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Antarctica, Random Notes

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.

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.”

Rotten butter?

***

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.”

Agreed.

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