A frozen wilderness at the end of the earth, the sheer size and scientific significance of Antarctica exceeds all expectations. We caught up with Bob Gilmore, the Citizen Science Coordinator on board Hebridean Sky – one of our favourite expedition ships – about how passengers on board the ship can get involved with important research.
Antarctica is unlike anywhere else on Earth – how would you describe this fascinating continent?
I think David Attenborough said it best: “At a time when it’s possible for 30 people to stand on the top of Everest in one day, Antarctica still remains a remote, lonely and desolate continent. A place where it’s possible to see the splendours and immensities of the natural world at its most dramatic and, what’s more, witness them almost exactly as they were, long, long before human beings ever arrived on the surface of this planet.”
Can you explain what the Citizen Science programme is and what it aims to achieve?
Scientists conducting research projects in Antarctica often face huge expenditures of time, money, and resources to travel to the continent and gather the real-world data their studies require. But we bring hundreds of passengers to Antarctica every year – our Citizen Science programme allows our passengers to learn more about this special destination while providing valuable data to ongoing research projects in the area.
What is your role?
As the Citizen Science Coordinator, it’s my job to find and connect with research institutions and work with them to develop onboard programmes that can be fun and engaging for our passengers, while serving each programme’s data collection needs.
How crucial are volunteers on board Hebridean Sky to the Citizen Science programme?
Many academic studies rely on ‘big data’ in order to track trends, for instance, Cornell University’s ornithology lab has been running Citizen Science projects on bird populations for many years. One such project, eBird, received three million data sets from citizen scientists in 2015 alone, recording sightings of 10,000 species of bird around the globe. The beauty of Citizen Science is that collectively we can make a difference that we can’t make individually. Putting research teams on the ground in Antarctica is challenging and costly. Our volunteers provide data that would cost thousands of dollars if collected by research scientists.
What sorts of activities do the volunteers take part in and do they need any specific skills?
We have five major disciplines that guests can participate in: oceanography, marine biology, meteorology, ornithology and glaciology. There is no skill or experience required. Projects are fully hands-on. For instance, when doing oceanographic studies we physically lower a water-gatherer over the side of the ship in the middle of the Drake Passage to get saline percentages and water temperatures. Guests read the instruments and record the data themselves, we then send that information to the participating scientists at the end of the season for their analysis.
What do you see as the biggest threat to the Antarctic continent?
The same global temperature rise that threatens the rest of the planet also threatens Antarctica. For a number of reasons the effects of temperature change are less obvious in the Antarctic than they are in the Arctic, but it is having measurable effects, and as temperatures continue to rise, those effects are becoming more obvious.
What is the most drastic evidence that climate change is affecting Antarctica?
A recent article in Scientific American featured a study that shows that moss growth in Antarctica has increased significantly due to rising temperatures. The effect is pernicious – moss absorbs sunlight rather than reflecting it as snow or ice would, so more moss means higher surface temperatures, which in turn increases moss growth.
How is the research carried out by the Citizen Science programme helping in the fight against climate change?
The data we collect goes directly to scientists who are studying trends that inform conservation efforts and policies. For example, in one of our studies, we have partnered up with the Scripps Institute of Oceanography to provide phytoplankton samples. The scientists at Scripps are wondering how and if the summer glacial meltwater (adding freshwater to a saltwater environment) and warmer temperatures are affecting wildlife populations. Phytoplankton is the basis of the entire food chain in Antarctica, so if that is being negatively affected, the entire ecosystem will be affected.
What is your favourite part of being a Citizen Science Coordinator?
Helping scientists further their understanding of the fragile polar ecosystems while allowing our passengers and staff to have a hands-on approach in investigating their own inquiries.
What precautions do you take to make sure that your work on board Hebridean Sky and across the Antarctic is not harmful to the surrounding environment?
Hebridean Sky underwent a 10 million dollar refit last spring; the refit included an engine overhaul that has significantly reduced fuel consumption, thereby reducing our carbon footprint. Additionally, we and other Antarctic tour operators observe a number of protocols regarding waste that are specified in the Antarctic Treaty. Polar Latitudes, who operate Hebridean Sky, is also a member of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), an organisation founded in 1991 to advocate and promote the practice of safe and environmentally responsible private-sector travel to the Antarctic. IAATO’s efforts to protect Antarctica are rigorous and ongoing.
Finally – why would you urge people to visit Antarctica?
Antarctica is one of the last true wilderness areas on Earth. It’s like visiting another planet without leaving this one. Everyone needs to gain this perspective in their lives.
Photos courtesy of Polar Latitudes & The Hebridean Sky