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Palmer Long Term Ecological Research Station

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Palmer, Antarctica Long Term Ecological Research Project  (Marine Biological Laboratory)

Research Focus

The Palmer Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) is located to the west of the Antarctic Peninsula, extending south and north of the Palmer Basin from onshore to several hundred miles offshore. Research focuses on the Antarctic coastal and open-ocean marine ecosystems, nesting sites of sea birds and regional oceanography along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. A primary research objective is to understand this marine ecosystem’s natural variability to define long- and short-period natural cycles as well as the changes brought about by human activities.

Participating scientists conduct field studies at Palmer Station from research vessels, zodiacs, laboratories and remote-sensing platforms such as satellites, weather stations and moorings. They also do analysis and experiments at their home institutions, which include the University of California (UC), Santa Barbara, UC San Diego, University of Hawaii, Montana State University and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

The research focuses on 180,000 square kilometers surrounding Palmer Station. Elevation ranges from 10 meters on land to 2000 meters below sea surface. An oceanic sampling grid, 200 kilometers on/offshore, stretches 900 kilometers along shore, roughly parallel to the Peninsula.

Characteristics of the landscape-seascape of seawater, ice, snow and rock vary, with altering temperatures, as the 24-hour darkness in June changes to 24-hour daylight in December. Factors influencing the flora and fauna of this site include low temperatures, a short growing season, high winds affecting the depth of the ocean’s mixed layer, input of micronutrients from nearby land and varying snow and sea-ice coverage. Ecosystem populations include various microbes, phytoplankton, krill and apex consumers such as penguins and seals.

Research Outcomes

Since the 1970s, satellites have allowed Palmer LTER scientists to track sea ice changes from space in great detail. The sea ice season has shortened by almost three months (Figures 1). It is likely that this melting will continue regardless of the rate of global warming and Palmer LTER scientists are studying the mechanisms delivering heat to the region to evaluate its present state and predict its future course.

Research findings released in 2009 showed that rapid climate change on the Antarctic Peninsula was affecting not only animals at the top of the food chain, but the microscopic life at the all-important base of the ecosystem. The observations indicated the development of a more complicated food web with new types of grazers and increased microbial activity. Krill populations--shrimp-like animals eaten by penguins, seals and whales--were in decline. These changes could have important repercussions for the diet of larger predators.

Palmer LTER scientists also documented an 85 percent reduction in Adélie penguin populations along the western Antarctic Peninsula since 1974 (Figure 4). These records provided some of the earliest evidence that regional climate warming is negatively impacting the marine ecosystem.

The Palmer LTER has a web page devoted to other of its most significant research findings.

Education & Outreach

Since its inception, Palmer LTER has been a leader in enabling knowledge-building within and beyond the Antarctic, oceanographic and LTER communities. The Palmer LTER has designed and deployed a new database to facilitate data distribution and sharing. 

Education and outreach by Palmer LTER capitalizes on the public's fascination with Antarctica to promote scientific literacy from kindergarten students to adult citizens concerned with climate change and environmental sustainability. By communicating results to the public and working with scientific assessment bodies and Antarctic Treaty parties to protect Earth's last frontier, Palmer LTER researchers contribute to the national scientific agenda and the greater public benefit.

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Images (1 of )

  • three penguins on pastel blue ice, against darker blue ice cliff
  • Palmer LTER researchers at work on sea vessel
  • Adelie penguins hang out on rocks
  • Close-up photo of Adelie penguin
  • graph depicting downward trend in duration of sea ice cover
  • Close-up image of Weddell seal
Adelie penguins near the Palmer Station LTER site in Antarctica; their numbers have declined.
Zena Cardman
Mooring deployment off back deck of research vessel Laurence M. Gould
Beth Simmons/Palmer LTER
Adélies Torgersen Island
Beth Simmons/Palmer LTER
Chinstrap on nest
Donna Patterson/Palmer LTER
Yearly changes in duration of sea ice cover.
Sharon Stammerjohn; University of Colorado, Boulder.
Weddell Seal at Palmer LTER site
Donna Patterson/Palmer LTER