Sunday, December 31, 2006

How The Penguins Send Us Email

It’s storming again. The Antarctic winds are sweeping the last of the Christmas snow seaward. The Ross Sea is a dark, hammered steel, with no sea ice save for the vivid white of the grounded bergs near shore. But mostly the thick curtain of blowing snow is concealing it all, revealing glimpses only when the wind slows and the snow settles for an instant.

I feel restless. We have piles of dark chocolate and other sweets in the hut but what can we do with all this energy when we can’t go outside?


There are 7 birds equipped with various instruments that have just returned to the colony and I am totally itching to go retrieve them, but the weather is way too unstable right now (60 mph winds and a white out) and we have a long walk to the colony and back. Hiking uphill in this wind totally sucks. You get pushed and shoved and you fall on the hard, slick snow surface and your eyes sting from the blowing snow like hard sand and you can't see a thing, though if the wind catches you by surprise you can almost always follow the rock line back to the hut. We also prefer not to pull the birds off their nests when it’s windy, especially now that the chicks are big enough to run around and out of the nest on their own (most are still a bit wobbly, with stomachs so round and fat and full of food that they mostly tumble around). We'll leave the tags on until the wind eases, hoping that this storm won’t cause the birds to abandon their nests, as they did during a particularly heavy snow storm in January 2005 when all the nests were buried in 1-2 feet of snow and the adults took the opportunity to begin their northward migrations early, along with our precious instruments.

Chicks! Small but already bottom-heavy...

An Adélie, wearing a newly equipped Splash tag and radio transmitter, preening before heading out to sea

The instruments, mostly Splash tags, tell us how deep the birds are diving and where they go while foraging for their chicks at sea. The tags communicate with Argos satellites whenever the penguins are on the water surface. The satellites then email us an automatic message with the birds’ latitude and longitude, so we essentially get emails from the penguins telling us where they are. If we are able to retrieve the tag we can also download the diving data for the entire foraging trip, so we know how deep and how frequently the birds were diving at each location (Adélie penguins can dive as deep as 150 m, though most of the birds here this season are diving to 20-70 m).

The penguins' emails arrive each day shortly after 1 PM, and we instantly process them and map them to see how far they are and how soon we can expect to see them back at the colony.

Map showing Ross Island with the three Adélie colonies (Crozier, Royds, and Bird) and the satellite positions we have received to date (December 12-29)


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