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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Science On Ice

A photographer chronicles scientific expeditions in the polar regions

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A penguin researcher climbs a ridge at Cape Crozier, which is known as Penguin City, with about 150,000 breeding pairs. Adélie penguins breed in a number of places along the Antarctic coast, from the Ross Sea in the south to the Antarctic Peninsula far to the north. At Cape Crozier, the trip to the ocean is quick, but given the large number of birds, the competition for food is intense. At smaller colonies, the penguins may have farther to walk, but life is a bit easier.
The Greenland Ice Sheet is the second-largest body of ice in the world, after the Antarctic Ice Sheet. At 1.7-million-square kilometers, it covers roughly 80% of the surface of Greenland and is more than four times the size of the state of California.

"It's a dynamic place that changes every day," says Linder. "It's like watching the Grand Canyon being formed only in accelerated time because water is cutting through the ice so much faster than it does through rock. Everything you photograph is water, either liquid or frozen."

And everywhere he stepped was water, either liquid or frozen. Linder recalls camping on the ice sheet during a scientific expedition in an area pockmarked with water-filled holes several feet deep. These "cryoconite holes" form when dust containing soot settles onto a glacier, absorbs the sun's heat and melts the ice underneath. One night it snowed, and Linder awoke to a seemingly smooth white surface on the glacier, only to plunge waist-deep into one of the frigid camouflaged holes upon leaving his tent. It has been these kinds of moments that have helped him appreciate what it takes for scientists to collect data in such difficult working conditions.

Another moment was camping on Ross Island at Cape Crozier, one of the windiest and harshest places in Antarctica. Linder and the penguin researchers he photographed weathered storms that shredded the fabric on their tents and bent the poles that held them in place. During the storms, sleep was impossible, and just walking was a struggle. Conducting research or making photographs is difficult to imagine when survival takes top priority.

Chunks of multiyear sea ice tumble past the side of the icebreaker Oden in the Arctic Ocean. Since 2002, Linder has photographed two dozen science expeditions, including 14 to the polar regions.
"Antarctica is a place of extremes, and you don't think anything could survive there," says Linder, "but most of the life is concentrated in the water, and there's an explosion of biomass at certain times of the year. It starts with the little stuff—microscopic plants called phytoplankton. This feeds the zooplankton, which feeds krill, which feeds whales. It's incredible to see so much life supported by such tiny things."

He likens the time he spent with researchers among the 500,000 Adélie penguins at Cape Crozier to being in a city surrounded by small inhabitants. A constant dull roar from all of the birds' vocalizations filled the air, and a "fishy barnyard" odor created a heightened sensory experience.

"On Antarctica's Ross Island, penguins have no fear of people and are extremely curious," he says. "Photographically, it's overwhelming because there's so much going on. It's both a photographer's dream and a nightmare because you feel like you're missing opportunities everywhere."

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