A few days ago China opened its third Antarctic science station, at 12,000 feet above sea level on the continent’s highest icecap. The station – named Kunlun – at Dome Argus is the country’s first inland base. (It has two others, Zhongshan and Great Wall, on King George Island.) While the rest of the world is choking economically and Antarctic science is far down the list of most government’s priorities, China is spending big down south, expanding its presence on the continent.
The base is small, accommodating just twenty people. The government says it will be used for a range of Antarctic research, especially deep glaciers and the mountains underneath them and the effect of extreme cold on human physiology and psychology and medical supplies and equipment.
“It is another great contribution by our country to the human being to unveil the Antarctic mystery,” said Chinese President Hu Jintao, in a telegram.
Members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society accused Japanese whalers of attacking them this weekend with sound guns, water canons, concussion grenades and other weapons in frigid waters near Antarctica, according to Reuters.
Two Sea Shepherd activists in inflatable boats were slightly injured by water canon and metal balls thrown by the whaling crew as they tried to obstruct the launch of harpoons, said Paul Watson, captain of the Sea Shepherd anti-whaling vessel, the “Steve Irwin.” A Japanese government official denied the accusations.
“If our crew can hit them, then they would be better off quitting the research vessel and joining a professional baseball team,” Shigeki Takaya, assistant director of Japan’s Far Seas Fisheries Division, told the Reuters News Agency.
Takaya admitted the whalers used water canons and “beeping warning tones,” but protested that the activists hurl bottles of dye and foul-smelling butyric acid (rotten butter) at whaling vessels. Sea Shepherd has also deployed a helicopter to document the whaling activities.
Whale hunting was banned by a 1986 International Whaling Commission moratorium, which Japan has sought to overturn each year. Japan continues to kill about 900 minke and fin whales per year in what it calls a “scientific whaling program.” Most of the resulting whale meat is sold on the Japanese market.
“What is important is that despite the violence from the whalers, no whales are being killed,” Capt. Watson said. “They can’t get away from us, and if we keep on their tail they can’t kill whales.”
During my recent seven weeks in Antarctica we saw just one Emperor penguin, afloat on a piece of pancake ice, alone, a beautiful if somewhat sad scene. It’s unusual to see Emperor’s along the Peninsula, since their home is far, far south. Yet I’m still stunned to see them twinned – like polar bears in the North – to endangered species lists:
Yet a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that the world’s largest penguins could suffer serious population declines through at least part of their range before the end of the century. The paper, co-authored by five researchers and led by WHOI biologists Stephanie Jenouvrier and Hal Caswell, used mathematical models to predict the effect on penguins from climate change and the resulting loss of sea ice.
“Penguins need sea ice to breed, feed and molt on. The ice also serves as a grazing ground for krill – tiny crustaceans which penguins, along with fish, whales and seals, feed on. The research indicates if climate change continues to melt sea ice at the rates published in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, the median population size of a large emperor penguin colony such as one in Terre Adelie, Antarctica, will likely shrink from its present size of 3,000 to only 400 breeding pairs by the end of the century. There are about 40 emperor penguin colonies that exist in the world.
“Emperor penguins weigh around 66 pounds and can stand about 3.8 feet tall. They can dive to a depth of 1,800 feet and hold their breath for up to 22 minutes – allowing them to get food other birds can’t get.
“The researchers say the probability of a population decline of 95 percent or more is at least 40 percent and perhaps as much as 80 percent. If that many penguins are lost, extinction could occur.
“Over the last 50 years, climate change in Antarctica has been most pronounced in the Antarctic Peninsula, where Terre Adelie is located. In the future, the Ross Sea—where sea ice actually has increased in recent years—may be the last sanctuary for penguins.” Last month, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decided not to list the emperor penguin under the endangered species act.
Holding their breath for 22 minutes?
I spent part of the afternoon with Google Earth, er, Google Ocean, the brand new add-on to the Internet phenom. My initial search took me directly south, to Antarctica, where Google underwater research is still limited. I scoured the Peninsula for underwater views, but I guess it’s too early. Go to the Ross Sea, though, and there are some very cool – if dark – glimpses of Antarctic life beneath the sea.
The best early review of the new software comes from my friend Andy Revkin at the New York Times. In his Dot Earth posting yesterday, he worries about the advancement of seeing the world as a high tech video game and quotes Dr. Steven Kellert, professor of social ecology at Yale, who is skeptical of the way many are now experiencing the world’s landscapes:
“Like most aspects of the modern telecommunications age, it is a complicated situation. My sense of the data is that there is a strong correlation between environmental awareness, even environmental activism in the most limited sense, and the advent of video/ television/ film depictions of nature and conservation. The down side is that it appears this exposure to nature and conservation via film bears very little correlation with a more complex and deep understanding of the natural world and its protection, or actions relation to personal lifestyle and responsibility. Moreover, a great deal of the increased awareness is abstract and remote – e.g., for tropical forests, charismatic wildlife in distant place, issues like climate change, but correspondingly little awareness, appreciation, or action related to the local and regional environment in one’s place or state of residence.
“The sad reality is that while more abstract, vicarious/representational awareness of nature and its conservation via the video and computer have grown enormously, concurrently, there has been a profound decline in more commonplace, everyday experience and contact with nature and the often deeper and more realistic and lasting appreciation and action that comes from this personal involvement.”
When we sailed to the Antarctic Peninsula last year aboard Skip Novak’s “Pelagic Australis” to mount our sea kayaking adventure, the third mate aboard proved to have a big story to tell. An accomplished long-distance rower, the youngest to cross the Atlantic Ocean under his own power, 24-year-old Olly Hicks told us he intended a year later to attempt something never done before: To row around Antarctica. One of his reasons for working on the “Pelagic Australis” was to gain some insight into how the Southern Ocean works. Though he would be rowing around Antarctica in its waters, he would never actually see the continent.
Olly Hicks, in red jacket, during one of our Antarctica climbs, January 2008
Bon chance, Olly! One year later and his attempt is in the news. Not because of any particularly long days on the sea, but because a couple different government’s are not wild about his plan. His late-December hope to push off from New Zealand – and hopefully return some 500 days later! – was quashed by the New Zealand maritime bureau that saw it potentially being pulled into an expensive and risky rescue mission if something were to go awry and which it wanted no part of.
Ever plucky, Olly packed up his rowing boat, “The Flying Carrot,” and shipped off to Hobart, Tasmania, where he is now undergoing scrutiny anew. Have a look at the website of his Virgin Global Row. We’ll be staying tuned in.
Photo, Pete McBride
We had big, choppy seas yesterday, churned by strong gale force winds and twenty-five to thirty foot swells. Classified on the Beaufort Scale as class 9, if measured on land these same winds would “break larger branches off trees and blow small trees over, blow over construction signs and barricades and do (considerable) damage to circus tents and canopies.” Made me glad I wasn’t out in a kayak.
A wild Southern Ocean
Today we woke to a completely different, nearly windless sea, surrounded by a sizable group of humpback whales. On their way further south this time of year to feed, we found them doing exactly that. Stopped in almost one place, circling, lunching. There were so many it was hard to count, but many tens were breaking the surface simultaneously. At any one point you could easily see the backs, fins or tails of twenty big animals, all under a glorious-if-cold morning light.
• Forty-five-year-old Pennsylvania businessman Todd Carmichael is the first of what will most likely be half-dozen adventurers to reach the South Pole under their own steam this season. He covered 700 miles from the coast at Hercules Inlet to the U.S.’s Scott-Amundsen base fast – 39 days, 7 hours, 49 minutes – some kind of new speed record, reportedly an hour or so quicker than the last record … though I find speed in Antarctica to be extremely irrelevant. It’s such a tough place that physical feats down here are all successful; as long as you accomplish what you set out to do. Along his route he described the snow as a combination of “talcum powder, moon dust and laundry detergent.” In regard to solo travel in Antarctica, I will always bow down to my friend Borge Ousland, who skied across the continent alone and unsupported in 1996-97, from Berkner Island on the Weddell Sea to the U.S. McMurdo base on the Ross Sea. It took him 64 days to cover 1,764 miles.
• It’s not just tourist ships that get in trouble down south. The vaunted British Naval Ship HMS Endurance – the Royal navy’s Sole ice patrol ship – which works Antarctica each season, had to be towed back to Chile during the past few days after her engine room flooded, leaving her without power and propulsion in the Magellan Strait. A cruise liner, the Norwegian Sun, stood by, ready to evacuate the one hundred people on board. Eventually a few passengers were offloaded from the Endurance by helicopter and Chilean Navy missile boat; meanwhile a Chilean Navy helicopter made an emergency landing on the Norwegian Sun to uplift a 47-year-old California woman suffering from an encephalic hemorrhage.
The British Navy ship – which last January “discovered” the exact location of the sunken tourist boat Explorer, 4,200 feet below the cold surface – has been towed to dry dock in Punta Arenas, Chile, where it will undergo inspection for damage alongside the tourist boat Ushuaia, which ran aground along the Antarctic Peninsula earlier in the season.
A PROUD DAY
Though I’ve been in Antarctica since before Thanksgiving, I’ve had the good fortune in recent days of gaining a couple media distinctions. The New York Times included my account of travels in Vietnam (“Descending the Dragon”) on its ‘best of list’ … and yesterday Fox News honored me as one of 2008’s ten “liberal loons.”
I’m not sure if it’s yet an annual list, but Fox.com put together a top ten of what it regards as the year’s “wackiest” takes on global warming, including my National Geographic report from the Antarctic Peninsula last January of penguin chicks dying thanks to a new combination of daytime rains and freezing nights. Headlined “No Matter What Happens, Someone Will Blame Global Warming …”, and the blogosphere has quickly picked up the story, with several publicly missing Al Gore’s inclusion. “10 Liberal Loon Lies Blaming Everything and Anything …” is typical of the rest.
On the left, a healthy and dry chick; on the right, a wet and freezing chick.
So, as the year winds down, time a little reflection. Praise by the New York Times, derision from Fox News. Keeps me in pretty good company, I imagine.
SPEAKING OF PENGUINS …
It’s clear from my mail that blonde penguins definitely have more fun … so … a few more photographs of some of Antarctica’s more unusual pengies … (compliments of my friend John Carlson and his Antarctic wildlife surveying friends at Oceanites).
An odd bird ...
Dalmatian ... or penguin?
A true albino.
A rare, nearly all-black Emperor
Photos, Fiona Stewart
Yesterday, in the Weddell Sea, we spied a lone emperor penguin adrift on a chunk of drifting ice. It is a rare sighting this far north; their normal habitat is hundreds of miles south. This guy was most likely lost … or purposely out on some great adventure.
By coincidence, today it was announced that seven of the world’s seventeen penguin species would be added for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Though not the emperor, who had been sought for inclusion due to its habitat changing, i.e. less ice and less krill, on which it depends.
A curious chinstrap, which are not at risk
The most famous emperor penguin colony in Antarctica, at Pointe Geologie, was featured in the film “ March of the Penguins.” Its numbers have declined by more than 50 percent due to global warming. Penguin biologists will fight to change the non-inclusion.
Here’s the news story, in full:
The Bush administration today denied protection for the emperor penguin under the Endangered Species Act. Global warming and the consequent loss of its sea-ice habitat, as well as declining food availability wrought by the warming ocean off Antarctica threaten the emperor penguin, the most ice-dependant of all penguin species. Today’s decision, made by the Department of the Interior in response to a petition and lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity, concluded that global warming impacts were too “uncertain” to warrant protecting the species. The Administration also denied protection for two other penguin species, while proposing protection for seven other species.
“Right now penguins are marching towards extinction due to the impacts of global warming,” said Shaye Wolf, a seabird biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Protecting penguins under the Endangered Species Act is an essential step toward saving them. For the species proposed for listing, today’s decision is an important step forward. However, for the emperor penguin, it is a step closer to extinction.”
In today’s decision the African penguin, yellow-eyed penguin, white-flippered penguin, Fiordland crested penguin, Humboldt penguin, and erect-crested penguin were proposed for listing as threatened species. The Administration also proposed listing of a portion of the range of the southern rockhopper penguin. However, the Interior Department denied listing for the majority of the range of the southern rockhopper penguin, as well as for the northern rockhopper penguin, macaroni penguin, and emperor penguin.
Abnormally warm ocean temperatures and diminished sea ice have wreaked havoc on the penguins’ foods supply. Less food has led to population declines in penguin species ranging from the southern rockhopper and Humboldt penguins of the islands off South America, and the African penguin in southern Africa, to the emperor penguin in Antarctica. The ocean conditions causing these declines have been linked by scientists to global warming and are projected to intensify in the coming decades.
Krill, an essential food source not just for penguins but also for whales and seals, has declined by as much as 80 percent since the 1970s over large areas of the Southern Ocean. Scientists have linked the ocean conditions causing these declines to global warming and loss of sea ice. The emperor penguin colony at Pointe Geologie, featured in the film “ March of the Penguins,” has declined by more than 50 percent due to global warming.
Bailey Head, Deception Island, packed with chinstraps
Many penguin species also are harmed by industrial fisheries, either directly, such as when individual penguins are caught and killed in trawls, nets and long lines; or indirectly, through the depletion of essential prey species such as anchovy and krill. Over fishing by industrial fishing fleets plays a prominent role in the hit movie “Happy Feet,” which features two of the species denied protection today, the emperor and rockhopper penguins.
Listing under the Endangered Species Act will provide broad protection to these penguins, including a requirement that federal agencies ensure that any action carried out, authorized, or funded by the U.S. government will not “jeopardize the continued existence” of the penguin species. For example, if penguins are listed, future approval of fishing permits for U.S.-flagged vessels operating on the high seas would require analysis and minimization of impacts on the listed penguins. The Act also has an important role to play in reducing greenhouse gas pollution by compelling federal agencies to look at the impact of the emissions generated by their activities on listed species and to adopt solutions to reduce them.
The Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition in November 2006 to list 12 penguin species as threatened or endangered. Ultimately, the Department of Interior initiated status reviews of 10 of 12 penguin species, but only issued today’s findings under court order. The agency has one year to finalize the listing decision for the seven penguins proposed for listing. The decision to deny protection for the emperor, rockhopper and macaroni penguins can be challenged in court.
“Penguin populations are in jeopardy and we can’t afford to further delay protections,” said Brendan Cummings, oceans program director at the Center. “The denial of protection for the emperor penguin ignores the science on global warming and ignores the law. We are confident it will be overturned by either the courts or the new administration.”
Photos, Fiona Stewart
Just as every day is different down south, every landscape is wildly different too.
We’ve moved to the other side of the Peninsula, the eastern edge of the five-hundred-mile long finger jutting out of the continent, into the Weddell Sea. We tried to get in here last year, by sailboat and kayak, but were shut out. The winter of 2007 had been a particularly cold one, even by Antarctic standards, and the entry to the Antarctic Sound had been blocked long into summer by a pair of giant icebergs, each tens of miles long. That blockage, combined with a lack of wind, meant that where we had hoped to paddle – circumnavigating Vega and James Ross islands – was choked by frozen sea, passes between the islands still filled by one and two year old ice.
Weddell Sea tabular
This year is very, very different. The winter of 2008 was warmer and windier and even though we’re a day away from the official start of summer, much of the Weddell is already clear of the same kind of thick pack we saw last year.
That said it is never a picnic over here. The landscape is stark, the islands short-hilled and rust-colored. Other than a solitary Argentine base, there’s no one around for one hundred miles, and you sense that remoteness. If more than 100,000 sizable bergs calve off the Antarctic continent each year, about one-third of them come from the glaciers lining the Weddell Sea. Remember in 2002, when a chunk of ice the size of Rhode Island dramatically broke off from the Larsen B ice shelf? The Larsen B is just south of where I am today and some of that ice and its brothers and sisters are still grounded here. As I write I’m standing alongside a flat-topped berg a few stories tall and at least two miles long.
The ice here is different too. The sky is bright blue, the wind howling at thirty to forty miles an hour and I spend the better part of an hour looking through a spotting scope towards Seymour Island, following “the pack” being pushed by wind and current. It is miles wide, floating on the surface, exactly what you would not want to get caught in. Imagine being surrounded by a fast-moving pack tens of miles wide, unable to escape. You could be stuck for days, or worse.
The Weddell’s icebergs are mean and tough too, none of that soft, slushy stuff you might see at this time of year on the western side of the Peninsula. Hit one of these, and you’ll suffer. They are extremely hard, toughened by years of extreme cold and wind, often studded just below the surface by giant, sharp continental rock. Even the name of the water here is ominous – the Terror and Erebus Gulf – named for a pair of historical wooden sailing ships that first risked exploring the region.
At the north end of the channel, I take a long walk on Paulet Island, known for its 100,000 pairs of nesting Adelies. There are so many birds it is nearly impossible to clamber up the boulder-strewn beach. Beneath many of the birds peek the first chicks I’ve seen this year. As the day goes on, the sky grows evermore blue, the winds stronger.
Some of the 200,000 Adelie pengins on Paulet Island
Wind swept and rocky, islands in the Weddell Sea are vastly different than the opposite side of the Peninsula
ANTARCTICA EXPEDITIONS UPDATES
For a summary of who’s doing what down south this year by ski, kite and foot, check in with my friend Kraig Becker’s The Adventure Blog. While I remain curious about the various attempts, admiring of the incredible physical stamina each requires, when you’re on the edge of the continent as I am, all of that seems very … foreign … very far away.
Photos, Fiona Stewart
One of the things I love most about Antarctica is that every day is different. And long. Even in these early days of the austral spring, it gets only dusk-like for a few hours in the early morning. Today we are east of Adelaide Island and will return back northwards in a day or two; for the next month we’ll be exploring the Peninsula before heading out to South Georgia and the Falkland Islands in January. Already during the past five days we’ve seen thick pack ice and big rolling seas, bright shiny sun and one very fierce storm – most of that day was spent fighting into a hurricane force gale wind, which topped one hundred miles per hour on occasion and averaged more than fifty miles per hour.
The one thing that seems, unfortunately, to be becoming a staple of each Antarctica summer is news that one tourist ship or another has gotten into trouble. Last year, we were the first on the scene to witness the sinking of the “Explorer” and rescue of its lifeboat-bound 154 passengers. Yesterday around noon we heard – almost simultaneously via radio, sat phone and email, proving once again that it is a small, small world – that the Argentinean ship “Ushuaia” had run aground near Wilhelmina Bay. Though we were only about thirty miles south of the accident at the time, it appeared there were other ships closer by to lend a hand and that a pair of Chilean Navy ships was on the way to offload its passengers.
While it appears that all 122 on board are safe and that the ship will not sink, there are big questions about the after-effects: It’s reported the hull was torn and that oil has already leaked into the pristine bay. Although containment booms were deployed, they are never one hundred percent efficient. In my years of traveling the world’s coastlines, one privilege of coming to Antarctica is that it is the one place on earth where you see virtually no evidence of man’s polluting. That will change if the increasing numbers of ships coming to Antarctica each year keep running onto the rocks, or worse.
During the next few days we’ll invariably learn more about the hows and whys of the “Ushuaia’s” accident. What I’m most interested in is what the treaty nations that govern the continent take away from this now seemingly inevitable annual wreckage. While I’m not sure exactly how to avoid future accidents — perhaps by putting even more limitations on who can come to Antarctica and by what means? — I believe somehow change has to be instigated. (During the 2007-2008 season a new record for visitors was set, over 46,000 by ship and airplane.)