A rich laboratory, a hostile environment
ELEPHANT ISLAND, ANTARCTICA — It can't be said that getting there is half the fun. Scientists' progress on Southern Ocean research - and a journalist's coverage of it - is slow due to the considerable obstacles.
Only so many science projects can take place in a given year due to space limitations on the National Science Foundation's two research ships and three Antarctic stations. Those who do gain access must order, pack, and ship thousands of instruments, pieces of glassware, and chemical supplies.
Then there's the long flight to New Zealand or Chile to meet the ship.
Getting to the Weddell Sea or Antarctic Peninsula region entails an unsettling four-day trip across the Drake Passage, infamous among sailors for having the world's roughest conditions. In Antarctica, once it is reached, a change in wind direction can whip open water into a bizarre landscape of floating pack ice and enormous icebergs, which can threaten floating instruments and halt work.
Inside, every lab instrument is lashed down with bungie cords, bolts, or duct tape to keep it from being smashed as the ship tosses in the sea.
In rough weather, experiments can be put off for days. Other times the science teams work around the clock, getting little sleep between experiments.
And scientists are often looking at species or processes never described or even discovered before "the hole."
"Often we don't know what these systems looked like before there was an ozone hole," says David Kieber, a scientist from from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, in Syracuse.
"Things may already have changed or adapted. We may be too late to fully understand its effects."