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Global questions face scientists in Antarctica

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"People, perhaps, still exist who believe that it is of no importance to explore the unknown polar regions. This, of course, shows ignorance. It is hardly necessary to mention here of what scientific importance it is that these regions would be thoroughly explored. The history of the human race is a continual struggle from darkness towards light."

- Fridtjof Nansen, who explored the Arctic aboard the Fram in the 1890s.

Nathaniel B. Palmer was a Connecticut sealer who sailed these waters more than a century and a half ago. On Nov. 17, 1820, he may have been the first person ever to see Antarctica. (British and Russian ships were also in the area, so no one really knows who was first.) But ever since that time, this lonely, ice-covered continent has attracted the attention of both explorers and researchers.

That tradition continues in the research station named for Palmer located on Anvers Island, in a protected harbor off the Antarctic Peninsula. Established there in 1965 and updated in 1973, it is the smallest of the three U.S. research stations in Antarctica, accommodating a maximum of 43 people in the summer and about 20 year-round.

The location there is ideal for a number of reasons, says Bill Frazier, one of the current researchers. For one thing, it is built on solid ground, on the rocky surface of Anvers Island instead of on ice. For another, its proximity to a wealth of biological life - seals, penguins, birds - opens important avenues of research. And the relatively mild climate - it has been as warm as 55 degrees on some summer days - minimizes the hardship.

The location also makes Palmer Station a popular stop for cruise ships that come here. Visitation is somewhat limited; only 12 permits are issued each season. Those who do come are graciously shown around the station, treated to brownies and sweet rolls and given a chance to buy T-shirts and a few other souvenirs. (The money they collect helps fund the research.)

Palmer is fairly small, with two main buildings, an aquarium, a boathouse, workshops, a lab and storage buildings. But if it looks rather unexceptional on the outside, important things go on inside.

The science here is "rigorous and competitive," says Frazier. "Out of every 100 proposals, only about 12 get funded. And they have to go through a three-step peer review process outside the National Science Foundation." Palmer has a yearly budget of about $12 million; NSF's total Antarctic budget is about $200 million.

That's pretty thin funding, says Frazier. And so they try to get as much for their dollars as they can. And the research done here has global implications.

"Because we're so close to the ocean, we do a lot with marine ecology," says Frazier. More of the physical science research goes on at McMurdo and the South Pole. One of the current projects involves penguin populations on nearby Torgersen Island. Researchers are trying to determine the impact visitors have, if any, on the penguins. Half of the island has been declared off-limits to visitors, but they are allowed to come, in limited numbers, to the other side. The health and stability of both sides of the island will be tracked and, as tourism in the region increases, may have an impact on deciding how many visitors this ecosystem can handle.

"Climate is another of the special interests here," says Frazier. "Because we're in a transition zone, we're more sensitive to climate change."

Areas that are the focus of current study, he says, include ozone depletion and effects of ultraviolet radiation. Some 156 species of simple plants - mosses and algae - grow here. How does radiation affect their growth? How does it impact limpets, sea urchins and krill, the small crustacean that is food for so many other sea animals - particularly in larval stages? For the past three years, says Frazier, scientists have been studying the effects of UV radiation on the growth and physiology of these basic units of the food chain. If a thinner ozone layer lets in more UV radiation, will that radiation hinder the growth of algae? If there is less algae, will that affect krill populations? If krill populations are smaller, what will happen to penguin and whale populations? If already endangered whale populations suffer, what happens to the diversity of our planet?

Equally tough questions are being tackled in the area of global warming. "That's become the buzz word of the '90s," says Frazier. Everyone on the Internet has an opinion on global warming. How widespread is it? Is human activity causing it? Can it be slowed?

According to Frazier, "We have unequivocal data that climate change is happening. Winter temperatures here are 10 degrees warmer than they were even 10 years ago. Glaciers are melting. We see mountains at Palmer we couldn't see 20 years ago." The evidence is not the real issue, he says. The question is: Are we measuring human impact? Or, is this part of a long-term cycle? The only way to make the distinction is through long-term data. "And we need to integrate all disciplines in a way that hasn't happened yet."

A worst-case scenario, he says, is that glaciers would melt, ocean levels would rise. Continental edges and islands would be inundated. "Worst case? The Statue of Liberty would be under water 200 years from now. But it is still all very speculative." Can trends be changed? Can human activity slow the process? What step should we be taking now? These are all very important questions, he says.

Important research into ozone depletion is also going on at Akademik Vernadsky, another of the research stations on the Antarctic Peninsula. The former British Faraday Station, it was transferred to the Ukraine in 1994. It, too, allows a limited number of visitors to come each year.

Smaller than Palmer, Vernadsky is the oldest meteorological station on the peninsula and is currently home to 13 researchers, five of whom are women. In a tiny room on the second floor (the only way up is by ladder) of a wooden building at Vernadsky, Svetlana explains how measurements of the ozone are taken every three hours, year-round. Charts and graphs and diagrams show how the amounts fluctuate, how the protective layer gets especially thin in the spring. What does it mean? What implications does it have for all the creatures on Earth?

That's the thing about being a scientist in this remote corner of the world. There are always more questions.

"The first requirement of a scientist is that he be curious. He should be capable of being astonished and eager to find out."

- Erwin Schroedinger