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Journey to Antarctica: When the Best Laid Plans Go Awry

Even minor mishaps can have major repercussions on an isolated icebreaker at the end of the world

he Nathaniel Palmer moored at Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula.Credit: Tasha Snow

The Nathaniel Palmer moored at Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Tasha Snow

This is the seventh dispatch in a series from Jeff Goodell, who is in Antarctica investigating the effect of climate change on Thwaites Glacier.

Antarctica, a vast kingdom of ice at the end of the world, is not a place where you want to have a medical emergency. In the 1960s, a Russian doctor who was wintering at a remote research station diagnosed himself with acute appendicitis. He faced a choice: remove it himself or die. He removed it himself. In 1999, Jerri Nielsen, a physician who was winter-bound in a different Antarctic research station, discovered a lump in her breast. She performed a biopsy on herself after first practicing with needles on raw chicken. She diagnosed herself with breast cancer and began treatment with chemotherapy drugs parachuted in by the U.S. Air Force. Nielsen survived her time in Antarctica and went on to write a book about it. She died from cancer in 2009.

The Nathaniel Palmer, the icebreaker I’m aboard in Antarctica, is far better equipped for medical emergencies than a remote field station. But we’re still in Antarctica, and when people get hurt or sick, it’s a harrowing experience. Last week, when one of my shipmates woke up with what the emergency medical technician on board feared could be an acute illness, it suddenly became clear to everyone that we were a long way from civilization, in the middle of the Amundsen Sea, surrounded by water, ice and sky. No helicopter could reach us. No doctor could parachute in. In the end, there was nothing to do but speed ahead to Rothera, a British research station on the Antarctica Peninsula that was a four-day-long journey away, and hope our shipmate’s condition didn’t take a turn for the worse. (For obvious privacy reasons, I’ve been asked not to reveal any personal details about the individual who took ill.)

For me, the medical emergency just underscored the difficulty of doing anything in Antarctica, much less care for a seriously ill human being. There are 57 people on this ship, all of whom are extremely hard-working, smart, thoughtful and experienced. Still, shit goes wrong. All the time.

Consider the troubles with our two Zodiacs. A Zodiac is a rugged, inflatable boat that that can easily be lifted from the main deck with the ship’s crane and dropped into the water for any adventure or task. Marine techs use the Zodiacs like Ubers, ferrying scientists to glaciers or recovering instruments floating in the sea or for practically any other odd job that comes up. The Zodiacs on the Palmer are the same heavy-duty versions used by the Navy SEALS — they’re fast, maneuverable, and sea-worthy. And yet the other day, both of our Zodiacs were knocked out of service within 24 hours.

The first was damaged as it was lifted out of the water with the crane. The thrust board, which is fastened to the bottom of the boat and anchors the straps used to raise the boat, buckled while the vessel was in mid-air, dangling a few feet above the tumultuous sea. One of the marine techs was in the craft at the time. When the thrust board buckled, the Zodiac tilted a little. The marine tech understood what was happening and was back on the ship before she could think twice about it. But still, the Zodiac went out of commission.

A zodiac being lifted onto the ship. Photo by Jeff Goodell

A zodiac being lifted onto the ship. Photo by Jeff Goodell

Less than 24 hours later, the other Zodiac was deployed to lasso the Hugin, an automated underwater vehicle we have with us on the ship, after it surfaced. The seas were rough, and as the Zodiac operator approached the Hugin, the waves pushed the boat against the Hugin’s rudder, tearing a small hole in one of the Zodiac’s inflatable chambers. Air escaped and the chamber began to deflate. This was not a dire emergency, since Zodiacs have five separate air chambers and can easily stay afloat with four. But in rough seas, you take no chances. They went back to the ship anyway, leaving the Hugin adrift (it was later recovered). Marine techs eventually fixed the Zodiacs and now they’re ready to go again, but losing both at once was evidence of how quickly things can get weird.

On a ship like the Palmer, which is loaded with high-tech equipment — and is itself pretty high-tech — there is a lot of stuff that can go wrong. We lost a day or so at the beginning of the trip when one of the rudders had to be repaired. On another cruise, there was a fire in one of the ship’s labs (no one was hurt). And crew members who work with the vessel’s heavy equipment get banged and bruised. A year or so ago, a marine tech fell off the Zodiac into the sea (he was rescued). However professional and well-organized the ship’s crew may be, these kinds of accidents and troubles are inevitable on an adventure like this.

In Antarctica, the biggest uncertainty is always the weather. It can change in an instant, and the best laid plans have to be scrapped. One small example: The other day, before the Zodiacs were damaged, a half-dozen of us put on float coats (mandatory for any expedition on or near the water) to zip over to a small penguin-covered island to watch scientists tag seals and look for old shells and penguin bones that help researchers date past sea level changes. When we suited up, it was 10 below zero, with winds gusting to 25 MPH. Five minutes later, when I climbed down an icy ladder on the side of the ship and into the Zodiac, the winds were gusting to 35 MPH and the Zodiac was bucking in the rough seas. Fearing that once we got out to the island we might not get back, the crew called off the trip. It was the right decision. But scientists also lost a day of field work.

Of course, given the uncertainties of operating in Antarctica, every possible contingency is prepared for. When we loaded up our gear to go to the island for seal-tagging, we were required to bring survival bags with us, which were stocked with tents, a cooking stove, food and old Archie comic books to entertain us. “Just in case the weather changes and you get stuck out there,” Carmen Greto, a marine tech on the ship, told me. “Things happen fast around here. You have to be prepared.” To reduce the risk of a medical emergency, we all had to undergo fairly rigorous physical exams before we got on the ship, including a full dental check-up. (Surprisingly, wisdom tooth troubles are one of the biggest reasons for medical evacuations from Antarctica.) Besides cutting short science missions and eating into research budgets, medical emergencies take a financial toll on ship operators in Antarctica, as well as the National Science Foundation and other funders. One polar medical expert told me the cost of extracting someone from a ship in Antarctica begins at $150,000 and goes up fast from there — and that’s just for operational costs like planes, ships and fuel, and does not include medical costs.

To me, our emergency at sea was further evidence of just how tough it is to work in a place which is so cold and dark for half the year that may as well be a different planet, and where, even in the middle of summer, you need five layers of mountaineering gear to feel comfortable outside for more than 20 minutes. Doing science here, even in the best of conditions, is a heroic adventure, and the people on this ship show a competency and commitment to their work and to each other that is both inspiring and, frankly, a little insane. If the fools who criticize climate scientists for being corrupt or lusting for fame ever spent 10 minutes on a research vessel in Antarctica, they would see that the people who do this kind of work — the scientists, the crew, the support staff, the engineers — not only aren’t getting rich or famous, they are literally putting their lives on the line to pursue a deeper understanding of the risks the rest of us face in a warming world.

After four days at sea, plowing through sea ice at 13 knots (top speed for a big ship like this), we arrived at Rothera. The research base, with a summer population of about 150 scientists and staff, is wedged in a spectacular spot the Antarctic Peninsula, surrounded by snow-covered peaks and glaciers that slope down to the base’s steel-sided buildings. We stopped in deep water about a quarter mile from the wharf, which was being rebuilt. Five weather-beaten men in a rigid-hull inflatable boat from the British Antarctic Survey motored out to meet us. After some maneuvering in the choppy waves, the Brits tied up to the starboard side of the Palmer. Our ill shipmate walked out onto the main deck, looking a pale and fragile, but smiling. Hugs were given. Goodbyes were said. And with a little help, our shipmate descended the ladder onto the British boat. After the lines were cast in, away they went, rushing our shipmate to the base. A Dash 7 turboprop plane waited on the gravel runway for the four-hour flight to Punta Arenas, Chile, where the nearest major hospital is located.

Later, we got word that our shipmate had made it to Punta Arenas and was doing fine. On the Palmer, the mood changed immediately. We were happy for the good news, of course. But we were also happy it was time to turn the big ship around, return to the land of giant ice sheets, and get back to work.

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