Passing the Torch. . .

“We had seen God in his splendors, heard the text that Nature renders.  We had reached the naked soul of man.” – Ernest Shackleton


     Admittedly, this quote is a bit dramatic because our Antarctic expedition did not include a shipwreck at the bottom of the world, as did Ernest Shackleton’s.  But  traveling to Antarctica IS a transforming experience, even in these tamer, more modern times.  I will never forget  the thrill of scientific investigation, the sheer power and beauty of nature, and the camaraderie shared by the 45 scientists and staff who lived together at the isolated Palmer Station.

     But I’ve had my day in the sun (and wind, and snow. . .) so now it’s time to pass my spoon and plastic bag to the next teacher liaison who will make the trip to Antarctica with Dr. Rick and his research team in 2012.

     Her name is Miss Natalie Harr, a.k.a., Nature Nat.  Miss Harr is a first grade teacher at Crestwood in northeastern Ohio.  In past years, Dr. Rick has carefully selected high school and middle school teachers to accompany his research teams, but Natalie represents the first elementary school teacher to travel with him.  Kudos to him for his foresight and good judgment, as Nature Nat will reach the youngest, most impressionable students who are our hope for the future of science.

     I have scrambled after dragonflies, collected moose scat, and climbed the Grand Tetons with Natalie over the past six years, so I can tell you from personal experience that you’re going to love this girl!  She is  hard-working, intelligent, and dynamic — a positive tour de force in education!  In addition, she is surrounded by a cohesive team of savvy teachers, administrators, and community members who will support her trip and bring her level of communication with classrooms in the States to new heights.  Nature Nat will be beginning her blog in October, so stay tuned for another exciting Antarctic season featuring some fresh, new faces and, of course, the perennial star of our show, Belgica antarctica.


-Polar Pat, Bugger Emeritus



The Winners of Polar Ponder #4

Hi Fellow Bloggers,


Our winners for the “Design an Experiment” contest are Mrs. Davis’ 5th grade classes from Kramer Elementary in Oxford, Ohio.  They designed an experiment to find which habitat Belgica antarctica prefer, and submitted an excellent, detailed plan which blew away our judges. 


image from BIGthinkingcapwhoa_color[1]

To view the winning design, click on the following link

Experiment Design 2

Thanks for a job well done, Antarctic researchers!



Farewell, Antarctica

Hi Fellow Bloggers,


Tonight will be my last Palmer Station sunset.  Tomorrow morning, my journey home will begin.  As I reflect on this wonderful opportunity to be dropped into a different career in a different part of the world, I know that my life will be forever changed.  But, I hope it will make a difference in my readers’ lives, as well.  So, I leave you with these parting thoughts. . .

  • Science is a vital activity that requires curiosity, teamwork, and perserverence.  It provides the facts and foundation we need to make good decisions about our environment.  

“If you work hard in life, you can do these types of things and have those adventures.” 


            — Julie, 8th grade Perry Middle School student 
  •  Work toward your dreams!  Above, a very wise student of mine sums up what I hope students will take away from my trip to Antarctica.


  •  Science is international!  Bright, multi-talented young women and men from many cultures become scientists and dedicate their lives to making a difference in the world.
  • “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”          

      -John Muir, American naturalist 2011    

  • We are all connected.  What happens in Antarctica DOESN’T stay in Antarctica.  It affects the entire globe.  In coal mines, canaries are sent down to see if the air is fit to breathe.  If the canary stays healthy, miners can safely remain in the mine.  Antarctica is a bit like that canary.  It’s condition is a harbinger (window to our future) for our own survival in the great mine shaft of life!  The currents and winds influenced by Antarctica shape the climate of the entire world, affecting the way every organism on earth lives and interacts.  By understanding how climate change affects species in Antarctica, we can learn how it will affect humans and our lives.

I have thoroughly enjoyed the privilege of communicating with you all about what it’s like to live and work in Antarctica.  This will be my last regular blog entry, but I’ll check in occasionally as Antarctic connections arise.  Next fall, I’ll pass the torch to a new teacher who will communicate with classrooms about the important work that is taking place in Antarctica. 

I cannot sign off without acknowledging the efforts of many people.  Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”  Here is a brief look at the “giants” who have made my mission possible:  Dr. Rick Lee who has a passion for bringing science to teachers and students,  the excellent staff at Palmer Station who go the extra mile to make science happen, the incredibly intelligent scientists I’ve met who are willing to share their work, my team-mates at Perry Schools who have worked tirelessly to help organize communications and carry on projects in my absence, my family who have encouraged me to follow my dreams no matter how wild, and the students and readers of all ages who have followed and contributed to this blog.  Deepest thanks to you all for your enthusiasm and support.

So, without further “adieu,” I take my leave. 

 heading home 2

 “Palmer Station, Palmer Station, this is Polar Pat,

heading home. . .”

Climate Change in Antarctica

Climate change is happening more quickly and dramatically in Antarctica than in other parts of the world, so it’s a perfect place to study the effects of warming temperatures.

Here is some evidence of climate change at Palmer Station:

climate warming

Records show that  the temperature on the western coast of the Antarctic Peninsula has increased 2.5 degrees C in the in the past 30 years, and the amount of precipitation (rain and snowfall) has also increased.  This has accelerated the retreat of the glacier.


 Our backyard gets bigger by the year!

The glacier has been retreating at the rate of 33 feet/year since 1965.  The red line in the top picture shows where the glacier used to end in 1981 compared to where it ended in 2005. 

marker closeup

As we hike behind the station, there are markers that show where the edge of the glacier used to be.  This marker is from 1996. 


We collect larvae on Norsel Point.  (See photo above.)  In geography, a “point” is understood be a peninsula surrounded on 3 sides by water.  As the glacier melts, however, researchers have found that Norsel “Point” is not connected to land at all — it’s actually an island!


Adelie penguins have lived in the Western Antarctica for over 600 years.  The picture above shows Dr. Rick at Palmer Station in 1981.  (He swears that he’s sporting a full mane under that black hat.  I stay away from that hairy subject.)  Notice the size of the penguin colony. 


photo from Palmer LTER (Long Term Ecological Research) 

This photo is taken within the last ten years.  The green line is a stark reminder that the number of breeding Adelie pairs has decreased from around 13,600 in 1981 to around 2,700 in 2011.

snow on nest

photo from Palmer LTER (Long Term Ecological Research)

Adelie penguins need dry, snow-free places to lay their eggs.  As the temperature rises along the Antarctic Peninsula, the air can hold more moisture.  More moisture means more snow in the summers than there used to be.  Because of this summer  snow, adults must try to keep their young warm in nests filled with ice water (melted snow.)  If the eggs and chicks become chilled, they will die. 


Although the numbers of Adelie penguins are decreasing around Palmer Station, populations are more stable in other parts of Antarctica.  Warm water species such as Gentoos and Chinstraps are actually moving further south along the Antarctic Peninsula, and increasing in population in the Palmer Station area.

03Fur seal[1]

photo from

As the climate warms here, fur seals are also ranging further south on the Antarctic Peninsula.  When Dr. Rick was here in 1981, he saw only one or two fur seals in an entire summer.  This summer (2011), the staff at Palmer Station reports seeing approximately 200 fur seals.

So, that’s the story from the western Antarctic Peninsula. 

It’s remarkable how much change has occured in the region over the past thirty years.  I wonder what will happen over the next thirty?

For now, this is pensive Polar Pat, signing off . . .


Constible, J., L. Sandro, & R. Lee.  (2008).  Climate Change From Pole to Pole.  Virginia:  NSTA Press

Soper, T.  (2000).  Antarctica:  A Guide to the Wildlife, 3rd ed. Connecticut:  The Globe Pequot Press, Inc.

The Glacier in Our Backyard

Hi Antarctica Aficionados!

palmer glacier 2

Some people boast that they have a swimming pool, pond, or woods in their backyards, but how many can say they have an honest-to-goodness glacier?  (See the big, white sheet of ice behind Palmer Station.)

edge 2

We can go out the back door, and walk to the edge of our glacier, called the Marr Ice Piedmont.  It covers Anvers Island, where Palmer is located, and is 2000 feet (600 m) thick in the center.  The glacier is both a beautiful and a frightening neighbor. 

dock & pink glacier 2

It is beautiful on some clear summer nights when the glacier glows “pink.”  The soft light makes me wish I could paint, capturing the lovely colors on canvas.


The glacier’s edge is a beautiful place to camp, too.  I slept in this tent for a few nights.  The first night I was cold, but after that, I learned to how to stay warm — 2 sleeping bags, a down comforter and a hat did the trick for me!  I greatly enjoy the solitude and majestic views.  However, the nights are not quiet.  I can hear the elephant seals blustering on nearby islands and the constant glacial calving (chunks of ice falling into the ocean).  When the glacier calves, there is a deep rumbling that can be heard (and felt) for miles.  A very lucky photographer might actually get to capture the awesome view of collapsing ice and the resulting wave of water on camera.  My friend, Chris, got some great video footage that I have incorporated into a movie that I’ve made.  It is called, “A Day in the Life of a Bugger,” and describes what our insect research team is doing in Antarctica.  Here’s the link, if you’d like to check it out.

The “frightening” aspect of the glacier is that it is unpredictable, as new cracks and crevasses (valleys in the ice) can occur from one day to the next. 


Many of us at Palmer love to hike the glacier whenever we can.  I am always surprised at how “alive” the glacier seems as I climb.  I can see water running under the ice, and hear it trickling. 


The safety team has posted flags to mark a safe path, but we must still be on the lookout for crevasses.  We always hike with a friend, sign up on the destination board to let staff know we’re out, and take our radios when we go up to the glacier.


If there’s a problem, a snow-mobile is parked on the glacier so rescuers will be able to get to the scene quickly.

pat edge 2 

This is a view along of the shore of Arthur Harbor in our backyard.  It is just under the edge of the glacier. 

waterfall edge

I am surprised by how much water flows out from under the ice.  The waterfalls and calving are reminders that this glacier is retreating.  It has been since 1965 — at a rate of about 33 feet per year (10m/year).  This is caused by the warming temperatures in this region of Antarctica.

More on this HOT TOPIC in my next blog.

For now, stay warm, wherever you are.

This is Polar Pat, signing off.

REMUS AND GLIDERS — Penguin Feeding Habitat Investigations in Antarctica

Hello, Antarctica Bloggers-

There is some HIGH TECH science happening at Palmer Station. . .

ian and remus 

Meet Ian (human), and REMUS (autonomous underwater vehicle.)  REMUS stands for Remote Environmental Monitoring Unit.  This self-propelling  instrument for sampling and imaging ocean water is shaped like a torpedo.  It was originally designed for mapping the ocean bottom, but has been transitioned to investigate the full water column.


Here’s the concept. . . The REMUS team works with the bird researchers.  The “Birders” put transmitters on Adelie penguins, taking care to get the satellite tags on and off the penquins quickly and safely.  These transmitters send signals to satellites that track where penguins are diving.

ian on computer

Once the team finds out where penguins are foraging (feeding), they program the REMUS vehicles to travel to the same location to collect water data, such as temperature, salinity, and chlorophyll content.  REMUS’ acoustic sensors also give the researchers a 3-D picture showing the concentration of krill (shrimp-like marine animals that are the primary food source of the Adelie penguin.)  After 5-8 hours, the vehicle returns close to Palmer Station where scientists pick up the instrument.

working on remus

The REMUS Project is truly a team effort.  Technicians from CalPoly, University of Delaware, and Rutgers work on vehicle circuit boards and tune it up for its next underwater mission. 

loading glider

There are also researchers launching other types of autonomous underwater vehicles called Gliders from both Palmer Station and from the research ship, the L.M. Gould, along the Antarctic Peninsula.  The Gliders, unlike the REMUS, do not have a propeller, but instead move through the water by changing buoyancy, getting lighter and heavier in the water.  This up and down motion is translated to forward momentum by wings that are snapped into the side of the Glider.  There are currently 4 gliders deployed in Antarctica.

glider in water

Because of its low power needs, the Glider can stay underwater for weeks at a time, “phoning” in data about penguin habitat to researchers in the U.S. via satellite connections.  That’s a mere 25,000 mile exchange each time it dials up headquarters.  (Yeesh!  Imagine THAT cell phone bill!)  Even though the scientists in Antarctica deploy these Gliders, engineers from Rutgers, New Jersey, are the ones that command and control their flight patterns via satellite.

When all the data for the summer season is compiled from the penguin tags, the REMUS and the Gliders, researchers will have a “big picture” of the food chain, (sunlight – phytoplankton – krill – penguins), diving behaviors of penguins, and how these relate to the breeding success and survival of penguins.

releasing glider

I had the opportunity to ride with the Glider Team as they released a glider into the water.  In our official orange float suits, we looked like a top-notch NASA team with “all the right stuff” as we motored off into Arthur Harbor to deliver our high-tech glider.


Certainly not as glamorous as digging up maggots with a spoon, but then — we can’t ALL be Buggers. . .

Didn’t I tell you there was COOL science going on at Palmer Station?

For now, this is Polar Pat, signing off.


Deepest thanks to Mark Moline for helping put together this blog, and to Ian Robbins, Matt Oliver, and Casey Coleman for sharing their research with me.

Polar Ponder Question #4

Hi Fellow Bloggers,

I talked about a microhabitat (a small, local environment within a larger one — such as the space beneath a rock in the woods) in my last blog.  I mentioned that we found Belgica antarctica larvae under different moisture conditions in moss, sand, gravel, and soil.  One of the questions we’d like to answer is, “what moisture conditions do the larvae prefer?”  As you are all clever, curious scientists, I turn the problem over to you. . .


Design an experiment to answer this question:  Which type of microhabitat does Belgica antarctica prefer — moist or dry?

If you’re ready to take on this polar challenge, submit a design for an experiment to me on this blog by Feb. 2.  Your design should include:  your hypothesis, materials, and procedure.  My team and I will choose the best experimental design and carry it out here in Antarctica.  Then, I’ll post the results for all to see. 


image from


  Remember, it’s never too early to start training to become an Antarctic researcher. . .

Science at Palmer Station

Hi Fellow Bloggers and Blogg-ets,

Antarctica is all about science.  The Antarctic Treaty of 1959 set aside the entire continent for scientific research, so no country can test military weapons or prospect it for oil and minerals.


map from

That is why 31 countries have research stations in Antarctica.  When summer comes, about 5000 scienctists and researchers arrive from all over the world to work at these stations.

Palmer is a small research station.  It houses up to 44 scientists and staff.   The site was chosen because it has:  a great variety of animal and plant life, plenty of fresh water to drink, deep water so ships can dock,  and ice-free land from which research can take place.


photo by Peter Rejcek

At Palmer Station, our team works in the Bio Lab Building (the largest blue and beige building in the picture above), along with about six other teams of scientists.  As weather permits, we work OUTSIDE — traveling in zodiacs to surrounding islands to collect Belgica anarctica.  Back at the station, we work INSIDE .  Here is a brief overview of our work in the science lab. . .


Step 1:  The first thing we do is to put our larvae into the freezer.  They must be kept cold, or they will die.


Step 2:  If you’ll recall, out in the field we scoop up the larvae with spoons, (substrate and all!) and put them into plastic bags.  When we’re ready to extract (remove) larvae from the substrate, we empty our plastic bags onto a framed screen which sits atop a large, rectangular pan of ice and water.    Then we shine a light directly onto the screen.  Contrary to what you or I might choose, the larvae will crawl away from the warm, bright light, and fall through the screen into the icy water.


Step 3:  We spread the substrate containing the larvae over the screen.  Sometimes this gets pretty squishy and soggy, depending on the habitat in which the larvae live.  We must pick the substrate apart carefully and spread it evenly so all larvae are exposed to the light.  Think of it as spreading sausage on a pizza! 

Yuta 1st cleaning

Step 4:  Next, we use a pipette (plastic eye dropper) to suck the larvae from the water and tranfer it to a clean beaker of ice water.  We use a pipette so we don’t hurt the insects.  The larvae are so small and delicate, we would squash them if we tried to pick them up with our fingers.  In this process, called the first cleaning, there’s still a bit of dirt and debris that gets into the beaker along with the larvae.

placing larvae in clean vial

Step 5:  We need clean larvae for our experiments, so we sort them again.  During the second cleaning, we transfer the larvae from the first cleaning into a new container of  ice water.  This time, there is less dirt and debris. 


At each stage, the containers are carefully labeled so we know where they came from.  Keeping careful records is key to being a good scientist.

A huge part of our job at Palmer is to collect larvae.  Dr. Rick’s goal is to have enough insects for conducting experiments here at Palmer, and some to send back to Miami University in Ohio, where he’ll continue his research when we return.


 The “Buggers;”  left to right:  Yuta, Pat, Rick, Alena

Two members of my team are conducting research at Palmer Station.  Dr. Alena Kobelkova, from the Czech Republic, is a molecular biologist studying the response of Belgica antarctica to photoperiods (light and dark cycles.)  She can often be found peering into a microscope and manipulating tiny forceps as she works with tiny insect brains. 

Yuta Kawarasaki, a graduate student working on his phD, is investigating the effect of different microhabitats on the insects’ ability to survive.  A microhabitat is the environment immediately surrounding an insect. 

There is a lot of fascinating science going on at Palmer Station.  Our “insect”-igation is just the tip of the proverbial research  iceberg (no Antarctic pun intended!)  More about these cool studies in another blog. . ..

For now, this is your scientist-on-the-spot, Polar Pat, signing off. . .

Animals of Antarctica

Hello, Fellow Bloggers!

I’ve been to many zoos, watching the animals with fascination through glass walls or bars.  I always feel a bit sorry for them, as they are unwilling tenants in a world created by humans.  In Antarctica, it’s a whole different story.  The world is created by nature, and it’s the humans that are the visitors.

My teammates and I have had the unique opportunity to observe wildlife as we are traveling and working on the islands around Palmer Station.

In Wyoming, I learned the term megafauna.  It just means, “big animals.”  Since almost every animal in Antarctica is bigger than Belgica antarctica (sorry, Dr. Rick. . .) I give you some of my favorite MEGAFAUNA MOMENTS. . .


The Adelie penguin is the classic “little man in a tuxedo.”  There are more Adelies than any other type of penguin in the Palmer Station area.  Though the colonies look large to me, the number of nesting pairs has massively decreased over the past 30 years.  (More about this topic in a future blog. . .) As the climate warms along the Antarctic Peninsula, more and more warm-water penguins, such as Gentoos and Chinstraps,  are moving into the area.


photo from Yuta Kawarasaki  

This little penguin welcomed us to Palmer the first day we arrived.  He was as curious about us as we were about him!  Gentoos have a white “bonnet” on their heads, a reddish-orange bill, and stiff, brush-like tail feathers.   

IMG_1355 II

 photo from Yuta Kawarasaki

Chinstrap penguins are smaller and more slender than Adelies or Gentoos. They have thin black “chinstraps” that cross their chins and run back under their eyes.  Chinstraps are mountaineers that choose to live on rocky slopes, and are actually increasing in numbers.     


photo from Carolyn Lipke

Of all the birds in Antarctica,  the South Polar Skuas would probably be at the bottom of the penguin’s popularity poll.  Dark brown and ominous, they stalk the penguin colonies, looking for eggs and chicks to eat.  If scientists unwittingly tread too close to a skua nest, the birds will dive-bomb aggressively, swooping down and even grazing the tops of the researcher’s heads.


photo form Caroline Lipke

As we walk to our insect collecting sites on the islands, we often see stark reminders of these fierce predators, and the toll they take on their penguin neighbors.


photo from Alca Kobelkova

We had the rare privilege of watching one of the “birders” check a Southern Giant Petrel nest on Humble island.  As the researcher, Donna, measured and weighed the chick, the bond between human and bird was obvious.  The gentle mother bird allowed Donna to handle her chick, and Donna trusted the Petrel even though it had a powerful, hooked beak perfect for tearing flesh.  Giant Petrels are scavengers that feed off of carrion (dead things) such as whale and penguin carcasses.  They often nest near penguins and seals, prefering high rocks from which they can get air under their wings as they take flight.  Only researchers with special permits are allowed to touch the animals, as specified in the Antarctic Treaty which sets aside Antarctica as a continent to be used purely for science. 

weddell seal

We found this Weddell Seal on Cormorant Island.  It is the only one I’ve seen since we arrived.  Weddell seals can dive very deeply and stay underwater for over an hour. 


 The Southern Elephant Seal is the largest seal in the world, with males weighing up to 4 tons.  The two seals above were play-fighting as we worked one day at Humble.  They would swing their great heads at each other in slow motion, and spar until they got tired.  Then they would rest for awhile until the urge to go another round returned.  They are practicing for when they become “beachmasters.”  Then their job will be to guard their harem of  cows and establish dominance over the other males.  The bulls remind me of Archie Bunker.  (Sorry, young bloggers — you won’t understand this reference to a male chauvinist character on an old TV show. . .)  They snort and fart and make bubbling roars through their large proboscises (noses) which are quite loud and can be heard from great distances.  “Edith, bring me another beer!” they seem to bluster.

crabeater 5

Crabeater Seals abound around Palmer.  They like to lay out on the ice floes outside our dorm rooms.  Their faces are dog-like, and their fur is a creamy white in the summer.  In January, they will molt to a darker coat.  These seals are slim and fast.  On land, they can sprint up to 15 mph — as fast as a fit athlete!  And, guess what they eat. . .  Wrong!  Crabeater seals eat krill and other crustaceans.  No one seems to know how they got their name. 

leaopard seal

photo from Rick Lee

Leopard Seals have a spotted coat, which gives them their name.  The head of the Leopard Seal looks like a snake, and it can open its mouth really, REALLY wide.  Leopard Seals catch penguins in the water, bring them to the surface, and shake them until they turn inside out, making them easier to eat.  At Palmer, Leopard Seals have punctured inflatable boats, and I get a little nervous about the way this top predator cruises by the shore, taking a thoughtful look at me as I quickly back away from the water’s edge.


photo from Carolyn Lipke

 This whimsical weather vane at Palmer Station is a tribute to what is arguably the most important critter in Antarctica — the krill.  This keystone species of shrimp-like marine invertebrates feeds on phytoplankton, and is in turn the prey of almost all of the larger organisms in the sea.


 photo from Carolyn Lipke


I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Humpback Whales.   Humpbacks travel in small groups along the coasts, eating krill and crustaceans in the plankton.  (Unfortunately, their predictable routes made them easy prey in the old whaling days, and their numbers are now depleted. . .)   Traveling by zodiak at Palmer, sometimes we hear the tell-tale blowing sound of their exhalations before we see the whales themselves. 


photo from Rick Lee

And last, but definitely not least, comes the animal that occupies my days and has begun to haunt my dreams at night — Belgica antarctica.  Cuteness factor off the charts!

Until we blog again, this is Polar Pat, reporting from Palmer Station. . .

Answer to Polar Ponder #3

Welcome back, Polar Ponder players. . .

First View 4

Last week’s polar ponder question was, “why do you think most of the buildings at Palmer are made of metal?” 



If you didn’t answer, you’re ice cold.

If you said, “I think it has something to do with safety,”  you’re getting warmer.

If you said, “most of the buildings at Palmer Station are made of metal so they won’t burn easily,” or “so that a fire won’t spread from building to building,” you’re red hot!  

Also, John in maintenance tells me that it’s just plain easier to ship the metal down to Antarctica.

So, there you have it, another polar ponder mystery — asked and answered.

Thanks for playing along!