The front of the Nathaniel B. Palmer ship is shown at the bottom of the photo breaking through ice floes.

Antarctica Dispatch 9: Thoughts on climate change and returning home

The researchers aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer are excited to return home after spending weeks studying Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica. While the comfort of their own beds await, there’s also the important work of writing up their research findings.

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The Nathaniel B. Palmer is headed back to port in Chile. Scientists aboard the vessel have spent the last several weeks conducting research at Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica.

There’s a sense of excitement to return home to family.

Victoria Fitzgerald and Scott Braddock are shown on one of the Schaefer Islands wearing heavy red jackets with Scott pointing off to the distance.
Victoria Fitzgerald, a PhD student at the University of Alabama, left, and Scott Braddock, a PhD student at the University of Maine, explore one of the Schaefer Islands off the west coast of Antarctica.Carolyn Beeler/The World

University of Alabama PhD student Victoria Fitzgerald is excited to see her 10-month-old daughter. “I left and she was barely crawling,” Fitzgerald said. “And now she’s like standing up for herself.” 

Aleksandra Mazur is shown putting Swedish flags in Mardi Gras pastries.
University of Gothenburg researcher Aleksandra Mazur helps prepare a traditional Swedish Mardi Gras pastry for the scientists and crew aboard the Palmer.Carolyn Beeler/The World

Other scientists expressed enthusiasm for simpler things one could take for granted on the mainland like fresh vegetables — long since absent in the pantry of the Palmer. And University of Gothenburg researcher Aleksandra Mazur longed for uninterrupted sleep, “[i]n complete silence. No voices, no ice hitting the ship,” she said.

Oceanographer Peter Sheehan is shown with a red jacket and white scarf with Thwaites glacier in the background.
Peter Sheehan, an oceanographer at the University of East Anglia, is photographed in front of Thwaites Glacier early on the morning of the Nathaniel B. Palmer’s arrival.Carolyn Beeler/The World

Oceanographer Peter Sheehan said he’s looking forward to the little things. “I’m looking forward to a glass of wine,” he said. “I’m looking forward to my own bed. I am looking forward to — I suppose just the little things like cycling to work — the little routines you don’t realize that you’d miss until you don’t have them anymore.”

Gui Bortolotto and Lars Boehme are shown leaning on a counter with Bortolotto holding a camera.
Gui Bortolotto and Lars Boehme, both from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, examine a photograph while on the bridge of the Nathaniel B. Palmer.Carolyn Beeler/The World

As researchers headed home, they reflected on what brought them to Antarctica in the first place: a changing climate, and their desire to understand it better.

Marine ecologist Gui Bortolotto says the topic can be depressing, especially when he thinks about his 2-year-old son.

“We still have the feeling that he just arrived in this world, and when my wife and I talk about this, we’re like wondering if he’s going to be happy with all the issues the world has,” he said.

Bortolotto also worries about the fate of his own hometown, a low-lying coastal city in Brazil. But he said he works hard to separate these feelings from his work.

“When I’m doing my job, I’m not thinking that my hometown will be underwater, I’m thinking that this is a global issue that I need to help to understand,” he said.

One important takeaway after the long trip to Thwaites Glacier, is just how difficult it is to gather data in places like Antarctica.

Researchers hoist the orange-colored Hugin autonomous submarine onto the deck of the Nathaniel B. Palmer.
Researchers hoist the Hugin autonomous submarine onto the deck of the Nathaniel B. Palmer at the start of the ship’s mission to study Antarctica’s massive Thwaites Glacier. Linda Welzenbach/Rice University

And it took seven years for University of Gothenburg oceanographer Anna Wåhlin to get an unmanned submarine down underneath the glacier with its roughly 20 sensors track changes in the water and mapping the seabed.

Chief Scientist Rob Larter is shown in the nearground looking out at Thwaites glacier on the morning of arrival.
Chief scientist Rob Larter looks out at the glacier on the morning of arrival.Carolyn Beeler/The World

The researchers on the Palmer are already starting to analyze the data they gathered on this trip and write up their findings. Ultimately, their data will be published and fed into models that will provide more accurate predictions of future sea level rise.

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