The Colgate Scene
July 2003

Due South
Adventure and research in Antarctica
 
An abandoned whaling station on fogbound Deception Island, a volcanic island near the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.

During the early morning hours of a typical summer day in the Antarctic Peninsula, Amy Leventer witnessed something she had never seen before in 20 years of travel to the bottom of the world. When she did, her first thoughts were of self-preservation.

Leventer, Emily Constantine '04 and the remainder of the ship's company of the R/V Laurence M. Gould, were on station in the frigid waters of Brialmont Cove when a gigantic slab of ice calved off of the Cayley Glacier. Tons of ice crashed into the cove, sending a 12- to 15-foot wave speeding across the half-mile of water between the newborn iceberg and the research vessel it dwarfed.

"When I saw [the wave], I thought, 'Let's get out of here,'" said Leventer, an associate professor of geology.

"We were on the aft deck, which was about six feet above the water. This was a huge piece of ice, and we could feel the swell picking up," said Constantine, a geology major from Elma, N.Y. "Everybody just looked at each other and scrambled up to another deck. We were about 20 feet above the water and we still thought we were going to get wet because we saw this 15-foot breaking wave coming at the ship."

"It was a humbling experience," Leventer added.

Her crew alert to the danger, the Gould sped away from the glacier. Once conditions settled, the ship returned to its previous monitoring position near the glacier.

"It was the clearest, calmest day imaginable, and we just couldn't believe it," said Leventer. "It's not something you usually get to see, and even if you study that kind of thing, it's unlikely that you'll ever be able to plan for it."

Leventer and Constantine spent three weeks exploring Antarctica last March as part of a National Science Foundation-supported research expedition that included faculty members and students from Hamilton College and other institutions. Leventer first traveled to the world's southern extremity in the early 1980s, when she and Eugene Domack, professor of geology at Hamilton, were graduate students at Rice University. The two geologists began a friendship and working relationship that continues today. (Domack secured the funding for the expedition.)

"We work together on a lot of projects that are sponsored by the NSF. If either of us has a project, we tend to include the other and try to make sure that person is able to bring at least one student with them," said Leventer, who has taken nearly a dozen Colgate students to Antarctica during the past six years.

Emily Constantine '04 and Amy Leventer, associate professor of geology, pose by a glacier near Paradise Harbor, Antarctica. Expedition members share a lighthearted moment in the remains of a British airplane on Deception Island. From left to right: Sarah Doane (Hamilton College), Leventer, Randy Dirzowsky (Queen's University), Sara Drucker (University of Nevada-Reno) and Constantine. [Enlarge]

The canary's song
Many scientists regard Antarctica as "a canary in the mine shaft," Leventer said, motivated by research on climate change. The expedition's mission was to look at the impact of climate change on the Antarctic Peninsula, she said, because climate change appears to be progressing at a much faster rate and at a much greater magnitude on and around the peninsula than in the rest of the world.

"All sorts of things are happening down there," she said. "Surface air temperatures have been increasing at a fairly rapid rate. We've seen the collapse of several of the more northern ice shelves. We've seen changes in the distribution of vascular plants, changes in the distribution of penguins. In our own work, we can see indicators of increased melt water and changes in surface water temperatures."

The Antarctic Peninsula protrudes north from the Antarctic continent for about 800 miles. The dagger-shaped land mass is a harsh, scenic realm of jagged mountains, sea ice, icefalls and glaciers, serrated by deep fjords along its northern and western shores. The peninsula's eastern shore is home to the Larson Ice Shelf, a massive formation that has decreased in size in recent years as icebergs, including one half the size of Rhode Island, have broken free. While some scientists say it's too early to conclude the reduction of the ice shelf is the result of global warming, others say it is evidence of just that. Many scientists believe more giant icebergs will break free as ice sheets melt due to warmer temperatures. (It has been estimated that it could take only 7,000 years for the giant West Antarctic ice sheet to eventually disappear -- a mere blip in geologic time.) Other researchers note that while some ice sheets are shrinking, others appear to be growing -- for reasons not yet understood.


Leventer, right, and marine technician Matt Burke watch the sunrise over the Antarctic Peninsula.
The canary's song in this instance could be a warning about what is happening to the unimaginable amount of water in Antarctica. The ice sheets covering more than 95 percent of the continent -- three miles thick in some places -- hold an estimated 70 percent of the world's fresh water. Studies have shown that since the dawn of the industrial revolution the amount of carbon dioxide in the world's atmosphere has risen rapidly. Many scientists believe carbon dioxide acts as a global warming gas, trapping heat near the planet's surface and causing long-term changes in climate. If warmer temperatures were to melt Antarctica's ice sheet, for instance, researchers estimate that the global sea level would rise by an average of 230 feet, inundating coastal cities such as New York, Hong Kong, Miami, Cape Town or Sydney.

Marine geologist Charlie McClennen, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of geology, has traveled to Antarctica three times, and saw first-hand evidence of warmer conditions on the Antarctic Peninsula when the research vessel he was on sailed into Lallemond Fjord in the early 1990s.

"We were heading south, and had crossed the Antarctic Circle. By following the charts we could see that we could go further south than anyone had gone before because of melting and calving of the glaciers," McClennen said. "We were literally going into uncharted waters, and to know that we had gone further than anyone else had gone -- where no other vessel had ever been -- was a special thrill."

Thrill or not, anyone traveling to the fjord today would find even more open water, he said.

Despite the extreme conditions, the Antarctic Peninsula in the summer is teeming with avian and aquatic life, McClennen said.

"There is a great deal of productivity, with plankton growing in the water, and then the krill feed on the plankton, and the whales, penguins and other things feed on the krill. The whole food chain is very active, and so if you are on deck you can see evidence of that in almost every direction," said McClennen. "You see the seabirds in great variety. You can see seals, penguins and even whales, although not every day. You also see the geological action of the glaciers. There are rocks found in icebergs from the mountains of Antarctica, which have been swept down to the sea by the flow of glaciers. Rather than being a passive, boring place, it is really dynamic. There is a lot going on."

Dawn in the waters off the Antarctic Peninsula. Doane, Dirzowsky and Leventer hiking on a glacier above Palmer Station on Anvers Island off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.

No place to walk away
The iceberg calving off of Cayley Glacier gave members of the expedition the rare opportunity to measure and record water conditions in Brialmont Cove both before and after such an event. At this time, as throughout the journey, Constan-tine was assisting in the Baltic room, a large watertight area with a garage-sized door that opens out to the starboard side of the ship. A winch boom that extended out the door lowered a sensor-laden carrousel -- dubbed "the instrument" -- into the water.

"We learned to use the instrument in about a week," said Constantine. "Usually I was either in the Baltic room putting the instrument into the water or I was at the navigation station orchestrating the whole thing."

The Gould conducted two primary kinds of water sampling on the expedition, Leventer explained, measuring conditions such as conductivity, temperature, dissolved oxygen and suspended sediment at various depths; and collecting core samples of sediment from the sea floor.

The Antarctic Peninsula is a veritable treasure trove for a micropaleontologist such as Leventer, who studies small fossils, including the fossils of diatoms, a form of microscopic algae that, as with plants on land, are extremely sensitive to the environment.


A rock taken from a sample of the sea floor.
"They give information about things such the temperature of the water, the salinity and how much ice there is," she said. "The stratification of the water is a function of wind conditions. When I look through a core sample, I can reconstruct how oceanographic conditions have changed over time."

Leventer believes the hands-on scientific experience students receive by participating in such an expedition is invaluable.

"They get exposed to real science as it happens. We feel like we have some questions that are really worth asking and the students get to be there, see how we address them and some of the difficulties in getting those answers," she said. "When they come back and work on their own projects, they know exactly how a particular sample was taken and all the difficulties involved. They're much more charitable in terms of their assessment of the data and they also work a lot harder on their lab work."

Despite averaging only four to five hours of sleep per night and being on watch for 12 hours at a time, Constantine said the expedition was beneficial to her not only for the research experience, but also for the social interaction.

"Field research in Antarctica attracts a really energetic, interesting group of people," she said. "Everyone was excited to be there. They feel comfortable at sea and you see that displayed in everyone's personality. It creates a social atmosphere that's extremely friendly, and nobody is boring. When you're on watch at four in the morning you're not sitting there silent, you're running around chatting with people, being hyper."

"There are a lot of human growth experiences when you are on a research vessel, and they are of lifelong value," McClennen said. "You learn to deal with people of considerable diversity, as there are going to be biologists, chemists, engineers and people from completely different educational backgrounds on board. Fortunately, now we are even getting people from diverse racial backgrounds into the field of oceanography, which brings about another close personal experience for students that can be avoided on land, because you can walk away. When you're on a ship, there's no place to walk away. When you are a part of team at sea, those are your friends, like it or not."

This summer, Constantine is gaining more research experience working as a marine technician on another NSF-supported expedition on the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer, which is traveling from New Zealand to the Arctic. After graduation next year, graduate school is a likely destination for Constantine -- eventually.

"It was a weird feeling to go from the most interesting and beautiful environment you could possibly imagine to a classroom in Lathrop Hall," Constantine said. "This rare opportunity to participate in research in Antarctica really built on my geology coursework, and sparked my curiosity for Antarctic climate studies. If I have anything to say about it, I will be going back to Antarctica."

Leventer understands how her student feels.

"I just love going there. It's a combination of the beauty and the people that I work with down there," she said. "Every year we bring in new people, but there's always a core of people that I only see when I'm in Antarctica. When I see them I feel as if I had just seen them the day before. After 20 years, you build up these friendships that are very different than anything you have back home."

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