Saturday, March 1, 2014

Antarctica Day 11: King George and the South Shetland Islands

Posted via email from satellite phone on-board the Ioffe. Photos will come
when the voyage is over!


Overnight we covered a lot of ground on rougher seas than we'd seen in a
while (although, for some reason, I was not at all seasick this time) to
make it all the way to the South Shetland Islands. The views out the window
were suddenly significantly different than the pristine and Awesome (in the
sense of awe-inspiring) Ice World that we had been in. Instead of
glacier-covered peaks rising BAM from the water's edge, these were big wet
lumps of rock with some snow on them swimming in grey waters. The pristine
alien isolated wild of the Great White Wilderness was gone. In its place was
a small town of scientific research stations, where "research" was sort of
questionable, as a lot of the bases are there more as a technicality to give
their host nations voting rights at the table of the Antarctic Treaty than
to do really significant research. Maybe they were doing legit work, hard to
tell since they wouldn't let us in to see anything interesting.

Kayaking was cancelled again for high winds. The fog was thick and
visibility poor. We had brief moments of sun while waiting in line for
zodiacs in the morning, but it quickly disappeared.

We went ashore to check out the research stations, none of which would let
us in, none of which seemed keen on communicating their science, which
really left a bad taste in most of the passengers' mouths. I was able to
sneak into the Chinese Great Wall base with the Chinese group, but they
didn't let any of us (including the Chinese students) past the living room.
The only interesting, beautiful thing there was the Russian Orthodox church
up on a hill overlooking the sea, an oasis of the beautiful and sacred in a
trash heap built supposedly in the name of science, but more probably in the
name of a seat at the table of future mineral rights land grabs.

Despite the presence of our marine biologists on board, the trip was overall
pretty negative on the impact of science in Antarctica. The bases we saw
were, in many cases, dumpy eyesores with discarded junk everywhere. Little
if any effort was made to communicate the impact and significance of the
science being done at the bases. We kept hearing from the trip leaders how
the tourism industry had forced many of the science bases to "clean up their
acts" somewhat, in that, for example, oil drums were no longer left leaking
out on the ground, and at least they waited until the tourist ships were out
of sight to dump their trash into the ocean. I think if you were to poll the
passengers of our ship whether or not scientists should be allowed in
Antarctica, the answer would have been no. It was pretty sad. I tried to
talk about the key science that I am aware of that has been done in
Antarctica that has been critical for our understanding of the environment
and awareness of the urgency of environmental protection, but at none of the
bases did we hear about any of it. Instead we heard stories of base after
base being established as government-sponsored land grabs doing
pseudoscience like playing different types of music to penguins or observing
seals in areas outside the range of the seals supposedly being observed in
order to get a seat at the Treaty table.

It sort of set off a philosophical crisis in my own head. I want to return
to Antarctica to do research. But would be returning with a research project
set up more as an excuse to return to Antarctica than to do anything with a
practical impact. I know many scientists do the same, whether in Antarctica
or other nice field sites. We are genuinely interested in the work we do,
genuinely interested in understanding something about the world, but in many
cases who the hell cares? Even the whale research: why do we care about
whales? They are cool, and they are big, and they are intelligent and
elegant and blablabla, but how significant are they in the big picture of
Earth? Does studying them justify the carbon footprint of the research? The
only thing I could think of was that whales are vectors for nutrient
transport to less productive places on the planet, and therefore I suppose
have a significant impact on the global food web and chemical cycling. But
studying microbial mats in the ice lakes? Really cool, fascinating stuff.
Time capsules in evolution. Extreme life. Sub-ice Antarctic microbial
freaking mats. But unless they are more significant than a novelty for a few
of us mat nerds, why do we care? The environmental impact of science--just
from the carbon footprint of getting to and working in Antarctica alone, not
to mention the chemicals and plastics and supplies used for the research--is
significant. Are we making things worse by trying to understand the place?
Am I a bad person for wanting to do research in Antarctica?

It was something to mull over as the ship continued to another spot: Penguin
island, a snowless cinder cone with a large penguin colony situated in a
scenic location surrounded by glaciers that looked a lot more like
Antarctica than the base had. I was looking forward to going out one last
time in the kayaks, but again the winds were too high. They ended up being
too high even to launch zodiacs, so that was it, the end of our excursions,
the end of our time in Antarctica, and the ship sailed away, north into to
the Drake Passage, with a ship full of bummed passengers.

That evening we had a Chinese tea ceremony followed by a champagne toast to
Antarctica, and a talent show where we all translated our disappointment
into raucous song and dance and impromptu limerick competitions. The sun set
over the sea, with no more Antarctica in sight.

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