Dispatches from an Antarctic Co-op: Climate Change
My name is Jake Grondin. I’m a rising junior in the College of Science, majoring in Biology, with minors in Physics and Math. I am one of two co-ops currently residing at Palmer Station, Antarctica working in Professor Bill Detrich’s lab. In this blog I am sharing my experiences on this incredible continent, and I hope you will continue to read along.
This co-op is one of the reasons I came to Northeastern, and I’ll start by saying it is most definitely not for everyone. As a research assistant, I work in the labs and stay on station through the Antarctic winter. Even though I’ve only been here for a short time, Palmer Station has become a very special place to me, and I am thrilled to be able to share this continent with the rest of the University and beyond.
If you haven’t already, read Jake’s previous posts here:
Monday, Palmer station was greeted to an early morning display of the rare nacreous clouds. These are probably some of the most beautiful clouds I have ever seen, however they represent something much sinister in the grand scheme of things. You see, nacreous clouds form as a result of the supercooled stratosphere actually forming ice crystals. This is rare since the stratosphere is typically quite dry, and therefore takes surprisingly low temperatures to actually form a cloud. Once a nacreous cloud is formed, its ice crystals act as a site for chlorofluorocarbons, which contain chlorine, to break apart. This breakdown releases the chlorine as gas which can react with the ozone in the stratosphere, poking holes in the protective layer over earth. To learn more about the formation of nacreous clouds, check out this article!
The ozone hole I mentioned is most prominent over Antarctica. This means that the protective atmospheric layer shielding us from UV is weakened, and more direct exposure to sunlight can be harmful to our bodies on the ice. Essentially, this means on a weak ozone day, I can get a sunburn from being outside… In Antarctica.
Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are present in aerosols and refrigerants. Years of human abuse have amassed many particles of CFCs in the atmosphere, and while a great deal of work has been done to stop more CFCs from entering the atmosphere, CFCs survive in the stratosphere for far longer than we’d like, up to 100 years (according to research from Columbia University). As long as they are in the atmosphere, they pose a threat to the ozone layer, meaning that even though we’ve decreased their release dramatically, the ozone layer is far from healed.
So how did these clouds come to be? Well, as I said they come from supercooled stratospheres. This doesn’t sound like something that global warming may cause, but that’s exactly it. Greenhouse gases stuck in lower levels of the atmosphere absorb heat, and as a result they can pull heat from higher atmospheric layers to help cool the stratosphere. Also, global warming causes more extreme temperature swings seasonally, meaning a harsher winter may means more nacreous formation. All in all, with this beauty it is also a reminder that the ozone is being eaten away because of mankind.
Unfortunately, the ozone hole is not the only real time effect of climate change we can witness on station. Palmer Station sits at the foot of the Marr Piedmont Glacier, which is actively melting and receding as a result of warmer summer temperatures. Veterans of the program who have been on station for years and years have seen visible changes in the footprint of the Marr Piedmont. New islands have shown themselves (most notably, Detrich island named after Northeastern’s own Dr. Detrich) and new bodies of water have formed (pictures below).
Living in Antarctica has given me a newfound appreciation for nature, and has showed me firsthand the effects of climate change. From the stunning nacreous clouds to the rocky edges of the glacier and passing icebergs, we are constantly reminded of the damage humans cause to our planet. It provides almost daily reminders that we need to be more conscious as a species to conserve the planet we live on, or landscapes like the Antarctic peninsula will change permanently.