Bare Earth Elements: Cool time-lapse shows movement of ice and animals in Antarctica's Ross Sea

Oceanographic researchers rode the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer through the icy Ross Sea this past austral summer.

Credit: 

©Eli Duke, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

Has anyone else been obsessed with Antarctica lately? As an erstwhile scientist with a lasting interest in the life that inhabits what we think of as extreme environments (not to mention the physical environments themselves), I’ve been gleefully soaking up details from the myriad news reports, blog entries and scientific studies coming out of the icy continent of late.

Frequent reports have come out of an international trio of efforts this past winter (summer in Antarctica) to drill into deep sub-glacial lakes: Lake Vostok, Lake Ellsworth and the Whillans Ice Stream. Michael Becker’s excellent series of posts for New York Times’ “Scientist at Work” blog about scuba diving beneath the ice to study life in Lake Untersee kept me riveted from January through early April. And I’ve had opportunities myself to speak with several Antarctic scientist-explorers lately.

The latest bit of fodder for my Antarctophilia is a 5-minute time-lapse video (below) taken from the icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer during a recent two-month stint in the Ross Sea. It was shot by Cassandra Brooks, a marine scientist with several years of experience as a science communicator who is now a doctoral student studying policy in Stanford University’s Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources. The video features stunning footage and excellent narration of the expedition’s travels through and among massive flotillas of sea ice.

Brooks and other scientists were on board to study and track phytoplankton blooms that thrive in ice-free patches of the nutrient-rich water off the coast of Antarctica. While there, Brooks also blogged about the trip for National Geographic and collected the footage that went into this time-lapse sequence. The finished product gives an amazing, albeit arm-chair, sense not only of the vastness and beauty of the environment, but also the amazing variety of forms that sea ice can take. It also gives a hint of just how treacherous such icebound voyages must be, as the ship at times navigates gingerly (or as gingerly as a 94-meter research vessel can manage) through narrow cracks and passages among thick floes of ice in search of open water.

I can’t say much more about the video you can’t learn by watching it yourself. If you’re a lover of all things Antarctica (including penguins!), it’ll be well worth your time. The video has been making the rounds online — everywhere from Smithsonian.com to The Atlantic to Boing Boing — since Brooks posted it earlier this month. She was generous enough to email some comments about her experience and respond to a few of my questions:

Cassandra Brooks: “While during this last trip to the Antarctic I was doing oceanography work, I'm actually studying Antarctic policy for my dissertation, and in particular, the process for marine protection in the Southern Ocean. Protecting the Ross Sea has been highly contentious because it is also the location of the southernmost fishery in the world — an incredibly lucrative international fishery for, [for example], Antarctic toothfish (sold on the market as Chilean sea bass).

“I feel super lucky to have gone to the Antarctic, which is why I try to blog or make media to share the experience. … It’s been really rewarding to have so many people connect with the video. Somehow, it seems, I've finally been able to provide a window into the Southern Ocean. It definitely makes the months of collecting time-lapse (and editing) worthwhile. It is the most austere and beautiful landscape on Earth. I find it utterly captivating and grounding.”

TO: How many hours of footage did you sift through to produce the 5-minute video?

CB: I had 27 difference sequences that I shot from the front of the boat. Basically, when the weather allowed it (and when I could pry myself away from the lab), especially on those amazing sunny days, I'd run up to the bridge and out onto the walkway in front of it. I'd attach my GoPro [camera] … to the railing and set it to a 2-second time-lapse. I left it there until the battery died, which was usually about an hour or so (the cold really kills it fast sometimes). I had probably more than 25 hours of video from the front of the boat. I condensed it and sped up time, then cut it down to four minutes and added the penguin sequences at the end.

TO: The time-lapse and your narration really bring the ice to life, along with the plankton and the penguins. Did you find you were more fascinated by the shifting ice or by the life that manages to thrive in that environment?

CB: It’s hard to say what was most mesmerizing. I love being out at sea in the Antarctic, discovering new insights into how the ecosystem works. It’s especially exciting to work in the Ross Sea, where the marine ecosystem is still intact and undamaged by human activities. You have so much wildlife — penguins, seals, whales and seabirds — and amazing fish like toothfish and silverfish, which have antifreeze in their blood as a means to survive the frigid waters.

Most research cruises in the Ross Sea take place in the [Antarctic] summer when there is much more open water and warmer weather. But we had the amazing opportunity to be in the Ross Sea as the summer was turning to fall. As the days went on the ice got thicker and thicker, the scene changed dramatically day to day, and sometimes even over the course of a single day. We could at times stand outside (or inside where it was warm) and watch the ice form, then grow. I couldn't have imagined the diverse textures, patterns and formations the ice created. And during sunrise and sunset, the colors were spectacular.

TO: Do you have plans for future multimedia projects to accompany your research?

CB: Always! Going to the Antarctic is such an amazing opportunity and privilege, and one that I am eager to share. This was my fourth trip to the Antarctic and every time I go I have tried to write, blog or produce media in some way. I've gotten better at it over the years (and it helps that … I am married to a critically acclaimed photographer and filmmaker), but this was my first time working with … such long time-lapse sequences. It was a new challenge. I definitely hope to continue using media to communicate science and to spark people's interest in (and hopefully love for) the Antarctic.

Timothy Oleson
Tuesday, May 14, 2013 - 17:00

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