Blood, sweat and seals in Antarctic

La station Mendel en Antarctique, photo: Kamil Láska, Université Masaryk de Brno

A fifteen-member team of Czech scientists has recently returned from what was already their 10th expedition to the James Ross Island in the Antarctica. The scientists from Masaryk University in Brno have been involved in polar research since 1980’s and since 2006 they have their own base on the island. I talked to one of the polar team members, Professor Miloš Barták, about this year’s expedition but I first asked him how Czechs ended up on James Ross Island in the first place:

Gregor Mendel station,  photo: Kamil Láska / Masaryk University in Brno
“It was quite a long history. We have been trying to find a proper place in Antarctica to establish a Czech base for quite a long time and after some ten years of prospecting and consulting with experts in the field we agreed that the James Ross Island would be the best place to establish the Czech base.

“We have identified some eight locations where the Czech station could be established and in the end we have chosen the one that was best from the logistic point of view.

“After some ten years of experience we can say that our choice was the right one and the place where the Gregor Mendel station is located is a really nice one.”

The previous expeditions have failed to transport the equipment all the way to the base due to the iceberg blocking the way. I believe this year you were more successful. Is that right?

“Honestly, we have been suffering from the sea ice cover which has been permanent over the past two or three years, so we had quite serious problems to get to the station.

“In the past years we travelled to Antarctica on board of icebreakers, but due to the ice we were not able to get closer to the station to start the logistic operation using the rubber boats.

“So that was why we decided to go by helicopters this season and from the logistic point of view that was a good decision because the transport time was short so we were able to be present at the island from the very first week of January.”

You have installed several photovoltaic panels on the base. Does that mean it will be self-sufficient energetically?

James Ross Island,  photo: NASA
“Well this year we started a sort of testing run of the photo-voltaic panels and we may say now that it was a very good decision, since there were some days with no clouds during which we could cover all the energy consumption of the station. I think the record was five days in a line.

“On the other hand there were also some cloudy and windy days. During these days we used the wind energy since there are some eight wind turbines installed in the close proximity of the station.

“But there were also some very bad days in terms of energy when we had to retreat to very traditional way which is the diesel aggregates.”

The plane has also enabled you carry special all-terrain vehicles. What are they good for?

“Speaking honestly, we were forced to that, because we couldn’t travel by rubber boats to the more distant places on the island due to the sea ice.

“So that’s was why we decided to buy some four-wheel vehicles, which deliver the cargo for establishing field camps in the distant locations on the island.”

You travel to the James Ross Island during the polar summer – how long does it last and what are the conditions like there at the time? What is the average temperature?

“The James Ross Island is not very continental Antarctic-like. During the summer temperature is ranging from minus ten to plus five degrees Celsius, which is quite easy to survive.

Photo: archive of Masaryk University in Brno
“What can be a problem, though, is the sensitive temperature, because of high wind speed and relative air humidity. The sensitive temperature might be even twenty degrees Celsius below the real temperature.

“So sometimes you really suffer from the cold and even during the summer time season you must be well dressed when you work outside to be prepared for such rapid changes in weather.”

You also had a doctor in your team monitoring the health of the expedition members to see how the extreme conditions in the Antarctica affect them. What did you find out?

“Yes, that’s right. There was a doctor as a regular member of the crew and this year we also had an immunologist in the team. So the team members were monitored each day by classical blood pressure monitor. The doctors also monitored other immunological parameters taken from blood.

“Basically the principle of the testing and monitoring was to find out whether there is a sort of acclimation of the members to cold weather and winter-time climatic factors.

“So the conclusion is that thanks to the acclimation to lower temperatures, the immunological responses of the team members improved in two or three weeks upon the arrival to the base.”

"Sometimes of course it is not easy to catch the penguin, because some of the species run pretty fast."

I believe the main focus of your research this year was the study of the decaying seal bodies, because there is an unusually high number of dead seals on the island. Why is that? Can you tell me more about that?

“It's a pretty long story but I'll do my best to make it short. The James Ross Island is very typical for high abundance of dead seals. Most of them die because they search for open water.

“Some bays around the island are closed by sea ice each winter so the seals are trying to find an alternative how to move to the open sea are. So they try to cross the island but because the altitudes are pretty high (some of the saddles are 150 or 200 metres they die because they are exhausted.

“The research of the Czech team is a sort of continuation of what the British scientists did some eight years ago. We ask a simple question. Can the carcasses be a source of nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorous in particular, to give origin of what is call a vegetative oasis?

“This year we collaborated with many specialists, algaeologists and analytical chemists, in taking the samples and trying to answer the question whether the carcasses are the source of nutrients for development of vegetation at the James Ross Island.”

What have you concluded? Or is it too early to arrive at any conclusions?

“Basically it is still in the process. The samples that were taken during the expedition are now being analysed. But what can be mentioned from the botanical point of view is that it depends on the availability of liquid water.

“It is quite obvious that dead seals are really the source of nitrogen and phosphorous but the question is whether or not those nutrients are released from the bodies.

Photo: archive of Masaryk University in Brno
“In some cases they are quite fixed, the body is not disturbed and the nutrients remain within the body. But if the body is destroyed and if there is some snow close to the body, then it works like a natural bio-reactor: there are nutrients and there is water, so it is like a vegetation green spot in close proximity of the body.”

You also collaborated with your colleagues from Chile in monitoring the penguin populations? How did the monitoring look like and what was its purpose?

“I wouldn't call it monitoring, because it implies a study of a large quantities of individuals, which is not the case at James Ross Island. The number of penguins visiting the island is rather small because of the sea ice and also because of the weather.

“When we were asked by Chilean scientists to collaborate, we started to take the blood samples to provide genetic material to study the population diversity. So the Chilean colleagues were taking samples in the western part of the Antarctic Peninsula, while we were taking samples in the eastern part.

“So our samples will be analysed in terms of biodiversity or genetic variability of the penguin populations.”

How exactly do you take a blood sample off a penguin? What does it look like?

“It needs some training. Some of the penguins are quite cool and you can approach them quite easily and if you put some sort of black cover over their heads, it is easy to relax them and then you take the blood sample just you do it with people. And the only point you can take the blood sample is the penguin's leg.

“Sometimes of course it is not easy to catch the penguin, because some of the species run pretty fast. In that case you need at least two people to catch the penguin. But we were not disturbing the penguin communities. The first rule is to keep them relaxed even during the sampling.”

"Many people who visited the polar region would probably tell you that once you get there, you simply fall in love with the countryside."

You have also collected biological and mineral samples, for instance of seaweed and algae, which you are now analysing. What is the purpose of this analysis? How can it be put to use?

“There are many ways how to use the samples. The first one is analytical chemistry. A few years ago the Czech team started studying heavy metals in the Antarctic environment, and this year we were analytical chemist took samples from different ecosystems on the island and also from the seal carcasses.

“So what we expect from his data is the evaluation of mercury coming from the sea, through the fish and through the seal into the terrestrial ecosystem.

“The other way is to analyse biological items such as algae and cyanobacteria, which are very tiny green plants living in the Antarctic terrestrial ecosystems, and we are interested in proportion of those particular organisms in different ecosystems on the James Ross Island.

“And the third way of analysis is of course to evaluate the potential of algae and cyanobacteria for technologies. There are many secondary compounds produced by algae and cyanobacteria that are not well-known. What we are interested in is to isolate them, to describe them chemically, and to study their potential for biotechnologies.”

You have told me that this was your eighth visit to the James Ross Island.

What do you personally like about the place so much?

“I think it's not just my own experience. Many people who visited the polar region would probably tell you that once you get there, you simply fall in love with the countryside.

“My feeling is that James Ross Island is a really nice place to be and to study the natural ecosystem and if I am lucky I am going to go there next year again to see the natural beauties of the James Ross Island.”