Here's an incredibly cool video showing the prow of a massive ice breaking ship as it plows through Antarctica's Ross Sea. The footage is sped up, to pack two months of travel into five minutes. But, unlike a lot of time-lapse videos, this one also has a really informative audio track, in which marine scientist Cassandra Brooks waxes poetic about the many different kinds of ice and explains why she and her team were out there, breaking through the stuff, to begin with.
Bonus: At the end, you get to see the absolute adorableness that is penguins on high-speed fast forward.
Let's just play this safe and assume that, until more samples have been collected and detailed DNA analysis has been done, the real answer to the question, "Is bacteria found in Antarctica's Lake Vostok actually new to science or just contamination from the drilling?" is "We don't really know." This is a great example of why making scientific pronouncements from the field, before you've had time to do the really in-depth analysis that goes into writing a peer-reviewed research paper, can be problematic. Right now, you've got different camps of researchers making totally contradictory claims. Who is right is, so far, anybody's guess. — Maggie
"You can say anything you want in a press release". Sadly, that sentiment is too true. Turns out, recent reports of the discovery of previously unknown bacteria in samples hauled up from the waters of Antarctica's frozen Lake Vostok have turned out to be premature. The bacteria turned out to be contaminants carried by the drilling and collection apparatus. At Scientific American, Elizabeth Howell talks about this flub in the context of other stories where scientists bypassed peer review and announced findings to the newspapers first. — Maggie
Last week, "Inspiration Mars" announced its search for a male and female couple to do a Mars flyby mission, requiring the pair to spend 501 days alone together. Sailors/adventurers Deborah Shapiro and Rolf Bjelke have some experience doing just that, at least terrestrially. More than twenty years ago, Shapiro and Bielke had 9 months of alone time on the Antarctic Peninsula. By choice. Shapiro wrote about their experience in a book called Time On Ice. Over at BBC News, Shapiro answers the question: "Why didn't you two kill each other?"
One has to be able to give the other person mental elbow room. During our winter, when a person settled into the sofa in the salon with a book and started reading, he or she was not interrupted.
Keeping quiet when the person is close enough to practically read one's thoughts, is a matter of self-discipline, fuelled by caring.
The only exception to our silence rule was for boat-related safety issues. The boat, for obvious reasons of survival, always came first.
Or as I like to call it, Cape Fuckthiswearegoinghome.
Sadly, Antarctica's Cape Goodenough (pictured here on National Geographic's Political Map of the World) was not named by a less-then-intrepid band of explorers who decided that seeing the coastline of Antarctica was plenty of adventure for them, thankyouverymuch.
Instead, it's named for William Goodenough, admiral in the British Royal Navy. Yes. Admiral Goodenough. I'm sure the troops were enthused.
But wait, there's more. In the 1930s and 1940s, the admiral was apparently involved in the creation of comfortable, dormitory-style housing for international post-graduate students in London. Today, the buildings are known as ... Goodenough College.
Underwater, Antarctica's Weddell seals are fast-moving, graceful predators, catching and eating as much as 100 pounds of food per day. They dine on squids and fish and have been known to enjoy the occasional penguin or two.
On land, they are hilariously ineffectual blobs of jelly.
You can see that dichotomy in action in this great (and long) video made by Henry Kaiser in Antarctica. Following the adventures of a baby seal on the ice and under the water, the video is peaceful, meditative and reminds me a bit of the sort of old-school Sesame Street video that would build simple, kid-friendly narratives out of nature footage and music. (The music, by the way, was written and performed by Henry Kaiser, as well.)
Despite their poor performance in land-based locomotion, Weddell seals actually live on the ice, descending into the water to hunt and mate and swim around. They use natural holes in the ice to get from above to below and back, but they also work to maintain those holes and often use their teeth to chew at the edge of the ice and make a small hole larger. At about 13 minutes into the video, you can watch a seal doing just that — rubbing its head back and forth to enlarge an opening in the ice.
And why hang out on the ice, to begin with? Simple. In the water, seals are, themselves, potential dinners for larger creatures. On land, they have no natural predators at all and can safely bask in the sun, lying on their cute and chubby bellies for so long that their body heat hollows out divots in the ice.
Henry Kaiser is kind of our man on the inside in Antarctica. He works there every year as a film maker, turning science into movies. He sent this awesome Halloween greeting from underneath the sea ice.
Bonus: He also sent us a video taken at the same spot — only this has 100% fewer wacky masks and 100% more sea anemones.
My non-profit, LocalWiki, has been working on this really incredible
project to help document the continent of Antarctica. Most notable,
at least right now, is this custom map we've pieced together from
very-hard-to-find NASA aerial imagery and coastline datasets. It's
probably the most beautiful thing I've ever worked on.
Check out the LocalWiki for Antarctica. The project "aims to document the
full extent of human involvement on the continent," and for now is focused on a two-mile region
surrounding Palmer Station.
This is a detail from one of the regularly updated maps that researchers in Antarctica use when they want to leave McMurdo Station and travel across the continent's sea ice. It shows the well-traveled routes across McMurdo Sound, ice thickness measurements taken at various points along the road, and hazards like large cracks in the ice.
Towards the north end of the Sound, you can see an island labeled, "Inaccessible Island". I asked Henry Kaiser — a musician and filmmaker who has spent the last decade working with scientists on the frozen continent — about why that island was inaccessible. After all, I didn't see any major cracks or hazards around it. Seems like you could traverse the ice to the island just fine.
Turns out, I was misunderstanding. Inaccessible isn't a designation. Inaccessible is the island's official name. Even though it's not. Inaccessible, I mean. Named by Robert Scott, it's part of a chain of islands that all represent the remains of an ancient volcanic crater. The name apparently comes from the fact that Inaccessible Island is incredibly steep, so while you can reach it, getting onto the damn thing seems to be a lot harder.
Inaccessible Island in McMurdo Sound is not to be confused with the Inaccessible Island that is located in the south Atlantic about halfway between South America and Africa; nor with the Inaccessible Islands, an entire group of islands located between the tip of South America and tip of the Antarctic peninsula; nor with Inexpressible Island, an Antarctic island where part of Scott's crew on his second expedition was forced to spend the winter of 1912 living in a cave and eating penguins.
Photo: Cape Royds Adélie Penguin Rookery. (Google Street View)
Today, Google is launching access to a new collection of hi-res imagery from the Antarctic. In this post are some examples of those stunning vistas, shared with Boing Boing courtesy of Google. Alex Starns, Technical Program Manager for the Street View team, writes:
Back in September 2010, we launched the first Street View imagery of the Antarctic, enabling people from more habitable lands to see penguins in Antarctica for the first time. Today we’re bringing you additional panoramic imagery of historic Antarctic locations that you can view from the comfort of your homes. We’ll be posting this special collection to our World Wonders site, where you can learn more about the history of South Pole exploration.
Between 1910 and 1913, surgeon George Levick traveled with Robert Scott through Antarctica on a mission to reach the South Pole. Along the way, Scott's team recorded their observations of Antarctica and its wildlife, observations that were later published in scientific journals. At least, most of the observations were published. Some of Levick's notes ended up being left out of the official journals, only printed in pamphlet form, like some kind of academic Tijuana Bible.
The reason: Those notes were full of Levick's horrified documentation of depraved penguin sex acts—tales so unfit for polite society that Levick actually wrote most of them in Greek, rather than English.
Recently rediscovered and translated, these notes have now been published for the first time in the journal Polar Record. The excerpts printed on the LiveScience site read like something from an addendum to Heart of Darkness.
"This afternoon I saw a most extraordinary site [sic]. A Penguin was actually engaged in sodomy upon the body of a dead white throated bird of its own species. The act occurred a full minute, the position taken up by the cock differing in no respect from that of ordinary copulation, and the whole act was gone through down to the final depression of the cloaca."
In another entry, this one written in English on Dec. 6 of that year, he wrote: "I saw another act of astonishing depravity today. A hen which had been in some way badly injured in the hindquarters was crawling painfully along on her belly. I was just wondering whether I ought to kill her or not, when a cock noticed her in passing, and went up to her. After a short inspection he deliberately raped her, she being quite unable to resist him."
Levick described penguins that waddled about the colony's outskirts terrorizing any straying chicks as "little knots of hooligans" in his pamphlet. "The crimes which they commit are such as to find no place in this book, but it is interesting indeed to note that, when nature intends them to find employment, these birds, like men, degenerate in idleness."
I love this video of an iceberg collapsing in on itself in Wilhelmina Bay, Antarctica. (Word of warning, the people filming this loved the experience even more than I loved watching it, so much so that you may want to turn your speakers down.)
There are two kinds of icebergs, tabular and non-tabular. The tabular ones are what they sound like, big flat sheets of ice. Non-tabular are different—irregular shapes that become even more irregular as bits and pieces of them melt. Judging by the arched shape this iceberg had taken on, it probably falls into the non-tabular category. Implosion happens when melting weakens key structural support within that shape and bits of the iceberg begin to crash in on itself, accelerating the breakup. Both tabular and non-tabular icebergs and catastrophically fail like this, though.
Another fun iceberg fact: There are six size categories we sort icebergs by. Four of them have pretty predictable names: "Small", "Medium", "Large", and "Very Large". But below "small" are two size categories with a little more whimsy.
Icebergs with a hight of less than 3.3 feet and a length less than 16 feet are called "Growlers".
If the height shorter than 16 feet and the length shorter than 49 feet, then the iceberg is called, adorably, "a Bergy Bit". Yes, that is a technical term.