within a few kilometres of shore; we made the rest of the way on Zodiacs that manoeuvred us through the intervening field of icebergs. Conditions were choppy as advertised, and we stepped rather wetly out of the boats and onto a short beach overlooked by slanting cliffs. We had arrived on Seymour Island.

The geology students in our midst immediately set about examining the rock face. Our reason for choosing this rather obscure island had to do with their field of interest: it is one of few places on Earth known to preserve a fossil record encompassing the transition between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods of geologic time — and, of course, it is the southernmost of that group of about twenty. This transition, called the K-T Boundary, is better known to the rest of us as the mass extinction that ended the era of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, ushering in the Cenozoic era we occupy today. The cause of this tremendous upheaval remains contested, and, according to one of our experts, Carleton professor of Earth sciences Claudia Schröder-Adams, what can be found on Seymour Island plays a significant role in the debate. (more…)

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Crossing Over

Outbound from South America to Antarctica with Students On Ice

Outbound from South America to Antarctica with Students On Ice

Beagle ChannelBeagle Channel

With another full day behind us, the now-familiar voice of Students On Ice’s Geoff Green crackled over the intercom of the M/V Ushuaia last night: to starboard we could see the southernmost town in the world, Chile’s Puerto Williams; to port a huge, spectacular moon; to one o’clock, the Southern Cross. I stepped out of my cabin onto the deck of this ship that is taking us to Antarctica, watching Puerto Williams approach. Beneath the silhouettes of the mountains ranging to either side, the town appeared a single glimmering line of orange lights along the coast, a last thread of civilization hanging at the threshold of the very different world into which we are headed.

At midnight we left the Beagle Channel, entering the notorious Drake Passage that separates South America’s southern tip from the outstretched arm of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Between the last couple of days in the hotel’s conference room, and today in the Ushuaia’s rather more tilty lecture space (by the oscillations of dangling cords and strings, I guess that we have been rolling through 15–30˚ waves for hours), we passengers have been given a number of introductory talks by the trip’s enthusiastic, international team of professors, each explaining the relation of Antarctica to their field of expertise. One recurring theme is the continent’s incredible isolation, and the unique geological, climatic, and ecological features this has given it. (more…)

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Orientation

From Argentina: prepping to set sail for Antarctica with Students On Ice

From Argentina: prepping to set sail for Antarctica with Students On Ice

UshuaiaStudents On Ice

“Always think about where you are.”

At just this moment, I’m in a wood-panelled hotel conference room with a small stage at the front. Outside the windows are the slanted streets of Ushuaia, Argentina, a cozy port town nestled in amongst the awe-inspiring mountains of Tierra del Fuego. The people in the rows of chairs around me have arrived over the last few days from more than a dozen countries from around the world, and Geoff Green, the utterer of the words above, is giving an orientation talk, our group’s first official get-together. From the moment he begins speaking to us, Geoff exudes the sincerest enthusiasm for the mission of his organization, Students On Ice. We are here, in his words, “to use these amazing parts of our world as classrooms.” These amazing parts of the world being its north and south polar regions; the classroom in question today being Antarctica.

Always think about where I am: I am planning to take this motto very seriously. About a week and a half ago I learned of the existence of Students On Ice, a Canadian organization that runs yearly educational expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic for students in university or high school. (In 2009, Nicholas Hune-Brown wrote here about SOI’s trip to Canada’s Arctic.) At the same time I learned of their willingness to take me along on their Antarctic University Expedition 2011 — and now here I am, a little bewildered to find myself in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, preparing to leave tomorrow on a ship headed for the most alien and unwelcoming land on the planet. But as far as I have gotten to know the fifty-seven students and twenty-nine professors, scientists, experts, and staff who are coming along, I will be making the trip in delightful company.

For the rest of February, watch this space for updates on the icebergs, lectures, people, and penguins I will be encountering.

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