Dispatch Number One
Date: January 1, 2013
Place: Sailing from the Falkland Islands to South Georgia
Falklands, South Georgia & Antarctica: Dispatch Number One
A Rockhopper Penguin standing on a rock. Photo courtesy of Samuel Blanc.
JANUARY 1, 2013, NOON
53° 17.3' SOUTH AND 45° 7.2' WEST
AIR/WATER TEMPERATURE 4°C/3.8°C — SPEED 12.2 KNOTS
SAILING FROM THE FALKLAND ISLANDS TO SOUTH GEORGIA
We heralded in the New Year with two celebrations: at midnight, Greenwich Mean Time, our dinner concluded with a rousing chorus of Auld Lang Syne. In the ship’s bar, at midnight, local time, we toasted to a healthy, happy and prosperous 2013 and to great geological discoveries in the Scotia Arc.
Understandably, breakfast was pushed back by 30 minutes the following morning.
Our 22-day-long geosciences expedition departed Santiago, Chile, on December 29, 2012, bound for Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands. With a population of 2,000 people, Stanley is the smallest and most remote capital city in the world. It’s also, unofficially, the lupine capital of the world – every house sports a lovely English garden that’s chock-a-block full of lupines and other hearty flowers.
Following the spine of the Andes, we jetted southwards towards Tierra del Fuego. On several occasions, the plane lurched, seemingly, to the port side when a good half of the passengers jumped across the aisle, straining to get a glimpse of geological processes in action: a smoking volcano and glaciers descending from mountaintops on their death marches to the adjacent Pacific Ocean.
At writing, we’ve travelled 585 nautical miles across the Scotia Sea, en route from the Falkland Islands to South Georgia and the Western Antarctic Peninsula. During the expedition, we'll spend six days at sea and 15 days on land, exploring geological outcrops and experiencing Serengeti wildlife moments. The seas are uncharacteristically calm this afternoon, and the waves gentle. Although some people have been queasy, no one has suffered from seasickness.
The Akademik Ioffe, our 117-metre Russian vessel, is scheduled to arrive in South Georgia Island, sometime tomorrow morning.
Struck to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Geological Society of America, the expedition is comprised of over one hundred people with more than 70 earth scientists from 15 nations who have come together to study the interplay between plate tectonics, glaciology, climate and life. The Scotia Arc is a small tectonic plate – its geological DNA includes bits of Africa and South America – which is situated south of the Falkland Islands and extends from the Western Antarctic Peninsula to South Georgia Island.
Before departing the Falkland Islands for the Bottom of the World, we spent a rain-soaked day on Sea Lion Island, a four-mile long finger of tussock grasses, bogs and small lakes. A National Nature Reserve, Sea Lion Island is one of the few Falkland Islands that’s free of introduced species like cats, rats and mice. We photographed – from a safe distance – colonies of Southern Sea Lions and Southern Elephant Seals lollygagging on the rocky shores of Sea Lion Island. And, we observed Magellan Penguins who procreate above ground while living in large dens excavated from the island’s peat rich soil. As we approached, the birds poked their heads and upper bodies out of their cavernous dens, and tilted their heads from one side to another, gazing quizzically at the two-legged passersby. Smeared in brown peat, these majestic striped penguins looked less than regal. But, a food gathering sojourn to the nearby ocean removed the tannic stains and restored their breasts to a snowy white colour.
We also visited colonies of Gentoo and Rockhopper penguins on Sea Lion Island. I received a gold star, from the expedition’s bird specialist, when I spied a single pair of King Penguins secreted amongst a large Gentoo penguin colony and towering imperiously over their shorter Gentoo cousins.
We've spent the last day-and-a-half at sea, participating in a geology 'boot camp' led by the world's leading Antarctic experts, professors from the United States and Brazil. We've learned, from Dr. Ian Dalziel, the expedition’s scientific leader and professor of the Jackson School of Geosciences (University of Texas at Austin), that the Falkland Islands were once part of eastern South Africa. According to Dalziel, South Georgia Island – once part of Chile’s southern Andean chain — continues to move eastwards (and away from South American plate) at a rate of 6.5 millimetres per year.
Dr. Richard Alley is a professor of glaciology from Pennsylvania State. "Carbon dioxide is the biggest control knob on the global warming dial,” said Alley who described how geoscientists use satellites and other geophysical tools to measure the changing thickness of Antarctica's ice sheets, with an accuracy of "one-third of a potato chip."
There are many petroleum and mining geologists and geophysicists (me included) participating in this extraordinary voyage of exploration and discovery. In addition to the many Serengeti moments which await, we're here to understand the mechanics of global warming.During the past fifty years, the Western Antarctic Peninsula has warmed 3 degrees Celsius, triggering a cascading series of geological and biological changes in this fragile ecosystem which have global implications. Using Antarctica and South Georgia as an outdoor teaching laboratory, earth scientists can see climate change in action, in close to real time.
As geoscientists, we’re also intent upon learning how we can apply our technical knowledge and scientific skill set to develop mitigative strategies to deal with global warming.
Southern Elephant Seals and their pups basking in the sun on Sea Lion Island, a nature reserve in the Falklands. Video courtesy of bazzup (2010).
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Sea Lion Island, Stanley (Falkland Islands) and position of the Akademik Ioffe at noon on January 1, 2013.