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Scientists Sound the Alarm: “Aliens in Antarctica!”

“Aliens in Antarctica” is a hard-to-beat, eye-catching headline. And it’s true; they (outsiders!!!) are slowly taking root in a place long considered the most isolated, and pristine, corner of the planet.

Photo: Ryan T. Pierse/Getty Images

But it’s not what you think.

We’re not talking cellophane-skinned, one-eyed creatures from another universe, but rather much more pedestrian invaders, including bluegrass, springtails, and weeds.

By happenstance, I participated in the research that discovered this growing threat to Antarctica. During a 2008 sailing expedition along the Peninsula, my team and I agreed to be sucked by hoses (vacuumed!) on a regular basis. The detritus collected from our clothing, pockets, cuffs, boots, hair and duffle bags was carefully put into sealed bags and sent off to be dissected by scientists at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University and its Center for Invasion Biology.

That year, 2008, also witnessed the height of visitors to Antarctica by both tourists and scientists—more than 40,000. The goal of the “Aliens in Antarctica” project, initiated by the Antarctic Treaty members, was to gauge just how many different invasive species all these visitors were carrying with them.

“We’re not talking cellophane-skinned, one-eyed creatures from another universe, but rather much more pedestrian invaders, including bluegrass, springtails, and weeds.”

The result of all that hosing and bagging from 1,000 volunteers has recently been reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Journal, which gives the alien invasion a hard number: Based on calculations, that season more than 71,000 seeds were carried ashore (31,732 on tourists, 38,897 on scientists), suggesting that on average every person who visits the remote continent unknowingly carries 9.5 seeds with them.

Formally, the aliens are known as plant propagules—detachable structures, such as seeds. At least four alien grasses have been identified and taken root, a reality one Australian scientist labeled a “substantial threat.”

Visiting humans changing an environment by transporting non-native plants is an old story. In Chile, algae arriving on the boots of fly fishermen have recently killed off entire lakes. The Hudson River, where I live, is choked with water chestnuts, which first showed up clinging to tanker ships arriving from afar. Today in the Galapagos, invasive species of plants outnumber native ones.

Until recently, Antarctica had staved off invasives thanks to its isolation and cold. But as more and more people come to visit, and as temperatures warm around its edges, particularly along the Peninsula where most of the tourists visit, all these hitchhiking invasives have a far better chance of surviving.

The tourists are not the worst culprits; the study puts most of the blame on visiting scientists who pack up their cold-weather gear at season’s end, take it home, use it in a variety of natural settings and then return with it to Antarctica accompanied by undetected stowaways.

Stemming the problem is a challenge. Asking Antarctic visitors to be more dutiful is a start. Visitors should wash boots and vacuum clothes and bags before arriving. In the words of Steven Chown, the invasive biology expert who co-authored the “Aliens in Antarctica” report, “Good biosecurity begins with personal responsibility.”
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Norwegian’s Sailboat Missing Off Antarctica … Again

It was a rather uneventful summer in Antarctica, relatively warm and wet along the coast, though much of the Peninsula remained blocked by thick pack ice due to lack of winds. The scientific highlight may have been the Russians’ successful drilling to Lake Vostok, 2.2 miles below the ice. Thankfully, there were no reports of ships run aground.

I spent January there, filming a big, new 3D movie about “change” in Antarctica, sailing down on the 74-foot Pelagic Australis. But all of that seeming uneventfulness has gone out the window with an apparent suicide-by-sailboat misadventure that is being closely monitored by Navies around the Southern Ocean.

Norwegian Jarle Andhoey, 34, self-proclaimed Viking and scofflaw of international treaties and sailing safety, and his 52-foot yacht, Nilaya, are thought to have gone missing while sailing from Antarctica toward Cape Horn. Last public contact with the Nilaya—which is not carrying an EPIRB, so it cannot be tracked by satellite even when in trouble—was a phone call from one of the crew members to his wife about five days ago. He reportedly told her the sail was broken, the boat was adrift, and that they were out of diesel and food. He had no idea of the boat’s position. Last Wednesday, March 14, Andhoey’s Oslo-based lawyer confirmed the boat was in trouble — broken mast? — and was headed back to Antarctica, hoping to land at one of the Argentina bases along the Peninsula.

If Andhoey’s name rings a bell, it’s because he was in the news exactly one year ago when his yacht the Berserk sank with three crew members aboard off the coast of Antarctica…while he and an 18-year-old boy were attempting an illegal run toward the South Pole aboard ATVs. On top of the loss of life, that misadventure got him arrested back in Norway and fined $5,000 by the Norwegian Polar Institute for traveling without permits or insurance.

This past January Andhoey headed back to the Ross Sea aboard a new yacht, claiming he was searching for signs of his lost boat. He insisted last year’s efforts by New Zealand, the U.S., and even the Sea Shepherd—which sent its helicopter out to scour the wild seas and ultimately spied its empty life raft—had failed to mount “a proper search.”

In and out of trouble for a decade, Andhoey has been a branded a madman in his home country by many people. He has even most likely renamed his new boat Berserk IV. On his website he compares himself to Roald Amundsen and has been known to wear a helmet with Viking horns.

“”It’s pathetic, really, and one has to have genuine sympathy for the families of the three lost souls that his quest for fame condemned to death.”"

Others have been far more critical than simply calling Andhoey a nutjob. New Zealand multimillionaire economist and Antarctic sailor Gareth Morgan has told the press he hopes whatever the boat is called, it sinks, describing Andhoey as a “bottom feeder, a taker of the worst kind.” “He appears to not give a toss about the amount of hurt he imparts on those who get in the way of his quest for his ‘Wild Vikings’ brand to attract sponsors and book sales,” Morgan told the New Zealand Herald. “It’s pathetic, really, and one has to have genuine sympathy for the families of the three lost souls that his quest for fame condemned to death.” Charlene Banks, sister of one of Andhoey’s crewmen who went down with the Berserk a year ago, calls him “diabolical.” “It’s all about publicity,” she told Radio New Zealand. “He’s definitely not well-prepared at all; he leaves everything to the last minute. He hasn’t got any of authorities’ approval. He believes he’s above the law.”

New Zealand authorities had been on the lookout for the Nilaya since January, when Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs alerted them that Andhoey was apparently going to attempt a return to Antarctica, again without permits or insurance. The boat was spotted by the custom’s plane in international waters off New Zealand. It apparently managed to stop in New Zealand long enough to pick up crew, though it’s not known exactly how many people are sailing aboard the Nilaya. It’s thought that now-19-year-old Samuel Massie, who was with Andhoey when they tried to reach the South Pole by ATV last year, is onboard, as is a Kiwi Maori political activist Busby Noble, who has variably reported that he was below decks repairing the anchor when the boat sailed away with him on it…or that he joined the misadventure to help give a proper blessing to the men who’d been lost at sea, one of whom was a friend.

As more private yachts sail to Antarctica each year, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) has been rigorous about trying to keep operators informed on the dos and don’ts of sailing to the only place on the planet governed by international treaty. The first warning given in its manual for yachties is: All Antarctica-bound yacht expeditions must be authorized by the operator’s own country or the vessel’s flag state. In Antarctica, the Nilaya apparently sailed within two miles of the big U.S. base at McMurdo and was spotted by a base employee; New Zealand’s Scott Base was instructed not to receive the boat or crew if it showed up. They touched the ice at some point because Noble reported via sat phone to have planted the Maori flag.

When it had no luck finding any sign of the Berserk, the Nilaya apparently headed from the Ross Sea toward Cape Horn, which this time of year means navigating a 200-mile-wide band of ice. The skipper’s thinking was that if he was able to reach Argentinaian-soil—rather than going back to New Zealand, where authorities at the very least want to present him with a $9,000 bill for searching for him—he wouldn’t face arrest or prosecution. Today he bigger question remains, where is Andhoey? And what was he thinking?

Nukes On Ice: A Short History of Atomic Power in Antarctica

Continued fallout from leaking nuclear reactors in Japan has put the atomic energy industry on hold in the Western world, just when nukes were staged to make a comeback.

Photo: Nicky Loh/Reuters

India and China are plunging ahead with plans to build several nuclear plants to energize human populations soaring into the billions, but Germany and others have shelved new proposals and halted site construction since the accidents in Japan. President Obama had previously voiced a desire for more nuclear fuel in the U.S., but the administration hasn’t mentioned that option during the past two months.

Now comes news that a faulty plant—nicknamed Nukey Poo, for its leaky reputation—may have contributed to cancer among many of its government employees during a shortened, 10-year history.

Where was this now-notorious facility—formally known as PM-3A—located? In Antarctica, at the big U.S. base of McMurdo.

Authorized and funded by a 1960 act of Congress, the McMurdo plant was switched on in March 1962 and managed by the U.S. Navy. It worked, more or less, for 10 years, but hundreds of malfunctions, shutdowns and, ultimately, a leak marked its history. Still, PM-3A wasn’t closed because the Navy couldn’t live with its well-documented inefficiencies. The site was shut because operating—and fixing—a nuclear plant in such a remote part of the world proved too expensive.

The idea for building a nuclear plant in Antarctica originated in the mid-1950s. The Eisenhower Administration considered atomic energy a cost-effective way to power a permanent Antarctic station, where shipping fuel oil was both difficult and expensive—$1 to $3 per gallon (equivalent to $7 to $22 today). While the Antarctica Treaty—written in 1959—forbids testing of nuclear weapons or burying nuclear waste on the continent, the pact allowed the generation of nuclear power.

Apparently, Eisenhower seized on the idea as a way to “sell” domestic nuclear power to the American public, through a 1950s program dubbed “Atoms for Peace.”

A “portable” nuclear plant was sent by ship to Antarctica. The plant was intended to provide power for the research station—the biggest in Antarctica, today with a summertime population of 1,500—and to distill water. But operating the novel facility in one of the most forbidding places on the planet proved tricky. Power failures were common, as were cracks. The Navy documented 438 official “malfunctions” during the plant’s life. The 1972 discovery of a leak caused by cracks throughout the reactor forced its shutdown.

Typically, a decommissioned nuclear plant is encased in cement and walked away from. But the Antarctic Treaty forbids dumping nuclear waste on the continent.

Officially shut down in 1972, Nukey Poo was disassembled during 1973′s Operation Deep Freeze. Its reactor would be shipped back to California, along with 101 drums of radioactive earth. Years later, another 11,000 cubic meters of contaminated rock were removed; it took until May 1988 for the site to be declared officially decontaminated.

That could have been end of story, except for a human element. Navy workers employed at the facility are now dying, some with horrific cancers. Navy man Charlie Swinney, who died in Cleveland a year ago, was said to have 200 cancerous tumors. His widow, and other Navy men, suggest the radiation-contaminated soil around the facility led to his cancers.

A retired Navy veteran from San Diego, Bill Vogel, believes Swinney’s cancers—like those of other veterans based at McMurdo—are related to Operation Deep Freeze, in which 1,500 Navy men worked more than 10 years on or near the malfunctioning plant.

The Navy’s 1973 final report on the plant cites increased levels of radioactivity in both air and water, especially during 1971. The 89-page report concludes: “Acting on the Contractor’s recommendations and in view of the cost ($1,298,000), time (26 months) and exposures (40-60 Rem) involved … and the uncertainties involved in accomplishing the inspection and repair … the Officer in Charge recommends the PM-3A be removed.”

There’s not been another nuclear plant built on the continent. McMurdo switched back to diesel power, still in use today. Nukey Poo’s workers came home, many impacted forever.

Southern Ocean Police Report

As Sea Shepherd predicted, when two of its boats made port in Hobart, Tasmania, over the weekend – on the heels of a just-completed and successful campaign against Japanese whalers – Australian police greeted them.

Armed with search warrants both the “Bob Barker” and “Steve Irwin” were scoured by the police with Sea Shepherd boss Paul Watson observing. No charges were made, nothing confiscated. Yet the search went on, spurred by complaints by the Japanese government that the Shepherd’s activities in the Southern Ocean were “obstructing commerce and industry.”

Japan Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara had asked New Zealand and the Netherlands, as well as Australia, to condemn the anti-whalers, since the Shepherd’s ships are registered in those countries. It claims the Shepherd’s put the lives of Japanese crewmen at risk.

Australia’s Green party leader, Sen. Bob Brown, was at the docks to welcome the Sea Shepherd activists and told the press: “The good police (of Australia) are doing the work of Tokyo…I have written to the Minister for Foreign Affairs this morning calling for an end to this charade.”

Watson said this was the third year in a row his ships have been searched when they’ve first made port. “All I can say to the Japanese who every year say ‘you guys are eco-terrorists, you’re criminals’ is ‘look, arrest me or shut up.’ It’s just getting really irritating constantly being called an eco-terrorist without actually being arrested.”

While the Japanese did quit the whaling season early, it’s no guarantee they are giving up, despite that the Shepherds’ formally announced that this past season’s “Operation No Compromise” is finished.

They will most likely return to the Southern Ocean next year and in the meantime – since they took fewer than 100 whales this season, hardly the 900 they anticipated – it is possible they may turn to hunting whales closer to home, in the northwest of the Pacific Ocean.

For its part, Sea Shepherd says it will be back down south next season if necessary. “We will be prepared and we will be ready,” Watson said in a statement posted on his website. “Our objective is to defend the integrity of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. We have done so since 2002, and we will continue to do so if there are any future threats to the sanctuary and the whales.”

In more Antarctic-related police news, Norwegian skipper Jarle Andhoy, whose ship the “Berserk” sank off the coast on February 20 with three crewmembers onboard while he and another man attempted a misguided and secretive effort to reach the South Pole by ATV, has been charged back home with negligence.

Russians Drilling to 14-Million Year Old Lake; Is Oil Next?

Every time I see “drilling” and “Antarctica” in the same sentence it makes me nervous.

It’s been happening frequently this week as Russian scientists prepare to cap a twenty-year effort to explore two-and-a-half-miles below the surface of Antarctica’s ice, by reaching what they’ve dubbed Lake Vostok. The oldest subglacial lake beneath the continent’s ice – 14 million years old – the lake may yield access to life forms never glimpsed. One study suggests the conditions in the lake are most similar to moons of Jupiter and Saturn, suggesting links to extraterrestrial life.

Right now the drill bit sits lodged in ice 328 feet above the lake; once it reaches within 65 to 100 feet, the mechanical drill bit will be replaced by a thermal lance equipped with a camera. Drilling that deep is slow going and it is possible they might not get through to the lake this austral summer and be forced to wait another year.

There are about thirty active scientific bases on Antarctica and virtually all have at some time or another had drilling operations. Usually the goal is ice cores, to help study the planet’s atmospheric history – what’s hidden in Antarctica’s two-mile thick layer of ice tells us a lot about how the planet has evolved from ice age to ice age.

(For the rest of my dispatch go to

Obama Calls For Limits on Antarctic Tourism

Even as more of the Wilkins Ice Shelf in Antarctica threatens to crumble, in part due to warming temperatures, man’s influence on the continent is being heavily debated during these next two weeks in Baltimore. Timed to honor the 50th anniversary of the signing of the treaty that governs the continent, more than 400 officials and observers from around the world have gathered to ponder its future.

A seemingly bold, initial proposal was delivered by the Obama Administration at the onset of the meeting, via the office of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which wants to amend the treaty and impose mandatory limits on the size of cruise ships sailing there and the number of passengers they bring ashore.

Today, there are neither limits on how big a ship can sail to Antarctica, nor how many passengers it can carry. There are voluntary rules on how many people can land onshore at anyone time, which limits landings to the smaller ships – rather than the Princess Star, which carries more than three thousand passengers down to photograph icebergs from the comfort of its Jacuzzis. The Obama proposal encourages written changes to the treaty in order to “ensure that tourism is conducted in a safe and environmentally responsible manner.”

Amending the Antarctic treaty is difficult, in part because it requires the unanimous agreement of all 47 signatory countries. The new U.S. proposal contains no specific enforcement mechanism or penalties for limiting tourist operations. But it would require signatories to the pact to ensure that Antarctic tour operators bar ships with more than 500 passengers from landing sites, restrict landings to one vessel at a time per site and limit passengers on shore to 100 at a time. These numbers match the current voluntary limits, but go a step further by asking they become the official language of the treaty.

The number of tourists visiting the continent continues to boom; more ships and more people means more potential for calamity – in the past two seasons I’ve watched one ship sink, two more run aground. And there are other, unreported accidents each season. In 1992-93, 6,700 tourists visited … this past year more than 45,000. It’s clear that something needs to be done to limit or at least legally monitor the boom. I’m surprised such a specific proposal came from the U.S. … But I like it.

I was privileged last week to be invited to participate in the opening seminar of the brand new Institute at the Golden Gate, Turning the Tide. Envisioned as a west coast forum for conversation and action with an emphasis on global, national and local environmental issues and more if the opening affair, set at the elegant Cavallo Lodge, is an example of what’s to come we should be seeing intriguing reports and counsel issuing from the institute for many years to come. Pulitzer prize winners and Nobel laureates mingled with some of the country’s most noted food and health experts, big-picture global forecasters and businessmen who’ve proved you can make a buck being very green. Perhaps the most salient comment, in a jam-packed two-days of serious talk about our environment that could grind down even the most optimistic, came from guru-physician-Summer-of-Love-survivor Dr. Larry Brilliant, who confided he’d recently hung out on a U.N. panel with a bunch of big time thinkers and the result of their conversation was that if the planet is to be saved it will require an entire change in “human consciousness.” That’s all? I liked Dr. Stephen Schneider’s analogy – he is one of the planet’s preeminent global warming experts – that perhaps climate change and other environmental woes now need to be managed, like a serious cancer, rather than cured.

For the first time France has agreed to compensate victims of its nuclear testing in French Polynesia, which went on from roughly 1966 to 1996. For years courts have heard challenges from some of the 150,000 who witnessed the tests but until now it has stalled on either any responsibility, far less payback for those who say they are suffering from leukemia and thyroid cancer as a result.

Victims and their lawyers say though that the $13.5 million set aside for settlements is chicken feed. Roland Oldham, the president of the French Polynesian nuclear test veterans’ group, Mururoa o Tatou, told Radio New Zealand the deal is a bad joke.

“They announce a few million like that, just like we should be very happy, we should drop on our knees and say thank you to the French Government. But that’s not the case at all, because it’s peanuts, it really is peanuts when you compare how the French government spends a lot of money on defense.”

Oldham says the French plan is not good for the victims and says there needs to be a health structure to help them, and the environmental impact should not be ignored.

The Tuamotus, the remote French Polynesian chain where the testing took place, is one of my favorite parts of the world. We rode a cargo boat all around the area in 2002, but like everyone were disallowed from visiting the pair of islands where the testing had taken place. For more than fifty years France went to extremes to protect its nuclear-testing secrecy; the testing began in Algeria and continued in French Polynesia until 1996, when international protests convinced then President Chirac to end them. In 1985, France sent undercover agents to New Zealand to sink the Rainbow Warrior, a vessel from the Greenpeace environmental group, to prevent it from disrupting nuclear tests.

French authorities have reportedly agreed to publish archives explaining how nuclear tests were conducted. The moves followed many court cases in which testing personnel and residents living near nuclear test sites complained of cancer. If that happens – if they actually publish an honest report – it will make for very interesting reading.