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COLUMN: Cruising to the Antarctic Peninsula — Part 3

Columnist Peter Bursztyn details journey south of the equator as strong winds along with snow and rain alter plans

The following is a column from BarrieToday community advisory board member Peter Bursztyn about his trip south of the equator. This is Part 3 in a series. To read Part 1, click here. To read Part 2, click here.

For three days, the weather was unkind. A particularly unpleasant combination of snow and rain blew at us by strong winds.

Many shore expeditions — using large rubber inflatable boats — were cancelled. I’m sure some folk were relieved. Nobody want to miss a shore adventure among the delightful penguins, but if it gets called off because of bad weather... 

One evening, the decks were covered by three to four centimetres of wet snow.

Occasionally, the weather gave us a glimpse of the Gerlache Strait’s spectacular scenery. Glaciers cover dark, forbidding rocks, which become visible when they slope too steeply for snow or ice to cling.

We did see two new Seabourn ships passing us heading south while we were going north. The previous day we glimpsed a Ponant ship in a neighbouring bay. This afternoon, we encountered a giant Holland America ship. Antarctic waters are becoming crowded – perhaps too crowded.

When “outings” are cancelled, Seabourn doubles up on their “conversations.” These are talks given by various experts — geologists, biologists, climatologists, historians, environmentalists, etc. Up to now, all of these have been fascinating. Some gave me new information, some connected pieces of information which I had not thought were related.

Recent “conversations” have been about krill, icefish, meteorites, physics, astronomy and fossils. No, these topics are not connected scientifically to each other, nor are they even about Antarctica. Some science is carried out here simply because this is the best place for it.

Around one-quarter of all meteorites are found in Antarctic. Why? Meteorites are not attracted to Antarctica in any way. But dark meteorites stand out against the brilliant white landscape, making them easy to spot. Some meteorites have come from the moon and a few originated on Mars. These have given geologists an insight into the composition of both celestial bodies.

Fossil hunters are interested in Antarctica because 550 million years ago, it was part of Gondwana, a supercontinent containing around 65 per cent of all the landmasses on Earth, before the tectonic plates underneath migrated to their present positions.

That’s why what is now Antarctica shares fossil types with those found in South America, India and Africa. Fossils found here help archaeologists connect pieces of their puzzles. Of course, Antarctica is largely ice-covered and inaccessible, but parts of the peninsula are being searched.

Icefish live at temperatures which should cause them to freeze solid. They don’t freeze because an antifreeze compound in their blood – a glycoprotein – protects them. Medical science is interested in this compound and how it works. These fish also lack red blood cells. Enough oxygen is dissolved in their plasma to supply their (slow) metabolism.

Animals in warmer environments have higher metabolic rates and need more oxygen. But at higher temperatures, less oxygen can dissolve in plasma. The ability to deliver large amounts of oxygen is why hemoglobin-filled red blood cells evolved — another interesting science topic.

One of the largest, most sensitive neutrino detectors has been built in Antarctica. It uses the enormous volume of ice here to trap and detect these subatomic particles whizzing around the universe – information atomic physicists and astronomers are eager to have.

Astronomers built a large telescope on the Antarctic plateau. At high altitude, there is much less atmosphere above the telescope, helping it form a clear, sharp image. The very dry polar atmosphere also helps imaging. The electronic detector of this telescope, a sophisticated version of the one in your camera, and electronic circuitry must be kept cold. Another advantage offered by Antarctica.

Last but definitely not least, are krill. This is a creature few people have heard of, but krill are a key component of oceanic food chains – not just the Southern Ocean.

Let’s start with algae, single-celled plants, which convert dissolved carbon dioxide into carbohydrate, protein and fat. These microscopic creatures made Earth habitable for animal life by releasing oxygen into the atmosphere billions of years ago. 

Antarctic algae grow under and attached to sea ice, using solar energy. Antarctic krill – Euphausia superba – are specialized at winkling algae out of the ice. Other species of krill are filter feeders, trapping tiny marine plant and animal life for food.

Krill are shrimp-like animals, the size of your little finger, swimming in immense numbers in all oceans. Antarctic swarms contain 10,000 to 30,000 creatures per cubic metre. There are 380 million tonnes of Antarctic krill in the Southern Ocean — roughly the same as the weight of all of the humans on Earth. Of course, there are more krill species in other oceans.

Krill are food for baleen whales (one of which, the blue whale, is the largest animal ever to have lived on Earth!), many seals, squid, penguin (and other birds), some fish, and part of toothed whales’ diet. Even animals that do not eat krill, such as orca, depend on them indirectly by eating animals (fish, penguins) which feed on krill.

Unexpectedly, krill help mitigate climate change. The algae they eat absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Krill shed their exoskeleton (shell) every 10 to 14 days. Millions of tonnes of this material accumulates on the ocean floor every year, taking its embedded carbon out of circulation.

Antarctic krill are becoming victims of climate change. Dependent on sea ice for food, global warming reduces their resource. Also, krill eggs and larvae need cold water to thrive. Warming seas reduce their reproductive success.

The talks on board are well attended. These people will return home and spread the “science gospel” to others who have become skeptical about science following the recent “assaults” mounted by conspiracy theorists.

We just arrived at South Georgia, a small island 1,000 kilometres east of the South American coast. The weather here is atrocious with winds of 100 km/h kicking up spray from every white-capped wave. To make it even worse, it's raining. 

Even though the temperature is a relatively warm 5 C, visibility through the combined rain and spray is poor. The dramatic mountains of South Georgia are just misty shadows. The weather is too rough to launch our rubber inflatable boats — we will not be landing here today.

As a consolation prize, we were treated to “Iceberg Alley,” an “endless” parade of icebergs, carved into fantastical shapes by wind and water.

Yesterday, we saw the world’s biggest iceberg, the imaginatively named A23a and apparently twice the size of New York City. More relatable to us, its length is the distance from Barrie to the north edge of Toronto. It is around 30 metres tall (so, 300 metres thick since 90 per cent is under water) and beautifully shaped, too.

In the distance we see South Georgia, shrouded in mist.

Meanwhile, wandering albatross, giant petrel and Antarctic shag (cormorant-like) fly around the ship, looking for dinner. Humpback and fin whales are here, too, but you see little of these massive animals above water.

Peter Bursztyn is a self-proclaimed “recovering scientist” who has a passion for all things based in science and the environment. The now-retired former university academic has taught and carried out research at universities in Africa, Britain and Canada. As a member of BarrieToday’s community advisory board, he also writes a semi-regular column. If you have a question Peter might be able to answer or something you’re curious about, email us at [email protected].