Antarctica -- Under The Ozone Hole

Join researchers aboard one small ship engaged in a big league scientific investigation beneath the Antarctic ozone hole. Working conditions: bitter weather, endless stress, impossible hours. Reward: little recognition, less money, but an experience like nothing else in the world.

GERLACHE STRAIT, Antarctica - Here is a definition of misery:

Nine scientists are under an ozone hole they can't visually detect, bathed in ultraviolet radiation they can't feel, in order to study its effect on bacteria they can't see.

And it's freezing. Literally.

The helicopter deck of the research vessel Polar Duke is studded with plexiglass boxes ranging from suitcase size to mattress size. They are filled with sea water so cold - about 30 degrees Fahrenheit - that only its salt content prevents it from turning to ice.

The hands of researchers burn when they dip inside.

The wind chill has plunged as low as 50 degrees below zero. Even on this day, when the cold is closer to the zero Fahrenheit range, a snakes' nest of plastic hoses has frozen. Periodic snow squalls defeat attempts to keep the deck clear.

Accordingly, the scientists - who are working at a manic pace for four weeks - are not only cold, but frustrated and exhausted.

Lead scientist Wade Jeffrey of the University of West Florida has pulled his stomach muscles and lives on Sugar Smacks and pain killers. Erin McKee has sprained her back dragging 135-pound jugs of

water. Jason Kase has sprained his ankle on ice-coated stairs. Melissa Booth is so tired she fell asleep on the toilet. Almost everyone has been sick with colds or flu.

Serving as counterpoint to the frenzied research of these humans are the 500-pound crabeater seals, 7 to 8 feet long, which occasionally drift by while lounging on ice floes.

The seals are as comfortable here as the people are miserable. Bloated with meals of abundant shrimplike krill and insulated by blubber, the animals rarely bother to look up at the scientists pumping water on a slushy deck.

Watching their contentment, one can't help wonder which species is superior. Ours invented aerosol cans with a propellant of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a substance so stable most is still in the atmosphere. Each CFC chlorine atom destroys an estimated 100,000 molecules of the Earth's protective ozone layer before being broken down or settling out of the atmosphere.

Now we are studying the consequences of our folly, trying to see whether the extra radiation that bombards Antarctica through its annual ozone hole affects the food web that sustains that crabeater seal.

No one who made money off CFCs is crazy enough to come here. But scientists come, hoping to propel their own careers by investigating what additional Ultraviolet-B radiation means to life on Earth.

This is a story about how basic science - human understanding - works. The accumulation of data is tedious. The goal is often uncertain. The cost, in dollars and human energy, is high. And the only payoff may be news most people don't want to hear.

Humans do this because we're curious.

And because we are the first species in 4.6 billion years of Earth history to be able to consciously change the atmosphere of our planet - and perhaps, unconsciously, to commit collective suicide.

Critics of environmental science often paint its practitioners as Chicken Littles, using scanty evidence to warn that the sky is falling.

The history of ozone-hole research, however, refutes that. Rather than rushing to alarm, scientists mistrusted their data for four years.

Such a drastic reduction in atmospheric ozone in such a remote place was considered so improbable that satellites were programmed to ignore the readings. That meant their instruments failed to report the hole - the thinning of a layer of rare molecules that protect Earth from ultraviolet radiation.

Much of the science on ozone depletion has been slow, uncertain and dull. Experiments to answer the most fundamental questions are still under way - more than two decades after ozone depletion was first raised as a risk.

The group aboard the Polar Duke is an example. These scientists are looking at the very bottom of the food web, at creatures so small they can't be seen by an ordinary microscope and so unglamorous environmentalists usually ignore them in their litany of ozone-depletion dangers.

The researchers are studying bacteria. Microbes. Bugs.

When Jeffrey started work on his doctorate he held his fingers an inch apart and told his adviser he'd like to work on critters that big or bigger. Research led him in other directions, and now he's trying to understand the bizarre marine world of creatures so small that it could take a line of 500,000 of them to equal that inch.

Why? "Bacteria are more sensitive to ultraviolet radiation than plankton and are an extremely important component of the marine ecosystem," Jeffrey explained. "It seems intuitive that a significant decrease in bacteria production has to be felt up the food the chain. And the southern ocean (which circles Antarctica) feeds the Atlantic and the Pacific."

The ozone hole is our canary in the coal mine. Science is desperately trying to understand the Earth before we trigger catastrophic, irreversible change.

Our planet is a gigantic machine of wind and weather and currents and erupting volcanoes and shifting continents, all driven by the twin energies of solar radiation and heat from radioactive decay in the Earth's core.

Over the last few decades, scientists have gone from figuring out what this machine does to popping the hood to see how physics, chemistry, geology and biology make it run.

In the process they've found life where they never knew it existed and environmental perils they had never suspected.

The temperature difference between the poles and the equator drive much of Earth's winds and currents. Accordingly, the Antarctic and Arctic regions are vital in controlling climate and weather in places like Seattle.

The extreme north and south also serve as early-warning systems. Global warming is virtually undetectable in the tropics and only marginally so in temperate areas. It is more noticeable as one nears either pole.

Antarctica drives so much weather, ocean circulation and biology that it is as important as a fuel pump to spaceship Earth. Its cold weather makes it the ideal spot for an ozone hole to form. Accordingly about $200 million a year is spent to study the continent. This is the story of one small part of that $200 million.

I left Seattle for Antarctica on Sept. 21, 1996, the first day of autumn at home and the first day of spring in the Southern Hemisphere. The timing was not coincidental. Each Antarctic spring, the return of sunlight to the long-frozen night begins a chemical chain reaction so unexpected that scientists for a long time didn't believe what their instruments were telling them.

Sherwood Rowlands and Andrew Molina, laboratory chemists from the University of California Irvine, first proposed in 1974 that the reaction was a theoretical possibility. They were subsequently attacked by the chemical industry and derided by colleagues - until their theory was confirmed in 1985 with detection of the Antarctic ozone hole.

The pair won the Nobel Prize for their work in 1995.

Ozone is an oxygen molecule made up of three atoms of oxygen. The oxygen molecule we breathe has two atoms and is plentiful in the atmosphere, making up almost a fifth of our air. By contrast, ozone - even though it is a nuisance as a pollutant in cities - is exceedingly rare in the stratosphere, the layer of atmosphere stretching from seven to 30 miles above Earth.

Out of every 10 million air molecules, only three are ozone. If all the ozone overhead were condensed to the pressure of air at sea level, it would form a protective layer the thickness of two pennies.

This is the shield that makes our planet habitable. It protects us from Ultraviolet-B radiation, which can trigger skin cancer, cause eye cataracts and damage or kill creatures at the base of the food web.

In an Antarctic spring, this barrier over the southern continent is thinned to the average thickness of a dime. The "hole" is actually a vast area where ozone levels in the stratosphere range from a third to two-thirds of normal.

Radiation from the sun creates and destroys ozone naturally all the time. Beginning in the 1970s, however, a flood of human-manufactured CFCs began to tip the balance toward destruction.

Certainly when chlorofluorocarbons were invented in the 1920s, no one dreamed they would have an adverse environmental effect. It seemed the perfect gas: The molecules of carbon, fluorine and chlorine would not burn, would not explode, would not corrode and would not poison.

Its chemical stability made it ideal for a host of uses - aerosol-can propellants, refrigerants, blowing foam for insulation, making foam containers, cleaning electronic chips. By the 1970s, manufacture of CFCs was an $8 billion-a-year industry and a million tons of CFCs were pouring into the atmosphere each year.

In December 1973, Rowlands and Molina came up with an improbable idea.

Since chlorofluorocarbons were so wonderfully stable, the two chemists were curious what became of them after release into the air. They calculated that they were carried by an atmospheric process known as turbulent diffusion and eventually deposited in the stratosphere.

There, they theorized, the molecules set off a chain reaction that could destroy ozone at a disastrous rate.

Here is the scenario Rowlands and Molina proposed:

CFC molecules include atoms of chlorine. When carried by updrafts to the stratosphere, the molecules are bombarded by radiation that breaks loose chlorine atoms. When a free chlorine atom collides with an ozone molecule, it steals one of the three oxygen atoms in the ozone, turning ozone into a molecule of ordinary oxygen, which can't intercept ultraviolet radiation.

It can happen over and over. If a free atom of oxygen hits the new chlorine-oxygen pair, the two oxygen atoms will bond, freeing the chlorine atom, which drifts away to collide with and destroy another ozone molecule. And so on - an average of 100,000 times before the chlorine atom finally breaks down or settles out of the atmosphere.

The problem occurs in Antarctica in spring because conditions for this breakdown are ideal. The long, total darkness of Antarctic winters drop temperatures in the stratosphere enough to allow the formation of polar stratospheric clouds, the particles of which are an ideal surface for the ozone-destroying reactions.

A huge "vortex" of undisturbed air - akin to the stagnant lids of cold air that can settle on wintertime Seattle - allows clouds and chlorine to accumulate. The returning sunlight provides energy to start the reaction.

The result is a "hole" that typically lasts from mid-August to late November.

Similar but less dramatic reductions are observed in the Arctic each spring. The United Nations reported Friday that the ozone layer over the North Pole and north-central Siberia last month was 15 to 25 percent thinner than in March last year.

The ozone-depleted air mixes with other air around it, lowering ozone levels around the globe. The result is a reduction of ozone in high and mid-latitudes, including Seattle, where the ozone thickness above the city has declined from an average of 391 Dobson units (a measure of thickness) in 1979 to 360 in 1994, a decrease of about 8 percent.

By comparison, ozone levels above the Antarctic research ship Polar Duke fell as low as 168 Dobson units in October.

Last September and October, the hole over Antarctica was larger than the North American continent, and on Sept. 7 the hole reached its greatest one-day extent ever: 10 million square miles, or almost 25 percent bigger than North America.

Disturbing as it is, the ozone problem is in some ways an environmental success story, a crisis that appears to be on its way to being solved. The world's nations banned CFC manufacture as of last year. As chlorofluorocarbons slowly drop out of the atmosphere over the next century, the ozone layer should recover naturally to its pre-industrial strength.

But CFCs already released will linger for decades. For the next five to 10 years ozone depletion will be as bad as it is now, and possibly worse.

When Rowlands and Molina won the Nobel Prize, it seemed a happy ending to a research success story.

A huge gap remains in the science, however. Yes, the theory of chemical assault on ozone proved true. The results are plainly obvious in the atmosphere. But does it really matter on the ground? The ozone hole is centered over the most hostile continent on Earth. Does it make a difference to life there, much of it in a sea frequently shrouded by ice or clouds?

This was the question being explored by scientists from universities in three states - Florida, Oklahoma and California - as we sailed to the edge of the region below the blob-shaped ozone hole.

The ozone hole rotates above the South Pole, and as its lobes passed overhead the amount of ultraviolet radiation falling on the Gerlache Strait, where the Polar Duke and its scientists worked, seesawed.

For humans, this is not quite as risky as it sounds. The amount of UV-B radiation hitting the sea and ship was estimated by scientists as no worse than a sunny day in San Francisco.

But for Antarctic organisms, evolved to live under lower radiation levels, "It is the equivalent of a Norwegian going to the Mediterranean on vacation," explained Deneb Karentz, a marine biologist from the University of San Francisco.

Scientists have found that coral bleaches and some sharks "tan" with increased ultraviolet exposure. Antarctic water is so clear that its bacteria absorb enough radiation to damage their DNA. Studying bacteria day after day, researchers can quantify how much radiation damage bacteria can withstand and how much energy they expend repairing it.

If God or nature wanted to pick an ideal spot to send humankind an early warning about harming the environment, no better place could have been picked than Antarctica.

It is Earth's coldest, windiest and driest continent and nearly devoid of life. The largest permanent land animal is a small wingless bug. Except for a few mosses and lichens, microscopic bacteria and worms called nematodes, there isn't much on the land surface to kill or damage.

But the sea is rich with life. Birds and seals congregate by the millions on the ice-strewn ocean and its beaches. Krill, tiny shrimplike crustaceans, drift in clouds that have covered as much as 58 square miles. Scientists aren't sure how many krill there are, but their combined weight may be five times the combined weight of all humankind.

At the American base at Palmer Station on a peninsula of Antarctica's Anvers Island, divers who plunge into the 30-degree water of the surrounding bay - unfrozen because of the salt content and water pressure - find an abundant marine ecosystem reminiscent of Puget Sound's.

While the annual marine coastal growth in Antarctica is only about a fifth of that of warmer waters, the sea boasts barrel sponges so large divers can swim into them, thriving gardens of seaweed and coral, and abundant shellfish, worms and silver fish.

Accordingly, it is to the sea that scientists have turned to learn if the ozone hole is causing significant biological damage.

The initial studies focused on creatures at the bottom of the food web: microscopic plants called phytoplankton. Studies suggest that the ozone hole has cut phytoplankton productivity 6 to 12 percent.

While not yet catastrophic, Such declines are disturbing. Phytoplankton is to the sea what plants are to the land, the base of the food web. They are grazed by equally tiny animals - call zooplankton - which in turn nourish creatures directly or indirectly ranging from krill to penguins and whales.

Moreover, phytoplankton absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere - a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming - and respire oxygen, replenishing what we breathe.

"Everything that exists in the ocean exists because of phytoplankton, but you don't see it because it is so small," noted researcher Ramon Massala.

There is something even tinier and more fundamental than plankton: "micro-plankton" from two to 100 times smaller. They include the most numerous, least understood, and arguably most important organisms on Earth: bacteria.

It is bacteria that turn the food web into a food loop, decomposing and recycling dead animals, plants or biological waste and being eaten in their turn by zooplankton.

Krill, for example, live up to seven years, and each year they produce 40 times their weight in fecal matter. Bacteria eat this, grow, divide and become food themselves.

Bacteria are so numerous that the DNA in their tiny one-celled bodies - their genetic code - represents up to 90 percent of all the DNA in the ocean. It is this DNA that ultraviolet radiation could potentially damage, throwing out of whack the "operating instructions" that govern how organisms grow, multiply and live.

Because Antarctic waters are so clear, bacteria up to 60 feet below the surface show radiation damage.

In one example of such damage the genetic "letters" that make up the DNA code erroneously double up - a failed repair job. The result can be anything from the need for a further repair - which a bacterium might carry out during the night - to an unwanted mutation or even death.

Bacteria have three lines of defense against this kind of damage. Light can activate an enzyme that works as a shield against ultraviolet attack, just as humans create melanin to darken skin in response to sunlight.

Or two different kinds of repair mechanisms exist, and scientists can estimate the level of DNA damage by detecting how much repair activity is going on.

But all these require energy the bacteria cannot spend on growing and multiplying. The ozone hole, in a sense, makes bacterial life a lot harder and less productive.

We are taught from childhood to despise bacteria. They can make us sick, poison our food and infect our wounds. They make us smell bad. We fight them with cleansers, soap, toothpaste, mouthwash and deodorant. Yet without bacteria, we could not survive.

You are a walking colony of bacteria. There are a hundred times more bacteria on and in your body than there are human cells: far, far more than all the people who have ever lived. This multitude is a good thing. It crowds out the tiny minority of bacteria that don't co-exist well and cause disease or infection.

Yet too many bacteria can be a bad thing for our health, and our noses have evolved to warn us of bacteria-laden food, breath, underarms or flatulence.

We all know, in other words, that bacteria can sabotage a first date. So what good are they?

For one thing, they are our elders. Bacteria have been around 2 billion years longer than all other life forms.

Their evolutionary arrival in the form of cyanobacteria - blue-green algae - produced, beginning about 2.7 billion years ago, the oxygen in the atmosphere. It eventually allowed higher animals, including us, to come into existence.

Bacteria are also the source of many drugs. They secrete defensive poisons against each other that we have harnessed to kill the bacteria we don't want.

Bacteria also keep Earth from becoming a planetary dump. They decompose leaves and other fallen plants, dead animals and excrement.

Bacteria are not only numerous but the most wide-ranging of organisms. They live in your garden and gut, in boiling hot springs, deep ocean vents, in rock hundreds of meters deep, and in the coldest ocean waters.

Yet even to the experts they are somewhat out of sight, out of mind. A bacteria next to a one-celled paramecium is like a trout next to a whale. If a hair from your head were expanded to the size of a tree trunk, the bacteria on it would only be the size of insects.

They are so small that bacteria don't experience ocean water the way we do. Swimming through water, for a bacteria, is like a human swimming through tapioca pudding. Bacteria have to screw themselves through it. If they stop swimming, they don't coast; they halt as if trapped in glue.

Despite this, swimming bacteria can move with astounding speed, able to drive themselves up to 10 of their own body lengths per second (about twice as fast, proportionately, as the fastest human runners) and sometimes with a burst of up to 100 body lengths per second.

Some bacteria achieve this with a protruding, corkscrew-shaped propeller at the rear of their bodies. Through a complex mechanism it can whir at speeds up to 6,000 revolutions per minute.

We know so little about bacteria that less than 1 percent of the bacteria in the ocean can be grown in a laboratory: We don't know what kind of conditions they need to thrive.

We don't know how many bacterial species there are or how they interact.

And it was only in 1992 that scientists in California led by Ed DeLong at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) realized that a type of bacteria that had been considered exotic and rare - ancient archaebacteria thought to thrive only in hot springs or hot undersea vents - were in fact present in cold deep-sea water.

DeLong was shocked when he went to Antarctica in 1994 and found they represented up to 40 percent of the wintertime bacterial population under the sea ice at Palmer Station.

"We don't know what their lifestyle is," said Alison Murray, one of DeLong's graduate students who studied the ancient microbes at Palmer Station. "We don't understand what their ecological significance is."

Into this sea of ignorance has ventured Wade Jeffrey of the University of West Florida in Pensacola. Bacteria, he pointed out to the National Science Foundation, were responsible for more than half the "primary productivity," or the recycling of food energy, in Antarctic waters.

Moreover, Jeffrey's studies of bacteria in the Gulf of Mexico had shown they were easily damaged by ultraviolet radiation, sustaining twice as much DNA damage as phytoplankton.

If the U.S. wanted to understand the perils of the ozone hole, Jeffrey argued, bacteria were vital.

Going to Antarctica is like packing for the mother of all camping trips. There is no hardware store if you forget the can opener.

Two thousand .22-micron-pore filters. Two thousand pipette tips. Seven hundred microscopic slides. One hundred fifty feet of Tygon tubing. Seventy-two locking carabiners. Washers, threaded rods, cable ties, plastic gloves, microcentrifuges, orange buoys, incubators, thermometers, blue ice, agar for petri dishes, propane burners, water carboys, aluminum foil, formaldehyde: The list went on for pages.

The equipment for S-200, the National Science Foundation designation for Wade Jeffrey's study of Antarctic Ocean microbes, weighs several tons.

The biggest laugh came from the 1,500 Sterivex GS filters used to trap bacteria for freezing and later study. The box warned that manufacture of the filters uses CFCs, which contribute to destruction of the ozone layer.

Melissa Booth of Oklahoma State University produced a flow chart showing scientists in a loop, buying filters in order to destroy the ozone layer so they could study the destruction so they could get grant money to buy more filters. . . .

If there was a single universal tool it was duct tape, used in such copious amounts by all science expeditions that the silver-gray rolls should probably replace the test tube as a symbol of the profession.

There is also a constant need for ingenuity. When incubators to warm bacterial samples couldn't keep up with the supply, the women slipped the samples inside their bras.

America's Antarctic research program centers on three land bases and two ships, the Nathaniel B. Palmer and the Polar Duke. Of these five components, the Duke is the smallest, coziest and most modest: a 200-foot, ice-hardened vessel with twin turbine engines and a bright red hull. It houses 16 crew and support personnel and anywhere from six to 24 scientists.

The Duke is leased by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. agency that funds basic scientific research. This is the Norwegian vessel's last season in American employ. A new American ship being built in Louisiana will replace it.

The research does not come cheap. The price of Jeffrey's three-year study of radiation damage to the bacterial ecosystem is estimated to exceed $1 million over three years, most of that in the nearly 80 days of ship time spread over two cruises. The ship costs approximately $10,000 a day to run. (For perspective: An aircraft carrier costs $1 million a day to run.)

The people who enable scientists to do their work are employees of Antarctic Support Associates, a Denver-based company the federal government contracts with to provide logistical support for Antarctic research. On this cruise, Al Hickey, a sailor of long experience, provided the liaison between scientists and the crew; Robert Kluckhohn, a scientist himself, handled logistics; Brian Williams supervised the computers and communications system, and Cole Mather, who has worked in the Antarctic since 1982, served as mechanic and carpenter.

Sailing the boat was a 12-man Norwegian and Chilean crew led by the Polar Duke's captain, Sigvald Brandal.

Every six weeks or so, the Polar Duke loads fuel, food and scientific equipment, takes on a fresh complement of scientists, and sails to Antarctica.

The crossing can range from the horrendous to the magical, depending on the weather. Icebergs the size and shape of desert mesas drift by, the surf carving caves in their flanks. Albatrosses and petrels loop lazily across the ship. Elephant seals, which can reach lengths of 20 feet and weigh 8,000 pounds, can be spotted more than a hundred miles from land. The seals are estimated to spend more than 98 percent of their time under water, diving 30 to 40 minutes at a time to feed at depths of nearly a mile - so effortlessly that scientists suspect they sleep while sinking and rising.

In angry weather, waves can send galley cutlery flying. On one voyage, there was an outbreak of diarrhea and the ship's steward realized he had forgotten to order a resupply of toilet paper.

But the crossing is always made, and once on station, the scientists begin furious activity.

Experiments are simple in concept but complex in execution. Jeffrey and his team wanted to inspect Antarctic bacteria with as many variables as possible, looking for damage.

That meant taking thousands of samples of water over a period of a month - samples collected at different depths, in sun and cloud, on calms seas and stormy ones, in open water and ice-covered water, and through various filters and screens that shaded out some types of radiation and let others in.

By the time they were finished they had pumped, lifted, dragged and filtered about 50,000 liters of water (a liter is a little bigger than a quart), carrying its approximately 60 tons mostly by hand. The result was thousands of filters and tubes packed with carefully frozen bacteria that could be revived later.

Back in the U.S., the bacteria would be examined, analyzed and compared. Filters containing the organisms would be crushed and treated with chemicals to extract, then measure DNA or proteins that show DNA repair is going on.

None of the creatures scientists were concerned about could be seen with the naked eye. Even under shipboard microscopes they were only visible after being treated with a fluorescent dye that made them shine in a darkened cabin like a field of stars. In appearance they were utterly unremarkable. Some looked like tiny balls. Some like rods. The foundation of the web of life looks utterly dull.

Research methods for studying this microscopic world tend to be complicated and ingenious. One method is to use radioactivity, which can be easily measured, to study bacteria, which can't.

For example, on the Polar Duke, an amino acid (a basic building block of all living things) called leucine was added with a small amount of radioactivity incorporated as a "tracer." When the bacteria use the radioactive leucine to build their cell walls, the activity shows up as an increase in radioactivity that scientists can measure.

Plain as they are, the bacteria represent an integral part of an amazing Antarctic ecosystem that shows just how tenacious life can be.

Each southern winter, Antarctica becomes surrounded by an ice pack that freezes at an average rate of 14 new square miles each minute, eventually covering an area twice the size of the United States.

Antarctica's biology does not just overcome the obstacle represented by this ice, it thrives on it. The underside of the ice supports a vast roof of algae that grows all winter and then rains into the ocean to feed it each spring, when the ice melts faster than it forms.

This manna from an icy heaven supports plankton, krill and the penguins, seals, whales, seabirds and fish that either feed directly on them or on each other.

This is the cornucopia of life the Polar Duke monitors. The vessel first steamed into the Gerlache Strait in 50-knot winds, whipped snow biting like hail. Then the wind died and at 6 a.m. the next day it was dazzling and cold: sunny, the temperature just below freezing, winds blowing at 22 knots.

Ozone levels were about two-thirds of Seattle's norm and falling. The first experiments got under way.

"If hell were cold, this is what it would look like."

Standing on the stern of the research ship Polar Duke, high-school science teacher Margaret Brumsted surveyed a panorama of frozen, desolate magnificence. Antarctica's epic sterility, as severe as any desert, tends to provoke strong emotional reactions. Hers was to a place beautiful but bleak.

Science sounds glamorous: distant travel, exotic discoveries, neatly summarized results.

The reality is messier. Good science, like good work in any profession, comes at considerable cost. The voyage of the Polar Duke was a fascinating microcosm of science's sociology.

The Gerlache Strait's brilliant white mountains, rumpled glaciers and shifting tide of pack ice and icebergs proved empty, pure - and prisonlike.

At the scale of a bacteria, the Polar Duke floated atop a vast universe. But at the human scale there was the claustrophobia of a small ship sitting for nearly four weeks in one place.

Brumsted, 40, bearing an NSF fellowship to observe science being practiced, became the Duke's wry Greek chorus, observing all around her, including the infatuation of the ship's mess with fish and potatoes. ("There is a reason you don't find Norwegian restaurants in most neighborhoods," she growled.)

Brumsted dubbed the expedition's chief scientist Wade "The Plumber" Jeffrey, inspired by the Mob nicknames in the Providence, R.I., neighborhood where she lived.

Half Darwin and half Nintendo's Mario, Jeffrey, 37, could take hoses to move sea water and concoct an experimental tangle more grandiose than any Rube Goldberg machine.

And, as lead scientist - Principal Investigator, or P.I., in NSF parlance - he was necessarily the dominant personality on the cruise. He had conducted fresh-water research in the frozen lakes of Antarctica's Dry Valleys in the early 1980s and worked on dozens of oceanographic cruises since.

A scientist of restless energy and driving ambition, Jeffrey's idea of breakfast was a Diet Coke. He worked harder than anyone aboard, ignored miserable weather to collect more than twice as much data in '96 as he managed in good weather in '95, and he infuriated at least half and exhausted all of the scientists aboard.

Brumsted's wry eye toward Jeffrey's leadership underlined how different real field science is from the glamorous stereotype of the brilliant eccentric crying "Eureka!"

The stereotype has a thread of truth. Joseph "Dean" Pakulski, a scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency on board, recalled a eureka experience from a experiment the year before when he added iron to feed sea-water samples and saw bacterial numbers skyrocket.

"When I focused it looked like a galaxy," he recalled. The explosion of bacteria had taken up fluorescent dye and spangled like stars. Pakulski was flabbergasted. "I ran around trying to get someone to look at it but it was after midnight and no one was up."

It is that high of learning something or seeing something for the first time that many scientists live for. "We get paid to do our hobby," Pakulski explained.

But eurekas are rare and the price is high. A high-school graduate contemplating a doctorate for a research career can expect to spend almost as many additional years in school as he or she has since kindergarten - years at poverty-level wages, and with no guarantee of a research position after getting the degree.

Marriage is frequently postponed until one's 30s and children until one's 40s. Even after such an academic marathon, the money rarely approaches what a doctor or lawyer can make with the same amount of education.

The survivors, however, get an intellectual freedom most people can only envy. The best and luckiest will learn things that change the world or at least our understanding of it.

It is an endless saga, and on the Polar Duke in the Antarctic last year, one brief chapter was played out.

Jeffrey's frenzy was dictated by his calendar: He had four weeks in the Gerlache Strait to gather data, justify more than $1 million in taxpayer investment, shepherd the research projects of the others aboard and make, or break, his own career. On more than one occasion he fell asleep on a plywood table in the computer room.

The result for the others on board was tears, laughter, physical pain, weariness and, in the end, numb satisfaction and exhausted dread of the months of laboratory work ahead.

Many senior scientists are so remote their graduate students have difficulty ever seeing them; Jeffrey is such an enthusiastic lab rat that his students have difficulty keeping up.

"He seemed like somebody ambitious who was going to go somewhere," explained Erin McKee, 31, a former illustrator who picked Jeffrey as a potential adviser to oversee her graduate work. She adapted to the tiresome labor but hurt her back so severely she required physical therapy on her return.

To understand what life is like on an American oceanographic research cruise, one must understand a bit about the peculiar structure of American science.

Because most "basic" research in the U.S. - research into fundamental questions about nature without any immediate practical or economic payoff - is funded by the federal government, an obvious question asked by both taxpayers and Congress is: "With scientists thousands of miles from any oversight, working on projects even agency officials have difficulty understanding, how can I be sure I'm getting my money's worth?"

The answer is feudalism. No agency can guarantee the brilliance or insight of its grantees. But the science establishment has created a social structure of subtle and not-so-subtle pressures that rewards initiative and creativity while also tending to enforce long hours and feverish production, sometimes to an almost insane degree.

Society cannot afford basic research at industrylike levels of compensation; the payoff is too distant.

Academia's answer to this economic dilemma has been creation of a wickedly ingenious system of apprentice scientists, who supply the necessary labor while ultimately fulfilling the training demands of both business and universities.

The deal any would-be scientist faces is this: You give the lord of the castle (a senior scientist) several years of serfdom in the form of labor and ideas, and he or she in turn provides you with a research topic, enough money for student survival, the necessary training and supervision, and at the end, a diploma that represents the necessary ticket to become a castle lord yourself - if you are competitive and smart enough.

There are no minimum-wage standards, no schedule of hours or holidays, no benefits, no safety inspectors, little privacy or comfort when in the field, and no guarantees. Society's smartest people put up with conditions that would make a convenience-store clerk protest - because that is their ticket into the fraternity.

On the Polar Duke the castle lord was Jeffrey. He and the barons he represented in absentia - Edward DeLong of UCSB and Robert Miller of Oklahoma State University (OSU) - were the money men, the senior brains who had the ideas and experience necessary to win National Science Foundation grants.

One of the ironies of modern science is that many of the brightest, most senior scientists spend an ever-shrinking proportion of their time doing actual science. Far more time is spent applying for grants, writing papers, reading journals and going to the meetings to keep their laboratories at the cutting edge of fast-moving fields. They become administrators.

Under them is a hierarchy of associate scientists, post-docs (scientists who have won their doctorates but don't have a permanent position yet) and graduate students.

The serf-lord relationship is very interdependent. Graduate research can make or derail a senior scientist's career, making him look brilliant or sloppy. A senior scientist can mentor a newcomer into a clone of himself or drive someone judged to have the Wrong Stuff into another field.

It is an intimate partnership, less like an employer-employee relationship than a marriage, or parent-child bond. One hears graduate students discussing advisers the way husbands or wives discuss their spouses.

Steven Ripp, 30, of OSU, was completing his doctorate while on board and came away with mixed feelings about the system.

On the one hand, Ripp said, it had taken him three years to do research an experienced scientist such as his adviser, OSU's Miller, could have done in one, simply because he had to learn so much along the way. And he joined a laboratory "family" of personalities that clashed as much as cooperated.

On the other hand, Miller was able to accomplish more than he could have alone by cloning himself through his graduate students, assigning them to a variety of projects involving a lot of grunt work and concentrating himself on the big ideas and supervision. And Ripp had indeed learned his trade.

This is the system brought aboard the Polar Duke several times a year. Sometimes the research complement is a mix of experienced senior scientists who either function smoothly in a ferment of creative ideas or clash in a battle of egos and will. Other times, as on S-200, the complement is mostly students of limited experience who have varied reactions to the harsh demands of field science.

Like a farmer, Wade Jeffrey timed his work to the sun. Experiments had to be deployed in the morning in order to bask under the ultraviolet radiation allowed in by the ozone hole. In the evening, experiments had to be retrieved for preservation or analysis of the irradiated bacteria.

In order for his results to be meaningful, Jeffrey had to measure ultraviolet-radiation damage over a wide range of variables. How deep in the water, for example, did damage show up? When in the day did most of it occur? With ozone levels fluctuating, what difference could be observed from day to day? Was there a relationship between damage and overall growth in the microbial ecosystem? If filters were used to block ultraviolet rays, did the damage disappear?

Accordingly, he had created a series of experiments and designed or purchased a number of boxes, tubes, pumps and containers to carry them out: stuff that had to be sawn, hammered, screwed, glued, tied or spliced. Doing science was half Mr. Wizard and half "This Old House."

To get to the ultimate goal of this expedition - a succinct paper summarizing three years of work in a science journal, preferably a prestigious one (which would not pay a dime for the privilege of publishing the work) - he began with a question, sketched out experiments to answer it, and began assembling the equipment to carry them out.

The pace of such research is wildly uneven. There is the thinking and grant-writing phase, time-consuming but quiet. This is followed by hectic equipment assembly and team recruitment. Flying and sailing to Antarctica consumes a week, some of it spent assembling equipment unpacked from shipping containers. Then there are four weeks of frantic data collection. Then a week to return. And then a year processing the samples in a laboratory, analyzing the results and writing papers.

If Jeffrey is successful getting published in prestigious journals, he will be rewarded by the federal government with future grants and will sail again. He will become a scientific "rainmaker" attractive to universities hungry for federal grants. If he's unsuccessful, his ideas will number among the estimated 90 percent of grant proposals these days which do not get funding.

A four-day cycle of rotating experiments, later shortened to three, was created. Each morning and night, water was pumped, a task so basic to everything else that the universal caustic greeting among researchers on the Polar Duke was, "You suck."

Some water was filtered onto successively finer meshes, so fine that it would take a line of 250,000 holes on one of them to equal an inch. These captured bacteria while excluding everything else.

Additional water was used to fill a variety of deck containers that basked in the sun. Some went into plexiglass boxes lowered on buoys over the side at various depths to measure light penetration. Some filled tiny plastic Zip-loc bags that contained trace amounts of a radioactive isotope that could be used to measure damage to DNA or changes in microorganism growth.

To this battery of experiments were added others. Melissa Booth of OSU, a 27-year-old rancher's daughter completing her master's degree, ran a series of tests to determine the amount and fate of "free" or "naked" DNA in the ocean - genetic material shed by bacteria and sometimes absorbed by another bacteria in a kind of long-distance sex.

Ramon Massala, a Spanish post-doc and Trent Taylor, a 23-year-old UCSB pre-med student, used an oceanographic instrument called a CTD (measuring ocean conductivity, or salt content, temperature and depth) to take water samples at various depths. They were hunting for archaebacteria and viruses in order to understand their role in the microbial ecosystem.

The scientists worked seven days a week beginning at 4:30 to 5:30 a.m. and generally stretching to 11 p.m. or midnight. Every fourth day would be a "diel" (from a Latin root for both day and night) in which water samples would be filtered not just at morning and night but every two hours, around the clock. A diel would begin and end at 6 a.m., followed by an easier day to allow the scientists to snatch naps and recover.

LeAnna Hutchinson, a former Evergreen State College student now at West Florida, spent her 26th birthday in the wet lab on a 24-hour diel, huddled in a parka against the chill of an open door and filtering sea water to concentrate bacteria on small filters the size of a stubby pencil.

Midday usually allowed some rest, since experiments had been set but samples not yet recovered. However, the sampling schedule and ship meal schedule meant Jeffrey's team sometimes missed breakfast and had at most 25 minutes for dinner.

Often wet, cold or sore, scientists dragged and carried containers of icy water weighing up to several hundred pounds through an awkward maze of stairways, hatches, and snaking wires and cables.

It is difficult for an outsider to pass judgment on this schedule. It was a typical example of the macho ethos under which American science is done - machismo that is enormously productive in acquiring raw data. Researchers rank each other in part by long hours and lack of sleep. You make points with your colleagues by working to exhaustion.

How this translates into discovery, insight or wisdom is less clear. Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, confessed he never considered himself brilliant and was certainly something of a procrastinator. He took decades to publish his conclusions. Darwin pondered so long that he would be unlikely to survive in today's science pressure cooker.

Certainly the taxpayers get the labor they pay for. Do they get the thought? The question provokes debate among scientists themselves.

Jeffrey arrived for the cruise already sick. Microbiology meetings in Austria and Mexico and the frenzy of packing equipment for the voyage had kept him on the run for two months. He had just two hours at his home in Florida with his wife and two young children between Mexico and Antarctica.

Time was squeezing him, as it does all lead scientists seeking ship time. He had surrendered a day to supply a colleague's penguin-research base and would give up another at the end to land a communications officer there to untangle its electronic equipment problems.

His cruise had also been scheduled by the NSF earlier than he'd wanted. This was good for being in place for maximum ozone depletion, but bad for promising enough fair weather and bright sunlight to measure maximum damage effects.

Last-minute dropouts and personnel changes had left him a bit short-handed for his ambitious experiment schedule; he would have to rely heavily on labor from cruise members who were not on his West Florida team.

The group also had less Antarctic and oceanographic experience than on his first voyage. By the end of the cruise, Jeffrey was frustrated he did not have colleagues aboard with sufficient experience to share problems and ideas. Students, also frustrated, felt frozen out of the intellectual and creative side of the project and were being used only as grunt labor.

Most research cruises have their kinks. Jeffrey recalled one where the wiring of pumps meant the machines would shock anyone that touched them, necessary several times each day.

The wild card in S-200 was the weather. Antarctica was showing the last of its winter fury, pushing temperatures about 10 degrees below what they had been the season before, blowing in more ice, churning up more waves and blanketing the area with clouds that cut ultraviolet-light penetration.

From an experimental viewpoint this was not a bad thing: These are conditions that might mitigate ozone-hole damage. If scientists are going to make an honest assessment, they need to make measurements under them. Waves, for example, can churn bacteria so none linger on the surface long enough to get much radiation.

But from an efficiency standpoint the harsh weather made things a misery. Pumps and hoses that had worked fine the season before froze up. Plexiglass became brittle and shattered. Buoy lines became ensnared in drifting ice.

Snow covered experimental boxes. Pumps failed, forcing jury-rigged replacements. Jeffrey's decision to more than triple the volume of containers being filled for various experiments required more pumping and lifting than the first voyage.

As weariness grew and scientists worried about scraping together time for their own experiments, tensions begin to build. Everyone worried about getting their data.

A midcruise "barbecue" in the ship's hold, warmed with enough alcohol and music to give scientists and crew achance to bond and blow off steam, came to a premature end when Jeffrey announced that sampling the next day would begin at 5:30 a.m. and as many experiments would be deployed in one day as they had been doing in two. Hung over and exhausted, the scientists showed up as ordered, Jeffrey, as always, was the first one up. If he noticed their resentment at having their one day off cut short, he gave no sign.

The hectic schedule meant the research became a grim slog toward completion.

The psychological breaking point came almost at the end, when a big pump used to suck water out of the ocean broke down 16 hours into the last 24-hour "diel." Having already processed more than twice as many samples as were gathered the first season, some of the scientists thought enough was enough.

Jeffrey, however, worked through the middle of the night to string smaller auxiliary pumps and tubing into a slow, makeshift replacement. By 2 a.m. the sampling had resumed, but the mood was sullen. By dawn the pent-up emotions of a month erupted in anger and tears. The tension between the scientists of the wet lab was thick enough to cut with a knife.

If there was any climax to this strained sociology, it was a basketball game at the end of the sampling in the cramped hold. It was a match between the four women on board, three of the crewmen and Jeffrey.

The P.I. tried to lighten the proceedings dressing as "Filterman," complete with mask, cape and water filters strapped to his waist.

It was a great idea to inject a note of fun into a hard cruise, but what was expected to be something of a joke game between boys and girls quickly turned earnest. Bodies were bumped, elbows thrown, and struggles for the ball turned into wrestling matches on the steel floor. The game was tied at regulation time and went into overtime, and then a second overtime. Melissa Booth was poked in the eye, crewman Brian Williams was cut on the arm, and all the players staggered away bruised and winded. The game was a release of sorts, but not quite what was expected.

The conclusion of the voyage was somewhat desultory, the scientists exhausted. Tacoma-born Jason Kase, 24, of West Florida, left behind a wife and 13-month-old child to work on his master's degree and spent most of the cruise in a cramped van used to prepare radioactive bacterial tracers.

Bleary at the end of the marathon, he slept for more than 18 hours, got up to eat, and went back to bed.

The researchers split into pro- and anti-Wade Jeffrey camps, some feeling the P.I. unnecessarily turned an adventure into an ordeal, others that he enforced a discipline necessary to make the cruise a research success during difficult weather.

It would be nice to report that after six hard weeks in the Antarctic there was a eureka mood at the end, that another secret of the universe had been handily unlocked, conclusions drawn, warnings issued, that when the Polar Duke sailed back up the Strait of Magellan, vital new facts were ready on how to cope with the ozone hole.

Science doesn't work that way.

What the weary band of scientists had done was the collect the clay for a brick - maybe a big brick, maybe a small one - for that colossal, complex tower of knowledge we call our scientific understanding of the world.

Over the next year the raw clay will be baked through the analysis of the cruise data into something firm enough to mortar onto the grand structure.

Early results confirm the results of earlier sampling, that ozone depletion increases microbial DNA damage. That alone will add importantly to the weight of evidence that ozone depletion is bad and controls on CFCs are good.

When the work is complete, there will be a scientific paper, or more likely a collection of papers. Judging from the intensity and thoroughness of the work done on the Polar Duke, it will catch the attention of other microbiologists and microbial ecologists and advance the field's thinking on these matters.

Scientists don't expect the average person to pay much attention. But the information will slowly, in decades ahead, filter into our collective conscious.

It is possible the data will reveal damage so startling it will set off immediate alarms. But that is unlikely.

It is possible that a scientist on board, or one reading the material later, will suddenly have an insight that profoundly changes the way we look at bacteria, or the sea, or Antarctica, or the ozone hole. That would be exceptional, but it happens.

What will certainly happen in the months ahead is that the scientists who returned to Florida and Oklahoma and California will endure more long hours and tedium to process their thousands of filter samples containing billions of bacteria.

And they will be able to say at least three things:

I was in Antarctica and saw things few people are privileged to see.

I worked hard to learn things no one has ever known before.

And I lost a lot of sleep doing it.

----------- Ozone layer -----------

The ozone layer protects living organisms against excessive radiation from the sun.

Ozone: Dispersed through the stratosphere.

Stratosphere: 6.3 to 31 miles above Earth (commercial airlines fly in lower stratosphere).

Troposphere: Up to 6.2 miles above Earth (where most weather takes place).

-------------------------- What creates an ozone hole --------------------------

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) break down the protective ozone layer. Here is how:

1. CFC molecules, which contain chlorine, are carried by updrafts to stratosphere, where they are bombarded by ultraviolet radiation from the sun.

2. Radiation breaks chlorine atom free.

3. Chlorine atom collides with ozone molecule, which consists of three atoms of oxygen.

4. Chlorine atom steals one oxygen atom, transforming ozone molecule into an ordinary oxygen molecule.

5. When a free oxygen atom collides with the chlorine-oxygen molecule . . .

6. . . . the two oxygen atoms bind, releasing chlorine atom to destroy more ozone. The process can repeat 100,000 times.

------------------------------- Ozone hole's effect on food web -------------------------------

Life on Earth is a food web in which the sun's energy is converted to living tissue by plants on land and in the sea and then eaten and recycled in a rich weave of dependence and exploitation among species. Sea water that looks clear is, in fact, alive with a bustling microscopic world of creatures. To the right are some examples from Antarctica.


Bacteria are small, simple and natures' ultimate recyclers, decomposing dead plants and animals and then serving as a base of the food web themselves. In the sea, they also consumer loose carbon molecules that leak from higher organisms. Ultraviolet-B radiation from ozone depletion damages the DNA of bacteria, forcing them to expend energy in repairs or causing harmful mutations.


Phytoplankton are the primary plant of the sea, drifting microscopic creatures that tap sunlight to grow and multiply. An example is algae that grows each year under Antarctic sea ice. They are razed or eaten by tiny sea animals and have been reduced 6 percent to 12 percent by the ozone hole.


Zooplankton are drifting clouds of sea animals, ranging from microscopic to krill that can reach half an inch in size. They eat bacteria and phytoplankton.


Krill are plankton in that they tend to drift with currents rather than swim freely, but they also are a kind of crustacean or small shrimplike creature that are a primary food for some penguins, seals and whales. Krill numbers have dropped in recent years not because of the ozone hole but because less winter sea ice, possibly linked to global warming, has reduced the amount of ice algae that krill feed on. At King George Island research station near the Antarctic Peninsula, recent krill numbers are only 10 percent of their total in the 1970s.


Starfish or sea stars are an example of invertebrates, or animals without backbones, that make up more than 95 percent of the species on Earth. Scientists at Palmer Station are investigating whether the reproduction of marine invertebrates in Antarctic waters is being hurt by ozone-hole radiation.

Adelie penguins

Adelie penguins are one of a number of penguin species in Antarctica that feed directly on krill or on fish that rely on lower organisms for their nourishment. At King George Island, the penguin population is only 30 percent of what it was in the 1980s.

Crabeater seals

Crabeater seals feed on krill and thus are affected by changes in the food web, but population changes are unknown.

Blue whales

Blue whales are the largest creatures on Earth and subsist on some of the smallest: krill and other plankton they sieve through their baleen mouths. Severely depleted by whaling, these creatures are slow to recover because other species have occupied the ecological niche they once dominated.