Reflections from Antarctica: A Landscape in Flux

January 16, 2018

By Emmalina Glinskis
 

sunset in antarctica

Sunset over Palmer Station as sea ice begins to move out of the bay in preparation for the austral summer. Photo: Emmalina Glinskis

Being in Antarctica has been a revelation in understanding how landscapes react in real-time to human-induced global warming. I am a recent graduate from Columbia University with a degree in Environmental Science (Class of ’17), and I just got back from working as a field scientist and technician at the U.S. Antarctic Program at Palmer Station. Since October, I’ve been helping Hugh Ducklow from Columbia’s Earth and Environmental Sciences department study the microbial communities of Western Antarctica.

Antarctica is one of the most climate-vulnerable places in the world, warming by seven degrees Celsius over the past 50 years. To put that into context, Western Antarctica is now warming five times faster than the global average temperature trends. This warming means that the sea ice, which naturally increases and decreases during the winter and summer seasons, is sticking around for 100 fewer days per year than it did in 1978.

Land-based ice is melting too, causing the seas to rise and flood coastlines around the world. The Marr Ice Piedmont, the glacier behind our station, used to almost touch Palmer’s backyard when the station was founded in the 1960s. Now the glacier has retreated more than 400 meters, at a rate of about 10 meters every year. I could hear the thunderous sound of it calving when I went out for hikes or skiing and boating trips—it’s a powerful roaring noise that really makes you think about what our human activities are costing us.

gentoo penguins at palmer station

A group of Gentoo penguins prepares to jump into the bay outside Palmer Station. As the climate changes, Gentoo penguins are outcompeting the less adaptable local populations of Adélie penguin. Photo: Emmalina Glinskis

Warming temperatures and melting ice are wreaking havoc on Antarctic ecosystems. For example, Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae), unable to cope with the changing climate, have declined by about 80 percent around Palmer Station. They are beginning to be outcompeted by more adaptable penguins from lower latitudes, like Gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua). Near Palmer, what once was an island covered by a massive Adélie penguin colony is now barren, covered in the mountains of pebbles they brought for mating rituals and left behind over the years. The actual penguin colony takes up just one corner of the island in the present day.

Making matters worse for the penguins as well as other creatures, the glacier behind Palmer contains leftover traces of DDT (a pesticide banned in the 1970s) that may be entering and hurting the food web as the ice melts.

Our Research

The area around Palmer Station is a hub of biodiversity. It is filled with numerous species of seabirds, penguins, whales, seals, fish and small zooplankton like krill. That biodiversity is a big reason why I came to Palmer, as a member of the microbial team of the National Science Foundation’s Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) program. Although microbes seem small and insignificant, they can have a big impact on the rest of the food chain.

Our group from the Ducklow lab was examining the production rates of decompositional bacteria at the base of the ecosystem. These bacteria play a vital role in the carbon cycle. They consume the carbon that one-celled aquatic organisms like phytoplankton breathe out, excrete, or leave behind as detritus. The bacteria metabolize these dissolved organic carbon molecules for energy and release it back as carbon dioxide as the bacteria exhale. This process recycles atmospheric CO2, locking it up in the deep ocean where it can stay for hundreds of years. Thus, these microscopic bacteria perform a huge function in helping determine the oceanic ecosystem response to the cycling of carbon under climate change.

The effects of recent warming on the microbial community are complicated. With less ice cover, more light will hit ocean surface waters. That could lead to more photosynthesis and algal blooms. While that may seem like a good thing, the algae could choke the waterways, as they do in the U.S. in the summertime. When the phytoplankton die, the decomposition bacteria could switch into overdrive, consuming lots of the water’s oxygen and ramping up carbon storage. This would come at the expense of other food webs with larger organisms as oxygen levels plummet and energy flows divert towards phytoplankton. Since these microorganisms form the base of the Antarctic food web, these changes can affect all other levels of the ecosystem, from fish to seals and polar bears. Thus, we want to keep a close eye on how the carbon cycle may shift due to the changing environment.

Inspiring and Important Science

The LTER program exists all over the U.S. and Antarctica, and it has proven extremely valuable in these changing environmental times. No other dataset in the Western Antarctic has a completely uninterrupted timeline of data on community ecology, allowing us to see the bigger picture of biological and climatological change in this vital area.  We go out sampling in the same locations biweekly, giving us a seasonal picture of ecosystem health since the project began in the early 90s. There’s also a LTER cruise in Western Antarctica in January and February that gives us not only temporal consistency, but an important spatial context since the cruise performs science experiments along different transects as it moves down the peninsula.

I hope the public keeps supporting science, especially climate change science, in these difficult political times. Science is based on learning through observations and experiments, and builds its whole discipline on an intense vetting process of fact-based accuracy. Citizens should stand up against measures that aim to wipe out important climatological databases or reports based on data that might  seem unpleasant, yet stand to be strikingly true. Projects like the LTER provide one of the most valuable toolsets to understanding how climate change has and will affect communities around the world. It is the first marker of an era of great change, and may hold the keys to innovate real solutions, politically and scientifically.

Another aspect worth sharing about this place is the inspiring dedication to the vital research being done down here. I see it in each individual who works at Palmer Station.

Emmalina Glinskis in antarctica

The author, Emmalina Glinskis, standing in front of the Marr Piedmont glacier behind Palmer Station. Photo: Emmalina Glinskis

It has been especially encouraging to see how women are increasingly contributing to Antarctic research over the years. I won’t forget the first time I saw one of the stairways at Palmer, which is covered in frames of every scientist and staff member who has spent the winter season at Palmer since the 60s. All men, for decades. Now, the “grantee” group that supports science while I was at Palmer was majority women, and the ratio of men to women on our total staff is 2:1, which is exceptionally high.

As a woman, my experience at Palmer Station has been nothing but respectful and empowering. Every woman I have met here is incredibly hard-working, motivated, thoughtful, adventurous, and independent. We come from all over the U.S. with a wide range of backgrounds—from professional diving in Hawaii, to kicking butt at women’s hockey in New York, to monitoring baboons in Africa—these ladies really rock.

My advice for young women who are itching to get down here: make connections with Antarctic researchers in any way you can. I was lucky in that I knew my principal investigator as a mentor in my department at Columbia, but that doesn’t mean that is the only way. When you engage with science and scientists, you’ll find the world is really small, and those wild connections are not that far away. Remain interested and engaged, be friendly, help others, and they’ll help you get to where you want to be.

The challenges that lie ahead are significant. But the more intelligent and dedicated people who get involved in climate change research, the better off we’ll all be.