First project publication – Jessica

The southernmost known moss bank in the world! At Lazarev Bay, Alexander Island, Antarctic Peninsula.

30th August 2013

We have exciting news from the moss bank (our version of the coal face!): yesterday our first project journal paper was published in Current Biology and was also selected by the journal for pre-publicity.  As we knew a while ago that publication was planned for August (a.k.a the Silly Season in journalism) we were sat on tenterhooks waiting for an invitation onto breakfast TV. Global events have overtaken the news agenda (we’re still waiting Suzanna and Bill!), but we received requests for interviews from Live Science (15 Facebook shares and one Tweet to date!) and the Voice of America. A journalist from Grist.org is writing a piece as we speak and the story also featured on the websites of the Universities of Exeter and Cambridge.

Having drawn the short straw I was first in line to face the media frenzy – which generated feelings somewhat akin to sitting an exam: pre-event cramming even though ones brain can’t absorb anything, then an adrenaline fuelled telephone interview which was instantly forgotten except the parts when one may have said something stupid. However, the questions were fair and interested and the interviewers were keen to get some clear answers in order to fill their daily quota by writing about our work. Having never had any press interest in my previous papers, with the occasional request for a reprint from fellow scientists and the citation of the papers in other people’s work the only signs that your months of work is being read at all, it is quite a change to actually be asked about what we did, why we did it and what it showed!

This paper was based on a moss section taken from Lazarev Bay, Alexander Island (69o 22’ S, 071o 51’ W) and is the southernmost known moss bank or substantial peat accumulation in the world. We found that multiple indicators of biological productivity (moss growth rate, organic matter accumulation, carbon isotope values and testate amoebae populations) all increased rapidly from the 1960s onwards – synchronously with known changes in climate that have occurred in the region. We found that these rapid changes were unprecedented in the 150 years that the moss bank has been accumulating and this demonstrated that the ecosystem is sensitive to climate change. This is important both with regard to the ecology of the Antarctic Peninsula now and in the future, but also suggests that in the work that we are doing analysing the deeper and older cores, that by using our measured proxies we should be able to identify any other substantial environmental changes that have occurred further back in the past.

Summer update

Six months have passed since we were enjoying the wind and rain of the Antarctic summer on Green Island.  After a few days of decidedly warmer weather sailing back north, including a one-off night-time outdoor cinema on the back of the ship as the bright stars twinkled above in the pitch black sky of the south Atlantic, the three of us were all mightily relieved to arrive back on dry land in Montevideo and to free our minds and stretch our legs by paddling in the warm water of the River Plate before the long flight home. Eighteen months of white landscapes had not been enough for Ash, who headed off to the Alps whilst Matt and Jessica happily returned to the normality of daily life and the re-introduction of personal choice over meal times.

Our precious samples and cargo had an even longer journey home, travelling back to Rothera (the main British Antarctic Survey base) on the Antarctic Peninsula, before being transferred to the RRS Ernest Shackleton for the long steam north to the UK, safely arriving in Cambridge in May.  Next week Jessica will retrieve them from the deep freeze and begin sampling them for analyses to start.

In the months since the trip took place, work has been carrying on a pace in the labs in Exeter and Cambridge.  Matt has been spending hours at the microscope looking hopefully for testate amoebae (see our website for an introduction to these organisms) and also for tephra layers.  Tephra layers are accumulations of tiny fragments of volcanic origin that can collect in moss accumulations and peat bogs following a local volcanic eruption.  They provide an independent mechanism of dating and cross-referencing between our cores and other similar local records such as lake sediment cores.

In Cambridge, Jessica has been extracting cellulose from the cores collected during the 2012 field season on Elephant Island and Ardley Island.  The Elephant Island cores are the longest and oldest in the region and thus really important to building up a long term picture of environmental change.  The Ardley Island cores are not particularly long, but have the advantage of coming from a locality where other scientific work has been carried out. Close to Ardley Island, on King George Island in the South Shetland Island group, there are a number of research stations and with an air strip carrying regular flights to South America it is one of the most accessible points of Antarctica. Thus we have some of the best and longest meteorological records from Antarctica, along with analysis of sediment and marine cores that we can compare with our Ardley Island data. By combining information from multiple sources and using the multiple proxies that we are (cellulose, testate amoebae etc.) we stand the greatest chance of interpreting our complex data accurately.

Finally, if you’d like to read more, then an article about our work and time on Green Island has just been published in the summer edition of the NERC Planet Earth magazine:

http://www.nerc.ac.uk/publications/planetearth/2013/summer/sum13-moss.pdf

Daily routines #3: science

5th February 2013

Over the month we have been blogging from HMS Protector, we have purposefully tried to keep our posts light-hearted and focussed on the more day to day aspects of a fieldwork trip such as this to give you loyal readers a tangible flavour of the trip.  But as this will be our final post from the field, it might be worthwhile to refresh your minds about why exactly we have come all this way.

 Whilst it might have sounded like our time away has been all fun and games (and eating) we have of course been quietly beavering away on various aspects of the project.  These range from more practical issues such as sorting and preparing all the field kit to ensure that our limited time in the field was a success, to more academic pursuits such as writing a journal paper based on some early results that we already have from a moss bank even further south than Green Island.

 What it all boils down to is climate change.  Temperature data recorded at bases up and down the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula shows that it is one of the most rapidly warming parts of the planet, with temperature rises of as much as 3°C over the past 50 years.  The effects of this warming have been widespread; collapse of major ice shelves, retreat and acceleration of glaciers and an increased contribution to sea level rise.

If the warming continues, these impacts can only be expected to get worse.

The causes of this warming are complicated and still not fully understood, but relate to changing patterns of atmospheric pressure, increasing strength of the prevailing westerly winds and the extent of sea ice.  Ultimately, these are driven by ozone depletion, increasing greenhouse gas concentrations and volcanic activity, with the two former being more important.

Whilst more is understood about these very recent and current changes, much less is known about how climate has changed in the region in the longer-term past, over the last few thousand years.  That is where we come in.  The work we will do in the lab of over the coming years on the cores we have collected (from Green Island this year and other sites last year) will produce ‘proxy’ data that tell us about climate. 

Here are the three key questions (known as hypotheses in science-speak) we are asking during this project:

1.    Is the recent temperature rise unprecedented over the past few thousand years?

2.    Is the spatial pattern of change over the Antarctic Peninsula region the same now as it was in the past? (hence the need for lots of sites strung out on a north – south transect)

3.    Are plants responding to the recent warming by increased growth rates and altered seasonal growth patterns?

With the sites that were visited in 2012, there was one big hole in our transect and that was Green Island.  As you know by now, we successfully plugged that hole a couple of weeks ago, so it is now full steam ahead with the hard grind of lab work and data analysis that will eventually, we hope, provide us with answers to our questions.

 We are now only a few hundred miles from where we will fly back to the UK. The sea and ship are now both calm but we had some distinctly bumpy days coming over Drake’s Passage and further north.  With my newly acquired sea legs and several doses of sea-sickness tablets I was able to avoid a repeat of the first Drake’s Passage crossing (see earlier blog!) but was still laid up for a few days feeling decidedly groggy.

As we approach the end, it is natural to reflect on what has gone before.  I won’t mince my words; at times it has been exceedingly difficult for us both to be away from home and our loved ones for such a long period of time. Given the last four or five days I am also really looking forward to being on solid, dry land again too!  But also, it has been a privilege to visit such a beautiful, vast, imposing and yet fragile place.  Whilst Jessica was also on last year’s field trip, it has been very useful for me to understand first hand the sites I have been working on for the past six months and will be for the next two years.  Our work is by its very nature, somewhat destructive (though of course we do everything in our power to minimise this) and there are now quite a few holey moss banks dotted around the Antarctic Peninsula.  It is only fair to them that we now work hard to extract the maximum amount of scientific gain from our precious cores as possible.

As I said above, this will be our final blog from the field.  We’ll continue to post stories throughout duration of the project on various aspects of our lives as researchers, but these will be less frequent.  Thank you so much for reading our blogs over the past month and please keep checking back or get in touch if there is anything you would like to ask.  Our project website, if you haven’t seen it already is http://geography.exeter.ac.uk/antarctica

 

Daily routines # 2: meal times

29th January 2013: Back at sea and leaving the Antarctic Peninsula

7am.  Midday.  7pm.  [Unless it’s a Sunday which means slightly later breakfast, or a reversed modified Saturday which may or may not mean brunch instead of lunch, but don’t get me started on that!!]

These are the key times by which our days on the ship are ruled: meal times.  As soon as we’re out of one meal, our thoughts turn to the time remaining until the next.  “Only four hours and twenty three minutes till dinner!” or similar is a common refrain from our cabins.

We’ve heard from a few sources that the kitchen works on a daily budget of only £2.30 per person per day and what they achieve on that is an absolute miracle.  The food on board is excellent, diverse and nutritious and I’m sure that as much as any of the crew, it is the chefs that keep the ship functioning normally.  I feel especially privileged; because I am vegetarian (the only one on board as far as I can tell), I get my own personal meal cooked for me every night.  I’m massively grateful for this.

Restraint is a personal quality that is extremely necessary in the canteen.  With the potential to have a full blown fry up and two cooked meals (including a pudding in the evening) every day, it’s easy to see how you could quickly pile on the pounds if not careful.  Hence the importance of sticking to daily routine #1!  Picking the healthy options is quite possible though and I rejoice in piling on the fresh veg when available and am full of glee when a new batch of crisp fresh apples magically appears after over three weeks on board.  It was a sad day for sure when, last week, the salad that accompanied lunch every day ran out L

As well as their good taste in music which often floats through from the kitchen, the chefs in particular work miracles with potatoes.  Never have we known such diversity of flavour and texture from the humble spud from one day to the next.  If they ever leave the Navy, we think the chefs should start a potato restaurant cum nightclub.  I’m sure there must be a gap in the market for such a thing and we will be first in the queue!

So meal times are something that we always look forward to.  But perhaps over the next couple of days we may end up skipping a few.  We’ve almost said goodbye to Antarctica and are on the verge of heading back north across Drake’s Passage.  You remember that from last time?  How I was sick even though it was actually quite calm?  Well, this time the weather forecast is bad, so who knows what might happen!

Thoughts from Jessica

26th January 2013

Jessica with a prize core of Antarctic moss

So, the end of my fourth Antarctic adventure is in sight, with no-one (except possibly my immediate family) more surprised than me that as a home and land-loving being this is the path that my life has taken over the past five years. We have dried out and packed away all the camping and field equipment in preparation for its return to Rothera ready for another field party to use next year. Our precious samples are in the freezer (next to the lamb joints so hopefully we won’t see fried moss on the menu anytime soon) and the science cargo is indexed, and labelled with a complex combination of letters and numbers which means that it should end up in Cambridge in June. The ship is now focussed on completing some hydrograpical surveying and in a few days we will be heading north and really be on the home strait.

Yesterday we were given the opportunity to give a presentation on the ship to explain the rationale behind all our work and also show some photos from the fieldwork that we have completed with the support of the ship, both this year and last year, which was a great opportunity to thank everyone on board for their hard work on our behalf, and also give them a chance to ask us questions.

The presentation also made me think again about our project in a wider context. Having been so focussed for a long time on succesfully getting samples from Green Island, and wondering if we would spend five weeks on the ship without getting off if the ice was bad again; whilst also dwelling on the fieldwork season we had last year, and spending longer than is probably healthy counting down the days until we fly home; it was good to step back to think about why we are here and what is the justification for the significant expense in terms of resources and time that it has taken to get our samples and data. Hopefully we managed to convince our audience that investigating environmental changes that have happened over the recent past (hundreds to thousands of years) is critical to the understanding of both the climate at the moment, and how it might change in the near future. Even if these changes do not seem to be affecting our lives at the moment, they are very likely to have a significant impact on the lives of our children and grand-children. Although coming here to collect moss-peat cores when there are large expanses of much more accessible peat in many regions of the world (including the UK) may seem extravagent, as the Antarctic Peninsula is both particularly sensitive to warming (the presence of lots of ice currently just below freezing point, means that a 1C temperature rise here may have a more significant impact here than the same temperature rise in the UK) and is known to have undergone very rapid warming over the past fifty years, it is a particularly important region to study. In addition, although it may seem very remote, environmental changes that occur here may well impact on all our lives, particularly through the potential rise in sea level.

We are hugely privileged to be able to come and work in this exceptional region of the world, which although it is becoming more accessible to a small number of people (as evidenced by the cruise ships that we have seen, and the commercial flights that are now operating between South America and the South Shetland Islands), is still largely untouched, and even unexplored, with vast expanses showing no visual evidence of human influence. However, evidence from ice-cores, atmospheric measurements, photographs of the position of glacier tongues and chemical (isotopic) signals that we have measured in our moss cores show that man really has had a global influence, with, for example, evidence of the industrial revolution (which resulted in increased burning of fossil fuels, and consequently a change in the atmospheric gases) clear to see even here in the Antarctic, thousands of kilometres away from any industrial heartlands.

This will be my last trip to this region as our field work is now complete with instead many hours, days and weeks in the lab ahead of us. I’ve been lucky enough to see some incredible sights: icebergs, whales, penguins, seals, sun-sets; I’ve camped and lived in unique locations and worked with many skilled and dedicated individuals who enable work in this dangerous and unforgiving region to be carried out safely and effectively whilst also in the most environmentally sensitive ways possible. I have many memories of Antarctica that I’m sure will stay with me for ever, and I sincerly hope that for generations to come the same sights, sounds, smells and experiences remain possible as the wonder of the region is preserved forever.

Success on Green Island!

HMS Protector disappears in the mist leaving the shore party alone

We are now back on board the ship after a successful four days and nights on Green Island.  Such was our singular focus on getting to Green, after last year’s failed attempt due to dense sea ice, it is a big relief to have cores and samples in the ship’s freezer, themselves now on an even longer journey home than us, via Rothera research station and the RRS Ernest Shackleton to arrive back in the UK in about June.

It was only down to the skill and persistence of Ash and the Protector crew that we found ourselves on Green in the first place.  The landing took place in an icy sea surrounded by vast bergs being shifted about by 25 knot winds.  Added to this,GreenIsland is also in an area of previously uncharted waters!  The coast of the island is pretty rocky, with no flat beaches and only steep snow cliffs on the sheltered southern coast.  So in the end we had to nudge up to the slightest of flatter sections of rock and get the kit off the boat as quickly as possible while holding in position against a cross current.  And there was a lot of kit!  As well as our coring and sampling gear and all the obvious stuff like tents, food, clothing and water, we were also carrying enough spares to last us an extra month in case the conditions worsened and a pick up was not possible (around 500 kg in total).

So at 6 pm last Saturday we found ourselves alone on the island with HMS Protector slowly disappearing into the mist as it chugged back northwards.  This was where Ash was in his element, getting things done efficiently and in the right order so that by half past eight, we had a fully functioning camp on a pristine patch of level snow and were enjoying our first meal in the slowly warming tent.  We could see the moss banks up on the slopes above us, but saved exploration of those for the next day.

Moss bank on steep slope

For the next two days we toiled away in torrid conditions.  Whilst not all that cold temperature wise (about 5°C on average during the day), it rained (yes, typically whilst our families back home were being snowed in, we had good old drizzle; 35 mm in 2 days!) almost continually and the wind caused hands and feet to get quickly chilled.  Not to be deterred though, we took a range of surface moss samples that will help us to understand more about the current growth conditions and build this into our interpretation of the core data.  We also took two cores, one of a fraction under a metre and another of about 70 cm.  We’ll try to get these dated as soon as we can, but a rough guess is that they will be around 1000 years old at the base, providing us with a continual record of change between now and then, once we get around to analysing samples in the lab!  Combined with the other sites that were cored during last year’s field season, we now have a complete transect of locations stretching the length of the Antarctic Peninsula.

With the majority of the work completed in the first two days, the weather did us a favour and improved dramatically for the third day, when we had a fabulous time slowly wandering around the island, exploring and taking far too many photos.  Apart from our temporary little settlement, the island is the permanent home to a range of bird life, mainly skuas and blue-eyed cormorants.  The cormorants live in a colony on the north coast and were raising fluffy chicks the same size as the adults themselves. Unlike the skuas, they were gentle and calm.  They were also extremely elegant in flight.  The skuas, on the other hand, ruled the roost.  They squawked aggressively and if we got too close, they would swoop down over our heads in a clear show of aggression.  It was quite disconcerting!  For a while, we thought they were getting used to us and seemed to calm down a bit, but on the final day they seemed even worse, as if they were doing their best to get us off their island!

And so it was that, once we had packed up camp and moved everything back down to the shore, the last few hours were spent sat up on the high rocks peering out to the north between the towering icebergs for Protector to come back into view.  In the end the pick-up was remarkably smooth and problem free, but over the course of our time on the island we had been a little concerned that it might not all be so easy.  The sea was chock full of hundreds of icebergs that were extremely active, shifting on the winds, tides and currents, grating into each other with deep roars.  At times great chunks of ice would spontaneously collapse into the sea as the bergs slowly melted, causing sweeping waves and a period of adjustment whilst the iceberg rebalanced itself.  This slow process caused some wonderfully diverse shapes and surface textures to the bergs and I was constantly astonished by the subtle range of colours they exhibited.

We now have two more weeks on the ship until we arrive in Montevideo for our flights back to the UK.  The second week will be spent crossing back north across Drake’s Passage and up along the coast of South America, but before then we will continue to wind our way through the stunningly beautiful and scientifically fascinating area that is the Antarctic Peninsula.

Deployment to Green Island

This came in from Matt on Saturday 19th January…

Last year’s trip to Green Island failed becaue of too much ice. All we could do was point and go somewhere else instead. Hopefully the field party are having better luck this year … we’ll know in a week or so!

We have just had the nod that we’re being deployed onto Green Island this afternoon, most likely for 5 or 6 days.  This is obviously great news for the project.  So there will be a blog blackout for a week or so and I sincerely hope the next one will be all about our fantastic new cores!

A botanically inspired blog from Jessica

Life goes on…. just about. Antarctic hair grass (Deschampsia antarctica)

Although it was mid-winter when I left home earlier this month (and now the garden is reportedly snow covered) there were already signs of spring as the snow drops and daffodils were poking through the soil.

Here in Antarcticait is mid-summer, yet, despite that, most of the ground on the islands all around us is still snow covered. In fact, there has been a particularly heavy snow fall this year, with much more extensive snow cover than this time last year (and reportedly several years prior to that). Many of the limited snow and ice free areas on land are covered by penguin colonies where hundreds / thousands of birds gather to build their stoney nests, lay their eggs and rear their chicks in the hopes that the relative safety of numbers will reduce the risk of chick predation.

So, this does not leave a whole lot of space for plant life, which to be successful requires pockets of land that are usually snow/ice free in the summer, and also areas which are not regularly disturbed by penguins, seals or other animals as the plants grow slowly, over many years.

However, on an afternoon trip to Cuverville Island yesterday when the BAS team was asked to join the inspection team there was plenty of exciting botanical life to be enjoyed (and a few thousand penguins too!!). As soon as we stepped off the small boats and on to land there was the overwhelming smell of penguin, but amongst the rocky snow free outcrops we immediately spotted a haven of green: around 2m x 2m of moss (Sanionia uncinata – a moss which tends to form low growing carpets in fairly wet areas). In addition, although there was none on the bare rocky areas around, growing through the moss was the Antarctic hair grass (Deschampsia antarctica), which, to be honest, looks like a standard UK grass, but as one of only TWO native flowering plants in Antarctica it is always a good spot.

This grass-through-moss scenario highlights one of the many (in my mind at least!) interesting properties of moss: not having roots and usually getting the required moisture and nutrients needed to grow from rain, snow and occasional animal droppings, moss can establish in protected crannies in rocks without any soil. However, the Antarctic hair grass, like any grass at home, does have roots, which need to be kept moist and aerated, usually in some form of soil. So, it is likely that after several years of moss growth on bare rock, organic matter (dead and broken down moss) accumulated, into which the grass could establish and grow. As the grass grows taller and faster than the moss it may well now out compete the moss and take over the cranny in the rocks completely – so it would be interesting to see the progression in a few years time.

When I was able to drag myself away from this initial plant-based excitement, we walked further around the  rocky coast of the  island, and it was evident that there were fairly extensive areas of moss growing 100-150m up on the steep cliff faces, giving them a green covering, perhaps 10 to 15 cm in depth – again in areas that were not accessible to, or disturbed by, penguins. It is an interesting question to ponder about what exactly are the critical factors for the establishment of the moss, and also how much moss there might be growing in the areas still covered by snow (and thus invisible to us). Amazingly, when there is only a thin covering of snow, enough sunlight can penetrate through and provide sufficient energy for some species of moss to photosynthesise (fix energy and grow), thus extending their growing season slightly beyond the short snow-free Antarctic summer.

Around the penguin colonies themselves there were some bright orange and black lichens growing on the rocks, possibly in response to the nutrient input from the penguin poo. Lichens are fascinating, complex organisms each comprised from a combination of plant + fungi +/- algae! Amongst the rocks we also saw the two largest (I think) native terrestrial animals of Antarctica – not seals or penguins as you might think, but wingless midges and springtails – both of which are under 5 mm in length!

To complete our afternoon on the island Ash Fusiarski (our field assistant or “the chosen one” according to Matt’s Mum!! ) did what he does best and led us all on a steep, snowy (safe!) walk up to the 241 m summit of Cuverville Island, which was warming work, occasionally punctuated by the booming noise characteristic of an ice fall in the vicinity, but well rewarded with spectacular views of the surrounding islands and mountains. It also enabled us to collect a pristine snow sample for isotopic analysis, and, not to be outdone, there was more botanical life at the top. On a small area of snow-free rocky ground both mosses and lichens had established: demonstrating their amazing capacity to grow in what seems to humans very harsh conditions: cold, windy and exposed with very little liquid water or nutrient input.  

We then happily glissaded down  the hill  (slid down  the snow on our bottoms) and headed back to ship after a brilliant afternoon – thanks to FCO team and all of the ship’s company for making it happen and enabling me to remind myself how fascinating Antarctic plant life really is.

Daily routines # 1: the gym

HMS Protector heads southwards on the Antarctic Peninsula

17th January 2013

I wouldn’t say we’d become institutionalised quite yet (though Ash does sit in the same seat for EVERY meal!), but we’ve certainly formed a number of daily routines.  These give our days structure and meaning.  It’s not like we’re short of work to do, with plenty of journal papers to read and write amongst many other things.  But there is something strange about day to day life taking place within the confines of the ship that seems to demand some degree of order, especially whilst so much beautiful scenery passes by outside.  Ash is a useful chap to have around at these times; while my wanderlust looks at some mountain peak or ridge and dreams of being out there climbing and interacting with it, he quickly brings me down to earth with a more realistic assessment based on raw experience; the rock would be flaky, the ice and snow uncompacted and difficult to move through, it would be too dangerous.

 But I digress.  Two days into the voyage, after gaining our sea legs, the first thing we (Matt more willingly than Jessica) instigated was a daily gym session at 10 am, when the ship’s company are hard at work and we get it pretty much to ourselves (except for the occasional Marine somewhat showing us up!)  The gym is right down in the bowels of the ship, where there is less rocking and rolling movement.  It’s well equipped, with a couple of treadmills and rowing machines, a cycling machine, cross trainer and all the weights you could wish for.  As someone who is used to doing a fair amount of exercise and who will start to feel mentally and physical yucky after too much sedentary time, these sessions have become very important to me.  I set myself daily targets, for example how far I can row in 10 minutes (2601 metres is my best so far!), and working hard to improve provides my body with that satisfied feeling of post-exercise tiredness and keeps my mind refreshed and able to focus on more taxing scientific issues (the real reason we are here after all!)  I’m also developing an excellent ability to keep running and balanced while the treadmill sways subtly from side to side.  To be fair though, most days we’ve been so far have been pretty calm conditions.  There’s a sign on the wall saying that the gym equipment is not to be used in sea state 5, but the sign is upside down.  It’s one of my favourite jokes that it’s probably been put up that way on purpose – should we actually be in sea state 5, it would probably be the right way up!

Having said all this, I am writing this at 10.30 am, as we have our first rest day, preparing for another trip ashore this afternoon.  Still to come … news from another landfall, plus daily routines #2 (meal times) and # 3 (science). Please keep your eyes peeled for future blogs and check out our project website (geography.exeter.ac.uk/antarctica) for more information and context about exactly why we are sailing about theAntarctic Peninsula on HMS Protector.  If you are enjoying the blog, please spread the word and let others know about it!

Landfall and icebreaking

Penguin colony on Barrientos Island

14th January 2013

Yesterday we had our first, very welcome, chance to set foot on Antarctic soil.  The site inspection team (the other group of civvies on board) had a planned visit to Barrientos Island, one of our project sites sampled in the 2012 field season.  This gave us the valuable opportunity to revisit the site and take some further snow and water samples that can be used to improve our understanding of the isotopic composition of the source water the mosses use to grow (for more information on the science of isotopes, please see our project website).  It was also very useful for me to see the lie of the land and better understand the context of the samples that I will spend hours, days and months analysing over the coming year.

 Due to increasing winds gusting at around 25 – 30 knots, our time on the island was fairly limited.  We made sure we were ready and waiting with our boat suits on at the allotted time and one by one we swivelled ourselves off the side of the ship and climbed down the rope ladder to the small landing boat waiting below.  It’s maybe five metres down to the boat.  Yesterday it all went very smoothly but I can imagine in rougher waters this method of embarkation could get a little hairy!  To their endless credit though, the crew take our (and their own!) safety very seriously, which is mightily reassuring.

 Of course, the chance to see large groups of nesting Gentoo penguins on the island was also more than welcome!  Since this was both my first land-based Antarctic experience and close up penguin encounter, I had to keep reminding myself to focus on the moss!  Many of the penguins had extremely cute and fluffy chicks huddling in the warmth of their feathers, sheltered from the wind that whipped up and over the ridge line.  I was surprised at the exposed position many of the penguins had chosen for their nests; often they sat on their bellies face first into the wind as if to say “Wind?  Pah!  What wind!”

 From Barrientos, we left the South Shetland Islands and struck out in a south-easterly direction across Bransfield Strait over to Antarctic Sound.  Here, this morning, we encountered our first big concentrations of sea ice.  The scenery (also my first view of the true Antarctic continent) was out of this world.  It was a sunny morning, high clouds streaked across the sky and the water was like glass, reflecting the majestic peaks that tumbled down into the icy sea.  At first glance, it was a world of blue and white, but the colour variations on this spectrum are subtle yet stunning.  Add that to the vast scale of the landscape, it makes capturing photos that reflect the mind-blowing majesty of this place somewhat tricky.

 We spent a good couple of hours on deck this morning, mainly on the fo’c’sle, watching in awe as the ship ploughed through the ice, nudging large bergs out of the way, splitting many into pieces with a crushing, grating sound.  The funniest moment of the morning was undoubtedly when we found ourselves heading directly at a large berg, maybe 20 metres across that had three Adelie penguins sat on it relaxing the day away.  They didn’t seem to be in any hurry to get out of the way, so the bridge sounded the ship’s horn to try and jolt them into action, to no avail.  It was only when the ship was practically up against the iceberg that they seemed to suddenly realise they should move, scurrying across to the far side in that amusing waddle that penguins have and jumping graciously into the water to swim off and find another temporary home not in the way of a ship!