Kristy Leissle: An Antarctic 'Summer' on the Ice

January 6th, 2013

Happy New Year from Antarctica

Happy New Year to everyone at UWB from Port Lockroy! The last time I wrote, we were awaiting the arrival of HMS Protector, the British Royal Navy ship that does ice patrol in the Antarctic. As it turned out, Protector sailed away, to return several days later when the ice eased up enough for them to get in and deliver the cargo they had brought for us from the UK. Thankfully, they also gave us a resupply of water and invited us on board for dinner and some very welcome showers. Though we didn’t know it at the time, we were at the early stages of one of the longest stretches of ice here at Port Lockroy that most people can remember.

Protector was our last ship for some time, as expedition after expedition canceled their visits to Lockroy due to ice. We settled in (more or less) to a routine of maintenance work around the base, mostly painting. I spent several days scraping and repainting the bright red Royal Mail post box, and then another few scraping and repainting an old Enfield generator, one of several that was used to power the base in the 1950s, and which now sits in the shop as an historical artifact. The whole team also spent a great deal of time painting the exterior of the museum and hut with bitumen, a job that is done annually to winterize the buildings.

Though I wasn’t feeling particularly analytical about the painting at the time, in retrospect, I would say that such a long stretch of uninterrupted maintenance work highlighted the fact that Antarctica is not a friendly place to human inhabitants. The enormous amount of energy and effort it takes to maintain even the most basic necessities of life, like a structure in which to live and water to drink, does make it feel that humans don’t really belong here. And it’s not because we recreate the historical conditions here of life in the 1940s;  the major research stations around the continent also struggle to maintain their infrastructure, and that is with the help of expert engineers and modern tools. I knew before I arrived that the Antarctic is the only continent with no indigenous population, but living here really helps me to understand why.

But time for reflection is scarce once again, as the ice seems to have finally gone at last. Just before Christmas, a strong northerly wind blew the pack out of the bay and it hasn’t been back since. Ships started arriving again almost as soon as the bay was clear, and now we are in the full swing of the season. Expedition ships and yachts have been arriving every day, and we’ve had more than a thousand visitors to Goudier Island since the bay opened up. I’ve just spent the morning showing a lovely group of visitors from Germany and Greece around the museum, who sailed here on the yacht Santa Maria Australis. Right now, we’re awaiting the arrival of the expedition ship Corinthian, who have very kindly invited us on board for lunch before we show their passengers around the base.

So life is back to “normal” here at Lockroy, though by that I really only mean we aren’t collecting glacier ice for water anymore and have the occasional shower on board a ship. Next time, I’ll give you a proper update on the penguins . . . whose eggs are hatching even as I write this! Our new year’s present here is baby chicks, and it’s hard to imagine anything cuter.

Till next time, take care and have a fantastic start to winter quarter.


December 3rd, 2013

Ice, wind, and water

Hello to UW from Port Lockroy. It has been an incredibly busy season here so far on the ice, although we are in the middle of a visitor lull at the moment. But more about that in a moment.

One of the first things I learned as we settled into Port Lockroy was that weather dictates much of what is possible here. Ships can only come in when the bay is free of ice, and a windy, cold day means everyone huddles inside the museum, whereas bright blue skies and sunshine mean everyone is outside mingling with the penguins. There is no shelter from either sun or wind, and while we all enjoy the former, I tend not to stay out in the sunshine for too long if I can help it. The widespread former use of chloroflorocarbons (CFCs) in coolants and industrial processes was very damaging to the ozone in the upper atmosphere, and a huge ozone hole forms above the Antarctic at the end of every winter when sunlight returns. This depletion of the ozone layer means that the atmosphere lets in much higher amounts of the sun's harmful ultraviolet light, especially UVB rays. This ozone depletion is at its worst in the spring--that is, right now--and will repair more or less during the Antarctic summer. But for now, no one leaves the hut, even on a cloudy day, without a thick layer of SPF 50 sunscreen.

But the wind is probably the most impactful feature of life at Lockroy.
Unlike at home, where winds from the north bring Arctic cold down to Seattle, northerlies here mean warmth and they clear away all the pack ice. Southerlies, which cross thousands of miles of glacier-covered continent before they arrive, bring even colder cold and fill our little bay with icebergs and brash ice. After we enjoyed an ice-free bay for a week or so, strong southwest winds sprang up again and blew in so much ice. We have not had a ship here for five days, as none have been able to navigate to the island. Even if a ship could make its way into the bay, the zodiacs--small, inflatable black boats used to transport people and goods from ships to land in the Antarctic--could not make it through all the thick ice. So we’ve not only been without visitors, but also without any resupply of fresh water. Yesterday, Sarah, Jane, and I spent part of the afternoon down on the rocky shore, chipping off pieces of ice from the closest icebergs with axes, and catching them in buckets.
We've brought the buckets inside to melt the ice down to water, but it's a laborious job and doesn't yield much.

The big news of today is that HMS Protector, the British Royal Navy ice patrol ship, has just been spotted rounding the corner into Port Lockroy from the Neumayer Channel, hopefully on their way to visit us. A mild northerly wind last night blew out much of the ice, so our landing is at least clear enough for a zodiac to make it in. If Protector decides to bash their way through the ice further out in the channel, they could make a landing and resupply our water, and possibly even have us on board for dinner. I won't hope for it, though--the one thing I have truly learned here is that everything can and does change by the moment.
I have watched the bay clear and fill with ice in as little as an hour, and that can make all the difference to whether a ship arrives or leaves in a hurry.

But at least we have our partially melted glacier ice! That will have to do for the time being. I hope you're all enjoying the last week of classes and sci-fi class, I hope you wrote some excellent stories. Take care all, and more news from the south to follow soon.


November 24th, 2013

The Journey South

Greetings from the Antarctic! I did indeed make it here, although ittook a well-timed northerly wind to blow all the pack ice out of the bay at Port Lockroy and open it up for our landing (just after we did, the
wind shifted and blew all the ice back in!). But we had a fantastic journey down here on board the expedition ship Akademik Ioffe, and it was a brilliant start to the season. Transport to Port Lockroy for the team each year is provided by passenger ships, so I got to be a tourist for a few days along with Sarah and Jane. I was fortunate to be among the few non-seasick people on board for our crossing of the Drake Passage, so I spent those days up on the bridge with the expedition ornithologist, learning to identify the various petrels, including my favourites, the Cape petrels (pintado in Spanish, as they look like their wings have been painted with splashes of black and white), along with the greatest of all the seabirds: the albatross. We were very lucky to have four species circling the ship at once for a whole afternoon, including the black-browed albatross, grey-headed, light-mantled sooty, and the largest seabird by wingspan in the world: the wandering albatross. It was a spectacular sight.

After a few days crossing the Drake, we arrived in the South Shetland Islands and then the Antarctic Peninsula, making landings with the other passengers whenever possible. We greeted our first penguins at Half Moon Island: a colony of chinstraps, which are noisy and chattering and gregarious, very much unlike the sedate and proper Gentoos, which we saw afterwards at Mikkelson Island. We were also really lucky to see a lone macaroni penguin on Half Moon, which may be my favourite penguin of all,
with its bright shock of yellow feathers coming straight out of its head.

One of our best stops was at Whaler’s Bay on Deception Island, which, as the name suggests, was an old whaling station -- the largest in the region outside of Grytviken on South Georgia Island (for Shackleton fans, that is where the great explorer finally found safety after his epic journey). Whaler’s Bay was built as part of the same British endeavour, Operation Tabarin, that established Port Lockroy, so I really enjoyed seeing the old buildings there. Unlike Port Lockroy, which has been fully reconstructed to its 1940s state, Whaler’s Bay has been left to fall into disrepair, so we got to see what the fate of our own buildings here might have been, were it not for the restoration. They were an eerie sight. With roofs caving in and bunks filled with drifting snow, they looked like miserable places, though they were once filled with warmth and light and the inviting scent of dinner on the stove, as the scientists and whalers went about their work. The teams left after a volcanic eruption and earthquakes made the place uninhabitable, and the buildings are left to tell the sober story of the Antarctic whaling industry as they slowly sink into the ice.

Our next and final stop as passengers was Port Lockroy, and we awoke around seven in the morning on November 13 to a sight that was far from inviting: the three buildings of Port Lockroy--Bransfield House
(museum), Nissen Hut (our house), and the boat shed (for storage)--blurry black specks on a ice-covered rock, shrouded in blowing snow. Seeing it from the bridge of Ioffe was humbling: the magnificent scale of the surrounding peaks and glaciers made us all feel very small. But that is one of the best things about Antarctica--it puts everything into proper perspective, and I have felt since arriving that I am living
in a place much larger and more powerful than me.

I will sign off for now, as we have a ship arriving in a few minutes, and we'll all be in the museum shortly, talking to visitors about the history of our tiny Goudier Island. I hope everyone is having an excellent fall quarter--DC1 students, I hope you are all writing fantastic science fiction stories right now!--and a Happy Thanksgiving to you all (not sure I will be able to find a turkey here to celebrate, but we'll see . . . ).

Till next time,


November 7th, 2013

Greetings from el Fin del Mundo

Kristy in front of ushuaia signGreetings from Argentina. After a fairly uneventful -- although very long -- journey that took me from Seattle to New York, to Atlanta, and then Buenos Aires, I have finally arrived in Ushuaia, el Fin del Mundo, southernmost city in the world. This is the embarkation point for 90% of visitors to Antarctica, and is my stopover point for a few days before I board a ship to take me south.

Ushuaia has grown even since I was here two years ago. A city of 60,000, at the very end of the Andes mountain range, it is heavily dependent on tourism. And there is much to see. This is the Tierra del Fuego -- land of fire -- thus named because its indigenous people continually lit fires along the shores to stay warm and dry off, especially after they went diving in the near-freezing waters to fish, all without clothes of any kind! They were tougher people than me, and I have been glad for my heavy winter gear in the blizzard that has been blowing since I arrived.Sign of Antartida

Tourists abound in Ushuaia despite the weather. Some are starting a trekking trip into Patagonia, others take cruises to nearby islands to see the Magellenic penguins, and yet others are here to sail through the Beagle Channel (which I can see through the window right now), where Charles Darwin embarked on his famous journey aboard the HMS Beagle. And, of course, many are bound for Antarctica, just 600 miles to the south.

The ship that is taking me and my teammates Sarah and Jane to Antarctica, the Akademik Ioffe, will sail tomorrow afternoon. We´ll spend about two days crossing the Drake Passage, considered the most treacherous seas on the planet, and then arrive at the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. We´re scheduled to arrive at Port Lockroy next Wednesday. Assuming we can make a landing, I´ll be in the hut that will be my home for four months this time next week. But making the landing is at this point still questionable. . .

The BBC film crew that are accompanying us for the season chartered a sailboat, the Pelagic, to take them to Lockroy a week ahead of the rest of the team, and they arrived at Goudier Island (the name of the one-acre rock that houses Port Lockrshipoy) two days ago. They sent a report back to us, and the news was a bit grim. The ice conditions are so bad at Goudier that they cannot actually get off the sailboat and onto the island, so they are simply waiting at anchor now and hoping it breaks up soon. What the conditions will be like when I arrive next Wednesday are impossible to predict -- by then, the ice might have broken up, but it is anyone´s guess whether the Ioffe will be able to drop us off. So we shall see. . .

But it´s springtime and the ice must break up some time, so we will set sail with high hopes. Before then, though, I want to sent a special hello to my DC1 science fiction class, which my co-instructor David Nixon is stewarding now until the end of the quarter. To our excellent students -- brilliant job on the midterm, every one of you. I was beyond impressed with your essays as I graded them last week. Keep it up, and I look forward to reading what I know will be a fantastic set of sci-fi short stories when I return in the spring.

Till then, take care and more news to follow from an icy Port Lockroy!


the team


October 27th, 2013

Preparing to head south

kristy and her teamAs winter approaches here in Bothell, I am preparing to head south to summer—almost as far south, in fact, as it is possible to go. In November, I will begin four months of research leave in Antarctica.

After a 2011 visit sparked my interest in this remote part of the world, I started considering the ways that Antarctica has made major contributions, both historically and today, to processes of globalization. Much like my main geographical area of study, sub-Saharan Africa, Antarctica receives little recognition for these contributions, either in popular media or globalization scholarship. So, I decided to take a closer look at the continent myself.

From November through February, I’ll be at Port Lockroy, a British base on the Antarctic peninsula. It’s aport lockroy map one-acre, rock-and-ice island tucked in a sheltered harbor, once used as a refuge by explorers and whalers. From 1944-1962, the British government sent scientists to Lockroy to study the ionosphere—research that advanced the use of radio communications, before there were satellites. In 1996, the British Antarctic Survey restored Port Lockroy to its 1940s state and re-opened the main building, Bransfield House, as a “living museum” of Antarctic history.

Each austral summer, the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT) sends a small team to Port Lockroy to run the base and museum. This year, the team is myself and three British women: Helen, Jane, and Sarah (I’m the first American to take the job), and we will live pretty much how the scientists did in the 1940s. The idea is to bring history to life, so we’ll have no running water, no phone, no internet, and little electricity. Our water, for example, will besupplied by visiting ships, but if we run out, we’ll have to chip off and melt glacier ice!

port lockroy 1962Antarctica is the only continent with no indigenous people, and has no permanently settled population. Our nearest neighbors will be fifteen miles away at US Palmer Station (which is now resuming activities, after the US government shutdown temporarily halted the US Antarctic Program;, and our next nearest, thirty miles away, at Ukraine’s Vernadsky Research Base. I’m hoping to get the chance to visit one or both during the upcoming season, as they both have running water and other luxuries . . .

As remote as Port Lockroy is, you may be surprised to learn that we will welcome about 18,000 visitors this year, making the base the most visited site in Antarctica. In addition to our education role as “living historians,” we’ll continue restoration work on the museum and artifacts, monitor wildlife for scientific studies, and collect data for a long-term research project on the impact of tourism on Gentoo penguins.

This year, a film crew will be sharing our sparse accommodations (a compact structure called the Nissen museum and dogsledsHut), and filming the local Gentoo penguins for the BBC Natural World series—an exciting addition to life at Lockroy for 2013-14.

As I pack up lots of merino wool and fleeces, getting ready for four cold months, I think often of my students and colleagues at UWB, and look forward to sharing news of penguins, endless daylight, and lots of snow shoveling with you all. Since I won’t have internet access at Port Lockroy, CUSP have offered generous technical support to post my writing and photos, which I will send in batches via satellite, whenever I can—hopefully every two to three weeks. My thanks to CUSP!

Until next time, take care and enjoy the rest of fall quarter. Next post from the far south . . .


kristy with penguins
         Dr. Leissle with Gentoo penguins