December 14, 2013 – South Shetland Islands and the Chinese Antarctic Great Wall Station
Posted on December 14th, 2013
This morning revealed falling snow, and just enough for a few snowball fights before breakfast. The South Shetland Islands — ice-clad Nelson Island and Robert Island — appeared out of the gloom by mid-morning, marking our first glimpse of Antarctica. A layer of low cloud obscured the mountain peaks but the glaciers could be seen between rocky headlands.
We passed between the two islands and turned eastward to King George Island, named after King George of England. The captain announced an iceberg competition: the first person to report an iceberg at least the size of ‘Le Boreal’ would win a bottle of champagne. Soon after, Mrs. Yu and Mr. Zhang took first place.
Lectures continued throughout the day with Patry’s presentation, “Birds in Tuxedos: Why Do They Look So Different,” during which she introduced us to the penguins of the world. She began with the accurate premise that of the over 8,800 species of birds in the world, penguins are unlike any other. She shared some of the species we may encounter on this trip, including the Adélie penguins, which march many miles over the sea ice in October to reach their breeding colonies. She also spoke of the macaroni penguins, which lay two different-sized eggs. It was a very entertaining presentation and we managed to pick up a smattering of Spanish as well!
After a break, we listened to Antarctic ecologist Jim McClintock talk about “The Ecological Impacts of Climate Change on the Antarctic Peninsula.” The Antarctic Peninsula is experiencing the most rapid temperature increases of anywhere on Earth. Glaciers are receding at unprecedented rates; massive ice sheets surrounding the peninsula have broken out in increasing frequency; and the annual sea ice has been reduced some 40%, both in terms of extent and duration.
The ecological consequences of climate change are similarly profound. The most alarming example is the reduction of species associated with sea ice, most poignantly affecting populations of Adélie penguins that have plummeted some 70% on the central western peninsula, likely the result of increased snowfall fatally burying their eggs. Other species associated with sea ice and declining populations include the Weddell seal and krill, while the recent invasion of king crabs to the Antarctic undersea slope is another concern. We could see how, collectively, these responses to climate change make the Antarctic Peninsula the bellwether of prospective impacts worldwide.
Before lunch, Expedition Leader Marco conducted the mandatory briefing on the IAATO (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators) guidelines for going ashore in South Georgia and Antarctica. These guidelines were largely based on common sense; for example, no littering or trampling of vegetation, and no approaching penguins and seals within 15 feet, although they may approach us.
Marco then briefed us on our Zodiac excursions. These inflatable boats are extremely sturdy and reliable, and the naturalists who drive them have many years of experience on Antarctic waters. We reviewed how to embark and disembark as well as how to dress correctly for landings.
During the 1980s, eleven nations had established stations on King George Island (KGI), chosen for its proximity to South America where supply ships could make a quick run. This was due to a scramble to establish a foothold in Antarctica should the Antarctic Treaty collapse. Our destination this afternoon was the Chinese Antarctic Great Wall Station.
After our first Zodiac excursion and landing, we were allowed entry into one building at the station and were welcomed hospitably by the staff. A few could speak English well and, with the assistance of Sharon from the A&K China office, we were introduced to life on the station.
Built in 1984, the Great Wall Station is the oldest on the island. There are typically 35 men and women working on the station in the summer and about 15, mainly maintenance workers, overwintering. One scientist told us about his work studying environmental pollutants, such as DDT and PCBs. Other scientists were studying seals, marine biology and meteorology.