Lindblad Expeditions / National Geographic
EXPLORATIONS – A Lindblad Expeditions Blog

Field Dispatches

Extreme Ice Survey: Palmer Station Cameras

By Dan McGrath, Extreme Ice Survey

The marked retreat of the Marr Ice Piedmont over the past few decades has literally changed the coastline of Anvers Island, a heavily glacierized island off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula and home to the U.S. Antarctic Program’s Palmer Station. When Palmer Station began operation in the late 1960s, the ice was only a short distance behind the station and offered a range of recreational opportunities to the small station staff. Palmer Station has become a hub of Antarctic research over the intervening decades, yielding important insights on polar ecosystems and oceanography. All the while, the ice behind the station has been retreating, transforming the coastline and revealing new landscapes.

The Marr Ice Piedmont and Palmer Station seen from DigitalGlobe’s World View 1 satellite, April, 2011. The white line indicates the extent of the Marr in 1975. ©2014 DigitalGlobe, Inc. 1975 extent data courtesy of Bob Farrell.

Last February, aboard the National Geographic Explorer, our team visited Palmer Station to scout locations for future camera installations. We landed on Amsler Island, a rocky outcrop ½ mile (0.8 km) across the ice choked Arthur Harbor from Palmer Station, and located a spot offering a commanding view of the Marr Ice Piedmont. Until 2004, this point was attached to the much larger Anvers Island and only as the ice front retreated was it revealed to be an island.

The clouds hung low over the bay during our visit last February and frequent snow squalls reduced visibility even further. Through breaks in the clouds, we observed a narrow isthmus of ice that tenuously connected a small bulb of ice to the main glacier. Less than a month after our departure, this narrow connection disappeared producing yet another island off the coast of Anvers Island. We’re here now to install two time-lapse cameras to watch any future changes. It’s a beautiful afternoon—light wind, partly cloudy skies and a comfortable temperature. The primary concern today is distraction. We are surrounded by a gorgeous amphitheater constructed of 90 foot-tall ice cliffs, while below, the slowly rising tide pulls along an abundance of bergy bits through the crystal clear waters of Arthur Harbor. If that’s not enough, the near constant belching sounds of the elephant seals reminds us we are far from home.

The jagged edge of the Marr Ice Piedmont towers above the frigid waters of Arthur Harbor. During the installation the familiar sound of calving seracs constantly echoed through the air. ©Extreme Ice Survey/Stephen Nowland

The installation, however, gets off to a rocky start. Matt starts drilling the first hole to anchor the camera post in place and the drill bit snaps. Perplexed, we muse that the bit must have been weakened by a previous incident that broke our primary drill, leaving us with this one and only back-up. And now, we’re down to only two bits. Matt replaces the bit and starts again. Snap! The tip of the bit breaks off again. A solemn feeling comes over us—we only have one drill bit left and if it breaks, we’re done.

Packing for polar expeditions is a difficult task, as you’re constantly forced to decide on how many back-up items to bring—a delicate balance between weight and volume limitations juxtaposed with the reality that if a key item fails, the entire project is on the line. A trip to the hardware store just isn’t possible.

Here we are, a calm day in the Antarctic, all of our gear in place and the installation hangs on this final drill bit. We take a deep breath and Matt starts drilling the holes—he skimps on each one to ensure they’re all drilled, at least partially. A collective sigh of relief is aired as the final anchor is completed. The rest of the installation goes smoothly and we’re back to the ship earlier than expected to celebrate our final camera installation on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Matthew Kennedy, Stephen Nowland, Dan McGrath, and Eric Guth pose for an Extreme Ice Survey team portrait after the final two time-lapse camera installations of 2014. ©Extreme Ice Survey/Matthew Kennedy

A poem: Antarctic Twilight

Inspired by his Antarctic experience, one of our talented guests wrote a poem while sailing aboard National Geographic Explorer. He shared it with his fellow travelers during one evening Recap in Explorer’s lounge, and he generously agreed to allow us to publish it here.

Antarctic Twilight

By
Charles Scott Williams
December 5, 2014genius

Sailing through the ice at a snail’s pace
The bow of the ship does the ice displace
Tranquil ripples in our wake
Majestic mountains in sunset bathe

Penguins jump in disheveled formation
Looking for food or on an ice sheet to rest
Their kingdom the cold Antarctic waters
Living solely to live and procreate

Snow by the tonnage crashing into the water
Artillery report, echoing in the pass
Brilliant sunset nearing twilight
In shadow the coolness takes your breath

Artistic desolation of shapes seldom seen
A seal’s head
A lion’s head
Bergs look like many things

Blue ice, white ice, clear ice, shadow
It’s all refraction and wavelength perception
A full moon rises to watch from the heavens
Antarctic day comes to an end

genius

genius

Extreme Ice Survey: First Southern Hemisphere Time-lapse Revisit

Extreme Ice Survey, the team featured in the Emmy award-winning film Chasing Ice, is aboard our ship, the National Geographic Explorer, in Antarctica. They’re installing time-lapse cameras that will shoot photos every hour of every day, creating visual records of these changing landscapes.

At the southern tip of South Georgia Island lies the six-mile-long Drygalski Fjord, a narrow split containing Risting Glacier and two of the Extreme Ice Survey time-lapse camera systems. Cold katabatic winds regularly race down from the high peaks above, epitomizing the weather for which South Georgia is famous. It is a definitive force and creates a veil of inaccessibility that extends to all visitors, time-lapse cameras included. Today we revisit the cameras we installed just nine short months ago. The state of these two cameras could very well set the tone for what success to expect during the remainder of our three-week expedition. Anxiety and curiosity are scratching at our bones.

Water and electronics don’t mix and during the installation at Drygalski it took three of us to hold a tarp down over the camera housings to deflect the sideways rain while the delicate electronics were secured in place. Waterlogged and cold, we left the cameras in a rush, our frozen fingers tightly crossed. Our seven-plus-year track record of collecting time-lapse images has prepared us well, and we like to think that the hardware and electronics are durable enough for the most extreme environments on the planet.

The weather today is in stark contrast to last February. It’s still windy, but the sun is peeking through high clouds and, at least for now, it isn’t raining or snowing. Pulling away from the ship, our anxiety is lessened when we spot the two cameras upright, though, just as the rarity of a nice day at this latitude can be misleading, so too can be the sight of cameras still fixed in place. Either there will be images to recover, or we are looking at nothing more than an expensive and over-engineered bird perch.

We’re elated to discover the solar panels secured in place, looking as if we had installed them only the day before, and the batteries at a healthy 14 volts. Things are looking good. We crack open the first camera housing, and quickly pull the camera out to check the image count. The excited voice of Lisa Kelley, the expedition leader for our journey, crackles over the VHF radio. Apparently she and the rest of the guests aboard National Geographic Explorer are also anxiously awaiting the outcome. We radio back to Lisa, trying to contain the surprised charge in our voices, “3,000 images, we have 3,000 images!”

Both cameras worked perfectly, and moreover, collected some of the most stunningly beautiful images we have ever captured to add to our archive—now more than one million photos strong.

It turns out that for fleeting moments between the seemingly constant rush of storms across the Southern Ocean, South Georgia Island can in fact brighten up and expose its splendor to the world, although it certainly helps having the patience of a time-lapse camera. And with a taste of success behind us, it’s onward south, across the open sea, to the Antarctic Peninsula to check on and install more time-lapse cameras.

By Matthew Kennedy, Extreme Ice Survey

 

Extreme Ice Survey: Success on South Georgia Island

There is a particular moment in the mountains, when the clouds part and mysterious summits are revealed, that I find especially appealing. Often, muted gray skies and low clouds obscure the world above, leaving steep ridges disappearing into an atmospheric abyss. This veil of mystery allows my imagination to run wild trying to envision this hidden world. But on rare occasion when the clouds vanish, I find nothing more spectacular than that first complete glimpse of the surrounding snow-covered spires and airy peaks.

On this day, more than 9,000 feet above us and completely hidden by clouds, the highest peak on South Georgia Island, Mount Paget (9626 ft/2934 m), is collecting snow that many years later will reach the terminus of the Nordenskjöld Glacier. We’ve worked feverishly for the past four hours to secure two time-lapse cameras near the dramatic calving front of this glacier. The 2-mile (3.2 km) wide face of teetering seracs appears still, however the frequent sounds of calving chunks of ice tell otherwise. The size of this glacier is a testament to the amount of precipitation that blankets this island, a small rugged thumb protruding from one of the stormiest reaches of ocean anywhere on the planet.

Nordenskjöld Glacier was named for Otto Nordenskjöld, the leader of the Swedish Antarctic Expedition, whose members charted this area in the early 20th century. This glacier, like the vast majority of glaciers on this island, has retreated in recent decades, reflecting changes in precipitation and temperature on the island. Our cameras will tirelessly capture images of Nordenskjöld, creating a visual record that will contribute to our understanding of how the glaciers on South Georgia Island are responding to a changing climate.

Racing back to our landing site, the cameras secured in place, grins stretch across our faces as we stare into the low light of the setting sun.  We set out in our ~19-foot (5.9 m) boat, bobbing in the large ocean swell of East Cumberland Bay. Eric Guth, EIS team member and seasoned Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic naturalist and photo instructor, masterfully steers us through the deep troughs and cresting waves. The bow of the boat emphatically slaps down on the backside of each wave, sending wind-whipped water across the entire boat, drenching us with frigid 29° F (-1° C) seawater. Our hands grip tightly to the side of the boat, knowing that a swim in these waters would last only a few minutes before succumbing to the numbing cold of the sea.

Through the parting clouds, we can make out the distant shape of the National Geographic Explorer, while in the foreground, the faint outlines of two ship-wrecked rusting vessels can be seen; a not-so-subtle reminder of the potential hazards of South Georgia Island.

Despite these concerns, we’re fixated on the scene before us. The dull grey clouds that limited our view all day are clearing away, presenting the snow-covered mountains, each painted in different shades of pink, orange and purple.  Above it all, Mount Paget remains engulfed in an imposing lenticular cloud, retaining its mystery for another day. The first images our time-lapse cameras capture will be spectacular and I can’t wait to return to see the rest. I know at some point over the next year Mount Paget will be revealed, although given the weather we’ve experienced on South Georgia Island, I imagine it won’t be all that often.

By Dan McGrath

Extreme Ice Survey Returns South

Extreme Ice Survey, the team featured in the Emmy award-winning film Chasing Ice, is aboard our ship, National Geographic Explorer, sailing towards South Georgia Island and Antarctica. Over the next two weeks, they’ll be installing time-lapse cameras that will shoot photos every hour of every day, creating visual records of these changing landscapes. 

During February 2014, our team traveled aboard Lindblad Expedition’s National Geographic Explorer (www.expeditions.com) to install time-lapse cameras on the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia Island. The camera systems include a Nikon D3200 digital camera, a custom waterproof case and timer, and are completely powered by a solar panel and battery. We typically install cameras on bedrock outcrops above the glacier to ensure sufficient perspective to monitor the glacier’s flow and extent. Last year, we installed nine cameras at five different sites, including Cierva Cove and Neko Harbor on the peninsula. We were graced with sunny skies and warm temperatures, and often, friendly visits from the neighborhood welcoming committee, staffed by penguins, and seals.

You can see why authors have long struggled to describe these visually stunning landscapes with words alone. The sharpness of the peaks, the contrasts between ice and ocean, the way the mountains are draped in globs of snow and ice; verbose descriptions of their grandeur fail and that’s even before considering the charismatic penguins bathed in soft multi-colored alpenglow. However, despite the idyllic and distant nature of this location, it is one of the fastest changing landscapes on the planet. Atmospheric temperatures have increased by more than 5° F since the 1950s, the majority of glaciers are flowing faster and have thinned and numerous ice shelves (floating extensions of glaciers as large as Rhode Island), have completely collapsed. In short, these landscapes look very different from what they did 50 or in some cases, even 10 years ago.

Over the next month, we’ll be returning to remove and replace the memory cards of these cameras and install additional cameras at new sites—including the Marr Ice Piedmont near the US Antarctic Program’s Palmer Station and South Georgia Island’s magnificent Nordenskjöld Glacier.

We’re currently in the Falkland Islands and will be departing for South Georgia Island this evening. We’re taking this opportunity to finish building the camera systems prior to the crossing. Stay tuned over the next month as we download our Antarctica images for the first time and install new time-lapse cameras, all in an effort to create visual records of some of the most rapidly changing landscapes on the planet.

Follow Sven Lindblad in Galápagos

Sven Lindblad is in Galápagos right now shooting photos and sharing them on Instagram. Follow along on Instagram, and you can see his shots even if you don’t have an Instagram profile.

A Blustery Day on South Georgia Island

Field Notes from Matt Kennedy, Staff Photographer and Multimedia Producer for Earth Vision Trust and the Extreme Ice Survey.

“Difficulties are just things to overcome” –Sir Ernest Shackleton

To those familiar with the trials and misfortunes met by explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and the men of the Trans-Antarctic Imperial Expedition, this quote by “the Boss” will likely bring a brief chuckle, then perhaps a nod of respect or a contemplative stare filled with the thoughts of just how much credence those few words hold. Those less familiar with their difficulties may wish to read Endurance, by Alfred Lansing. It’s an exciting piece of Antarctic history at the very least.

The Extreme Ice Survey Team braves the weather to install cameras to monitor Risting Glacier. Photo Courtesy of Extreme Ice Survey ©Earth Vision Trust

We, the Earth Vision Trust/Extreme Ice Survey team, are gently rocking in the moderately turbulent seas off the southern tip of South Georgia Island—both the launching point and fateful end for Shackleton’s journey. We’ve just completed the 780 nautical mile crossing of the Scotia Sea, starting from Elephant Island on the far northeastern reaches of the Antarctic Peninsula and ending here, in a little less than two days. In comparison, the same crossing took Shackleton and his team of five, 17 days of suffering and a bit of dead-reckoning-luck to complete.

It’s late afternoon and long crepuscular rays of sunlight are breaking through the clouds hovering over sharp peaks that climb out of the sea directly in front of us. We’re on a scouting trip into the six mile-long Drygalski Fjord, a narrow slit that splits the southern end of the island nearly in half. Tomorrow we hope to install two cameras on Risting Glacier, sitting at the fjord’s head, but the strong katabatic winds ripping off the glacier, combined with the abundant sea spray, are certainly foreboding. We play around on the top deck of the ship, leaning into the wind, which is blowing hard enough to nearly support our weight—it feels as if we are flying. However, it’s not exactly the type of gusts in which we particularly care to install delicate electronics. The volatile weather of the sub-Antarctic climate looks to be putting an end to the sunny and comfortable installations we’ve experienced over the past two weeks. Thinking about the historical difficulties associated with this wild island, it can only be expected that things won’t come so easily.

South Georgia has been a hub for whaling, Antarctic exploration, and as of late, adventure tourism, but driving the purpose for our visit here are the island’s glaciers and wildlife. Glaciers pour off the Alaska-esque 9,000+ foot peaks that line the center of the island, which are met along the shores by thriving populations of fur seals, healthy colonies of king penguins, nesting albatross, bright green mosses, and gorgeous lichens. However, where the biodiversity is succeeding, the glaciers of South Georgia are struggling to maintain their presence in the warming climate.

The glaciers today pale in comparison to when Shackleton and his men traversed the island nearly 100 years ago. Take for example Bertrab Glacier at the stunning Gold Harbor. Images from Shackleton’s expedition show a robust glacier extending from high up, all the way down to the ocean. The glacier retained this appearance until the mid-1980s, when it began a dramatic retreat. It still provides a dramatic backdrop to the king penguins, but it’s barely the glacier it was 30 years ago. Since the 1950’s, the air temperature on South Georgia has warmed by nearly 3˚F. This is driving the vast majority of glaciers across the island to retreat, including the treacherous slopes that gave the rundown party of explorers endless grief. Our cameras will be there to watch, capturing these changes frame-by-frame, day-by-day.

Extreme Ice Survey cameras at Risting Glacier. Photo Courtesy of Extreme Ice Survey ©Earth Vision Trust

Turning back into Drygalski Fjord in the late afternoon of the next day, our hopes for calm winds are squashed by the telling whitecaps running down the fjord. The wind is steady at 40 knots. Captain Oliver turns the National Geographic Explorer sideways to the wind, providing a brief lull to load the Zodiac without getting completely drenched, a luxury that won’t last long.

Our eyes search the fjord wall for a relatively safe spot to install the cameras and we come to agree that a small rock perch about 200 feet up from the water and just over one mile from the terminus will work (it also happens to coincide with the terminus location as recently as 1993). Eric Guth, our newest honorary EIS team member and Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic photo instructor extraordinaire, navigates a small kelp-filled bay and lands us ashore on a wind protected beach covered by a few dozen, ridiculously cute, fur seal pups. After unloading the equipment, Dan and I heave the horribly unbalanced battery packs over our shoulders and sneak our way past a few sleeping seals and continue up the slippery slope to our install site. At this point I’d say our clothes are manageably wet, but now that we’re exposed to the full force of the wind and sideways rain, that quickly begins to change. The drilling begins, wires are tightened, and the housings go up as quickly as our wet and frozen fingers allow. The wind is making even small tasks incredibly difficult, but we manage to get two of the cameras running without too much rain soaking the housings. By now, our Gore-Tex outerwear appears as if we took a casual swim in the fjord. Just as the chill really starts to set in, we finish up and scramble back to our wind-protected beach.

The seals stare curiously as each of us instinctively break into silly dances and jumping jacks, perhaps interpreted as a celebration after installing cameras eight and nine, but in reality, a feeble attempt to warm our core until the Explorer returns for us in about an hour. A difficult installation no doubt, but the warmth and comfort of the Explorer quickly changes our fortune. We’re left thinking about the real hardships of the great explorers of the past, knowing we probably had that coming.

Rounding the Tip of the Antarctic Peninsula

Field Notes from Stephen Nowland, Staff Photographer for Earth Vision Trust and the Extreme Ice Survey.

The Antarctic Peninsula separates the warm maritime climate of the Bellingshausen Sea to the west and the cold, dry continental climate of the Weddell Sea to the east. Thus far, we have been traveling and working along the western edge, but this morning, we crossed the tip and passed into a different world. For one, there is a notable nip to the air and a jacket is requisite for even a quick foray to the ship deck. Second, our idea of icebergs now takes on a whole new meaning, as enormous tabular icebergs now dominate the landscape. These floating fortresses often dwarf our ship and come in beautiful, strange shapes, sculpted by the interplay of water and air.

Our first stop, Brown Bluff, on the northeastern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, is a penguin paradise. Slick rounded stones and a gentle grade allow the penguins easy access to the ocean and their abundant food supply. As we pull up to the shore, beautiful blue-white icebergs rock gently in the relatively calm, shallow waters of the bay. Gentoo penguins surround us as we walk down the beach. These gentle, docile creatures waddle to and fro, enjoying the fading moments of the Antarctic summer. The penguins here are in various stages of molting, pushing out their down feathers in preparation for the long, cold, Antarctic winter ahead. For the first time in the history of the Extreme Ice Survey, we will be installing a camera, not to photograph a calving face of a glacier, but to photograph another face, or to be precise, many, many faces. These cameras will watch a large Adélie penguin colony, or at least we hope it will. For now, we must be happy with a few stragglers and an odorous landscape of guano and rocks.

The Adélies, who are now out at sea, will return around September, filling this landscape with thousands of nesting pairs. Adélie penguins are feeling the impacts of the warming climate acutely. Increased temperatures, coupled with decreased sea ice and increased snowfall are acting in concert to drive these penguins further south along the peninsula. Over the next few years, these cameras will capture so much: the land, the sea, the wildlife, the ice as well as the coming and going of seasons, the colony as it grows and shrinks then grows again. No doubt there will be many other surprises that will reveal themselves with time, but until then, we must wait. This marks the sixth and seventh cameras deployed since leaving Ushuaia, and from our standpoint, one of the more aesthetically pleasing installation sites.

The cameras at Brown Bluff come on the heels of another successful camera installation at Cierva Cove. The jaw-dropping beauty of Cierva is hard to translate into words. Here, skua birds, numbering in the hundreds soar overhead, sometimes diving and swooping close when we cross some unseen boundary around their nests. We respect their claim and find alternate routes to get to our final destination, which is a rock outcropping overlooking the glacier and the sea. From our perch high on the cliffs overlooking the calving face of the Cierva Cove glacier, these cameras will record time and movement of this dramatic scene; in the process creating a visual preservation of what this glacier is now, and what it will transform into in the future.

The weather on the peninsula has been forgiving to us and it’s hard to believe we made it through the last few days without a dark sky or stiff breeze. Tonight we turn our attention further north to South Georgia Island, again faced with the potentially volatile waters of the southern ocean. The Captain says it’s looking a bit gusty.

Visit EarthVisionTrust.org to discover how the images gathered by the Extreme Ice Survey network of time-lapse cameras clearly demonstrate the effects of Climate Change.

Photos Courtesy of Extreme Ice Survey ©Earth Vision Trust

Success on the Antarctic Peninsula!

by Dan McGrath, Resident Scientist, Earth Vision Trust.

The faint glow of the soon to be rising sun welcomes our arrival as we nose into Andvord Bay on the western Antarctic Peninsula. We passed unscathed through the Drake Passage thanks to calm conditions and quickly motored south to 64˚ 50’. Here, the glaciers literally fall off the mountains around us, with cascading icefalls and crumbling seracs lining the mirror calm waters of the un-charted inner Neko Harbor. Adélie penguins playfully wander around on a small iceberg near the ship and in the distance, ripples emanate from the minke whale that just surfaced. The Captain wakes us from our near-dream state to notify us that the Zodiac is being lowered on the starboard side and it’s time to load our equipment.

As we pull ashore, the sun peeks out from behind the spine of the peninsula, with golden rays bathing the highest peaks down to the ice-choked bays. Gentoo penguin chicks encased in their fluffy down jackets chase their sleek ocean worthy parents around, hoping for another krill meal. We know we only have a few hours to deploy our first two cameras, but it’s hard to pull ourselves away from this shoreline and the nearly overwhelming sensory overload it presents. When we finally manage to, we steadily trudge up the snow slope with heavily laden packs, the batteries seemingly gaining weight by the step. Odd shaped aluminum towers, tripod arms, and camera housings awkwardly protrude from our loads. We reach the first crest and in the distance, silhouetted against the glacier’s calving front is a narrow rock rib. The team agrees that this is our spot and starts a rising track to reach this point. The main structure is quickly bolted into place; taut guy wires quickly follow, ensuring that our cameras survive the brutal wind and snow that will soon punish them. Next up are the solar panels and batteries, quickly followed by the two camera housings. James intuitively arranges the housings, aligning the Nikon D3200’s point of view to match our envisioned expectations. The crackle of the VHF radio brings a reminder that the ship will be pulling anchor in 45 minutes and well, we better be there! With a final push of the “Test” button, Matt waits for the reassuring “Click” of the shutter before snapping the cases closed. We snap a few final photos of the installation, quickly repack our tools and scamper down the slippery slope towards the landing. We board the Zodiac and push through the thick brash ice towards the National Geographic Explorer with barely a few minutes to spare.

Back on board, we frantically charge our drill and camera batteries, while simultaneously scarfing down lunch. In what seems like ten minutes, Lisa, the Expedition Leader, announces that we’ll be dropping anchor in Orne Harbor shortly, where we hope to install an additional camera this afternoon. We repack our bags and rush down to the loading hatch, where the Zodiac already awaits us. We pile the gear high and head to shore. The local welcoming committee, a rather gregarious group of fur seals, momentarily squabbles about our presence before resuming their afternoon nap. Up the hill we go again, with the late afternoon sun pouring down on us. We reach a rocky ridge 500 feet above the bay, where we turn left up a steep ridgeline. The glacier pours down the valley in the near distance, full of deep blue shades, sharp cracks, and wonderful shapes. This site is a bit trickier—an exposed perch precipitously hanging over what feels to be the ocean. Matt and I establish an anchor and quickly get to work. The wall mount goes up, the guy wires go out, the solar panels get bolted on; our patient eyes quickly begin to take shape. Matt runs through the final checks again and before long, we’re latching the case closed.


Walking down to the boat, with the sun just starting to dip low in the sky, it’s hard to believe that the alarm at 4:30 a.m. was actually earlier today—it truly feels like it could have been a week ago. The past 14 hours have been incredible; a day filled with alpenglow light, breaching whales, warm mid-day sun, curious penguins, and cascading glaciers—all capped by three cameras now capturing a visual record of the world around them. There’s no time to rest though, tomorrow is another opportunity and we’re currently organizing our equipment and charging our batteries for two more installations. Fingers crossed that the good weather continues!

Photos Courtesy of Extreme Ice Survey ©Earth Vision Trust

Where Land Meets the Southern Ocean

By The Extreme Ice Survey, aboard National Geographic Explorer

Before you can install time-lapse cameras in Antarctica, you have to get there, which is no small task coming from our home base of Boulder, CO. Getting to the small port town of Ushuaia, Argentina (the southern-most town in the world), you must take three flights stretched out over two sleep-deprived days. Then there is the luggage which is basically a heaping pile of overstuffed duffle bags bursting at the zippers with fragile cameras and timers, as well as, heavy climbing equipment and warm clothes. We ruminate constantly about delayed flights and lost baggage–forever an expedition’s beginning hurdle.

Driving down the cruise ship-lined wharf in Ushuaia, we are met by the friendly Lindblad Expeditions crew, collect our coveted and complete bags, and walk aboard the National Geographic Explorer–our home for the next 21 days. The Explorer, as it’s commonly referred to, stretches over 300 feet long and dons the familiar golden rectangle signifying Lindblad Expeditions alliance with National Geographic. She is an impressive ship, meticulously maintained, and at a glance appears to be the most seaworthy vessel at the dock. Lindblad Expeditions has been generous enough to support our ambitious goal to deploy 12 time-lapse cameras all along the Antarctic Peninsula and on South Georgia Island.

The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the fastest warming regions of our planet. The ongoing changes here are a likely precursor to future changes that may occur throughout the continent if warming continues as predicted. Over the next three weeks we will use the Explorer as home base and install our time-lapse cameras as conditions allow. The goal is to let the cameras take a photo every hour for at least the next five years, and in the process, amass a visual record of these dramatic changes on the Peninsula. Zodiacs will transport us from the ship to our landings, we will have a short 3-hour window to hike to our site, deploy the cameras, and return to the ship. Conditions on the ground can range from sunny and 30˚F to biting cold, with gusty winds and sideways snow or sleet. We hold high hopes for the former, but come prepared for the latter. Either way, by sunburnt noses, frost nipped fingers, or soaked feet, we will have our first Nikon D3200 time-lapse camera installed within the next 36-48 hours.

The sun is now setting behind the mountains of Tierra del Fuego National Park, and the ship is moving smoothly through the benign waters of the Beagle Channel en route for the Drake Passage, 580 nautical miles of open water that separates us from Antarctica and home to some of the most unpredictable and rough seas in the world. Our crates of time-lapse equipment, which we had last seen back at a University of Colorado shipping yard this past November, are patiently waiting for us on the back deck of the Explorer. This could be our last chance to take advantage of calm seas and mild temperatures to pre-assemble as much equipment as possible, so we are building camera mounts, preparing our battery cases and wiring solar panels, all to quicken our deployments on the other side of the Drake. We’ll fasten our crates down tight tonight–who knows what the sea will bring tomorrow.