Science journalist Jane Qiu is travelling to the Palmer ecological research station on the Antarctic Peninsula, joining researchers investigating how climate change has affected the region in recent decades. Please check back for her dispatches from the bottom of the world.
Welcome to Punta Arenas, a sprawling city with a population of over 150,000 in the heart of the Chilean Patagonia. Located at the southern tip of South America, Punta Arenas is an excellent gateway to the Antarctic.
It’s 24 November and the docks here are buzzing with anticipation, as scientists from all over the world frantically load ships for their annual research expeditions – often long and in unpredictably harsh conditions – to the Southern Ocean and Antarctic.
I’m on my way to the Palmer ecological research station in the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) – part of the crooked sliver of land in the northwestern Antarctic that protrudes towards South America. Researchers at Palmer are particularly concerned with the ecological effects of climate change, as temperatures in this inhospitable, windswept region are rising faster than anywhere else in the world.
In the last 50 years, annual mean temperatures in the WAP have risen by 2 degrees centigrade, while the winter mean temperature has increased by 6 degrees centigrade – more than five times the global average. 87% of glaciers there are in retreat, the ice season has shortened by nearly 90 days, sea ice no longer lasts all year round – and these changes are accelerating.
During my stay I’ll be accompanying Palmer researchers on their field trips to find out how wildlife in the WAP – from microbes and viruses to penguins and seals – is coping with the rapidly warming climate.
But first I have to get there. I will be boarding the R/V Laurence M. Gould, a 76-metre-long research vessel operated by the United States Antarctic Programme. With a hull strengthened for trips in icy waters, the ship is designed for year-round polar expeditions and can accommodate 26 scientists at a time, for missions up to 75 days long.
We set off tomorrow (25 November), heading south across a notoriously nasty stretch of water known as the Drake Passage. On board will be roughly half a dozen scientists, a few dozen crew, a poet, three journalists (including me), and a whole suite of probes, sensors, tow nets and heavy-duty instruments. In four days’ time, the ship will drop a few of us off at the Palmer station, before the rest of the crew heads off to study the ecosystem in the Southern Ocean.
Wish us good luck! I’ll post again as we cross the Drake Passage.
Jane Qiu is Nature’s retained correspondent in Beijing, and a recipient of the 2010 Marine Biological Laboratory Logan Science Journalism Fellowship.