Category: Antarctica


On the titanic risks of large cruise ships in polar regions

By Midge Raymond,

Thanks to The Daily Beast for publishing my piece on the risks of large cruise liners in fragile polar environments: “Cruise Ships In The Arctic Take Titanic Risks.”

My Last Continent, while purely fictional, was inspired by very real fears of a shipwreck occurring in polar waters. Yet tour companies keep pushing the limits.

Read the piece here to see what it’s all about.

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MY LAST CONTINENT among books “Bringing the Heat” this summer

By Midge Raymond,

I am delighted that My Last Continent is on Bustle’s list of Books That Are Bringing the Heat This Summer.

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My Last Continent is in fantastic company with books by Louise Erdrich, Terry McMillan, Annie Proulx, Anne Tyler, Jacqueline Woodson, Stephen King … and many other authors whose books are on my officially-a-fire-hazard reading pile.

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Check out this list at Bustle, and happy summer reading!



Happy World Penguin Day

By Midge Raymond,

Today is World Penguin Day!

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Not that we need an excuse to celebrate these magnificent birds … but it’s still fun to see them getting a little extra attention.

After all, they need the exposure: penguins are facing threats from multiple fronts, from climate change to overfishing. I love this post from One Green Planet, which offers five ways you can help penguins.

To discover the very latest in what’s new with Magellanic and Galapagos penguins, visit the Center for Penguins as Ocean Sentinels. And if you follow Penguin Sentinels on Facebook, you’ll be treated to wonderful penguin videos.

And to learn about the researchers who count penguins at the bottom of the world, check out The Penguin Counters, a documentary about these dedicated researchers and the species they study in Antarctica.

And, finally … stay tuned for My Last Continent, coming on June 21 from Scribner! In this novel, you’ll meet four species of penguins: three Antarctic species, and the Magellanic penguins of Patagonia. Check out the book club kit for a little more info, and join my mailing list for news and updates on the book.

Happy World Penguin Day!

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Climate change warnings grow more alarming

By Midge Raymond,

It’s more mind-boggling than ever that climate change isn’t being taken more seriously, or discussed more often, especially with scientists’ warnings becoming ever more alarming. In the latest study released this week, research suggests that should the West Antarctic ice sheet melt as currently projected (and with ice melting in other parts of the world as well), sea levels could rise by as much as six feet by 2100. The long-term effects, concludes the New York Times, “would likely be to drown the world’s coastlines, including many of its great cities.”

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That may sound far away right now, but if you have small children, they could be among the millions displaced by rising oceans: Among the cities that will be disastrously affected are New York, Miami, New Orleans, London, Venice, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Sydney, Australia.

Millions of people in the U.S. alone will be affected, as this New York Times article outlines, and in fact, “most projections vastly underestimate the number of people at risk because they do not account for population growth.”

While the climate deal negotiated in Paris last year was widely celebrated, many scientists warn that this agreement would not reduce emissions enough to limit global warming and the subsequent rise in sea level.

The good news is that it’s an election year, and how we vote will determine the fate of the planet and its inhabitants. There’s also a lot we can do as individuals — from adjusting our daily routines to eating more sustainably.

A few resources to inspire you:





Chasing Penguins

By Midge Raymond,

As soon as I met my first penguins (chinstraps, Adélies, and gentoos) in Antarctica more than twelve years ago, I fell in love with these incredible animals. Two years later, when I had the opportunity to help the University of Washington’s Dee Boersma with a Magellanic penguin census in Patagonia two years later, I (along with my husband) pounced on the opportunity — not only to help with the amazing research Dee is doing but to learn about, and spend time with, another species of penguin; Dee has been studying the Magellanic penguins since 1982.

And when, a decade after our Patagonia penguin adventure, we learned that Dee would be a naturalist on board an expedition to the Galápagos Islands — home of the rare and endangered Galápagos penguin —  we jumped again at the chance to meet yet another species with the world’s leading penguin expert.

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Even Darwin didn’t see penguins on his visit to the Galápagos Islands, and to this day no one knows how many penguins now exist there (the estimate is between 1,500 and 4,700 — about half the numbers that existed when Dee began studying these birds in the 1970s).

When we arrived in the Galápagos, Dee advised us that we would have one chance to see Galápagos penguins on this journey, around the waters of Floreana Island. At first we were discouraged by the crystal clear (albeit gorgeous) waters, which are not ideal for the penguins’ fishing. We didn’t see a single penguin during an hour-long panga ride — but then, as we swam and snorkeled off Post Office Bay, a penguin popped its head above water to take a breath before diving back under to continue hunting.

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At first, as I was snorkeling, I saw only one penguin, diving for fish, swimming under and all around me (while they are comically slow and awkward on land, penguins are utterly graceful underwater), and then I saw another, about twenty feet below me, trying to snatch food from the other’s beak. Every time a school of fish changed direction and sped away, one of these two penguins was in close pursuit.

A short time later, back in our panga, we saw several more penguins, this time fishing in a group of four. Galápagos penguins look similar to Magellanic penguins, with the dark band around their white chests, but they are much smaller (though their beaks are roughly the same size, making this species look a bit big-nosed).

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As we watched the penguins, they began to fish with blue-footed boobies. In the photo below, you’ll see the boobies in the background; they dive for fish from high in the air, while the penguins work underwater.

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We observed this animated feeding frenzy for about forty-five minutes before the birds began to disperse, looking quite well fed. While we’d have been thrilled to get merely a glimpse of the Galápagos penguins, it was an extraordinary experience to see so many of them (about five or six, the naturalists believe, in all) swimming and porpoising and diving all around us.

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Our expedition group left Dee in Ecuador, where she was next headed to Isabela and Fernandina Islands to check on the nests she and other researchers have built to help the penguins’ breeding efforts.

And, shortly after we returned home, the University of Washington, where Dee holds the Wadsworth Endowed Chair in Conservation Science, announced that Dee is one of six finalists for the prestigious Indianapolis Prize for conservation — the highest honor for animal conservationists, which has been awarded every other year since 2006. The winner will be announced in the spring of this year; click here to learn more about the work that has earned Dee this honor.

I’m looking forward to news from Dee’s time on the other Galápagos islands. To learn more about Dee’s work, visit Penguin Sentinels — and to see more of the elusive Galápagos penguins, visit www.iGalápagos.org.

 

 



Penguin Awareness Day

By Midge Raymond,

January 20 is Penguin Awareness Day. Why celebrate a day of penguin awareness, you may be wondering — and how?

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There are 17 species of penguins throughout the world, and penguin awareness is important because these incredible birds face increasing threats every day, worldwide, from pollution to overfishing to climate change. Click here to learn about the most pressing threats to penguins and how you can help.

Another way to help penguins is through citizen science — visit Penguin Watch, and you can take part in ongoing Antarctic penguin research. You can help researchers by annotating images, without ever leaving your desk (though these amazing photos will make you feel as though you’ve traveled around the world).

Check out the Penguin Sentinels organization, a collaboration between the University of Washington, Global Penguin Society, Province of Chubut, and the La Regina family of Punta Tombo, Argentina, and is dedicated to research, conservation, and education. In addition to working at the Punta Tombo colony for more than 30 years, this group also does great work in the Galápagos Islands.

Learn about another penguin program at The Penguin Counters, which follows researchers on their Antarctic penguin-counting journeys.

And, if you’re crazy about penguins, check out the book Penguins: Natural History and Conservation, which offers an in-depth look at all 17 species of penguins and the challenges they face…and help ensure they’re around for generations to come.

And, a million thanks to Scribner for this delightful image of an Adelie penguin with MY LAST CONTINENT (which is about two penguin researchers working in Antarctica).

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Hope for Antarctica’s ice sheets

By Midge Raymond,

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A new study from University of Pennsylvania researchers has found that Antarctic lake deposits have remained frozen for at least the last 14 million years — which suggests that the East Antarctic Ice Sheet has also remained intact.

If the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, or  EAIS, didn’t experience significant melting during the Pliocene (a period from 3 to 5 million years ago, when carbon dioxide concentrations were similar to what they are today), this offers new hope that perhaps the continent won’t melt away, as many fear it eventually could.

Current climate change projections indicate that the marine portion of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is “a goner,” [Jane] Willenbring said. Studies from the past few years suggest that sea level will likely rise a few meters as that ice melts. But the East Antarctic Ice Sheet is 20 times more massive. If it melted, the ensuing sea level rise would be even more catastrophic than the western peninsula’s dissolution.

However, while this study offers hope that a massive collapse of the ice sheet, and the subsequent sea level rise, may not be imminent, the differences between the Pliocene and the rapid warming of today’s climate are great enough that it’s impossible to draw any definitive conclusions. As Willenbring says,”we’ve probably never experienced such a fast transition to warm temperatures as we’re seeing right now.”



Adélie penguins are “iconic symbol of climate change”

By Midge Raymond,

This video, with gorgeous images of Adélie penguins and their chicks on the Antarctic peninsula, is one of the best calls to action I’ve seen for a planet in peril due to climate change.

 

 

Excerpted from James McClintock’s Lost Antarctica and narrated by Harrison Ford (member of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation (EOWBF) Board of Advisors), this brief video shows how the amazing Adélie penguin is being threatened by real-time environmental changes.

 

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Over the last six decades, scientists have observed an average increase of 2 degrees Fahrenheit per decade in the Antarctic peninsula. These warming temperatures lead to increasing humidity, which leads to unseasonable snow. This video shows Adélies trying to keep their eggs incubated despite being buried in snow.

What sort of a world will future generations of Antarctic scientists find when they come to this remarkable place? When they gaze over this landscape, will they be reminded how this place, this peninsula, these ecosystems, served as a wake-up call…?

Climate change isn’t an abstract, faraway notion. It’s happening before our eyes, chick by chick.

Learn more, and help, by visiting such organizations as Oceanites and the Center for Penguins as Ocean Sentinels, which look at our changing planet through the animals that are showing us the effects of climate change.

 

 



The truth about Antarctica’s ice

By Midge Raymond,

A recent NASA study has been making headlines because it has revealed that Antarctica is gaining ice rather than losing it (which contradicts other studies, including one by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). And yet…

“We’re essentially in agreement with other studies that show an increase in ice discharge in the Antarctic Peninsula and the Thwaites and Pine Island region of West Antarctica,” said Jay Zwally, a glaciologist with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and lead author of the study, which was published on Oct. 30 in the Journal of Glaciology.

And, while the study shows ice gain in East Antarctica and the interior of West Antarctica, it may not make much of a difference in the end. Zwally notes, “If the losses of the Antarctic Peninsula and parts of West Antarctica continue to increase at the same rate … I don’t think there will be enough snowfall increase to offset these losses.”

In addition, while NASA concludes that Antarctica isn’t currently causing a rise in the oceans, this means that there’s another contributor out there.

“The good news is that Antarctica is not currently contributing to sea level rise, but is taking 0.23 millimeters per year away,” Zwally said. “But this is also bad news. If the 0.27 millimeters per year of sea level rise attributed to Antarctica in the IPCC report is not really coming from Antarctica, there must be some other contribution to sea level rise that is not accounted for.”

And while it’s heartening to know that Antarctica is colder and snowier than previously believed, this doesn’t mean we can ignore climate change. This New York Times article portrays the results of a study with a stark headline: Study Predicts Antarctica Ice Melt if All Fossil Fuels Are Burned. As one of the study’s researcher notes, “To be blunt: If we burn it all, we melt it all.”

In other words, the scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research concluded, if we continue to burn the earth’s fossil fuels, all of its land ice will melt — not only Antarctica — and the total rise in sea level could be more than 200 feet. The New York Times spells out what this new world would look like:

A sea level rise of 200 feet would put almost all of Florida, much of Louisiana and Texas, the entire East Coast of the United States, large parts of Britain, much of the European Plain, and huge parts of coastal Asia under water. The cities lost would include Miami, New Orleans, Houston, Washington, New York, Amsterdam, Stockholm, London, Paris, Berlin, Venice, Buenos Aires, Beijing, Shanghai, Sydney, Rome and Tokyo.

This piece in National Geographic sums up NASA’s study with a Q&A that shows global warming isn’t something we can ignore. As University of Alaska, Fairbanks glaciology professor Erin Pettit tells National Geographic, “adding a little snow to Antarctica in no way offsets the complete disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet in the near future.”

In other words, despite some potentially good news about our southern continent, the problem of global warming is here to stay, and we must take better care of this planet. The very good news is that we can all make a difference — with our habits, our diets, our votes, and our wallets.

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Saving Antarctica’s krill

By Midge Raymond,

This New York Times story about the threat to Antarctica’s krill is quite alarming. Laboratory research is showing that krill eggs can’t survive increases in carbon dioxide, a condition that mimics the acidification of the ocean due to global warming. Dr. So Kawaguchi has been studying krill for 25 years, and as the Times notes, his “recent research has led to dire predictions about how global carbon emissions will significantly reduce the hatch rates of Antarctic krill over the next 100 years.”

In fact, Kawaguchi told the Times: “If we continue with business as usual, and we don’t act on reducing carbon emissions, in that case, there could be a 20 to 70 percent reduction in Antarctic krill by 2100…By 2300, the Southern Ocean might not be suitable for krill reproduction.”

Krill are already being vacuumed from the sea by commercial fishing trawlers and used to feed farmed fish as well as for oil supplements for humans. And these activities take food from the mouths of those who need krill the most: whales and penguins, sea birds and squid.

For the fifth year in a row, the Commission for Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) is discussing the creation of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the Antarctic. At 1.25 million square kilometers, it would be the biggest MPA in the world.

Meanwhile, we can all do our part — by avoiding farmed seafood that depletes the Antarctic krill (and if you need further inspiration to give up farmed fish, this post on the conditions in which farmed fish are raised should do it), and also by choosing plant-based supplements, which helps protect all creatures, which in turn helps protect us. As Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson is known for saying, “If the oceans die, we die.” And he is right.



Book publishing in Antarctica

By Midge Raymond,

Of all that Antarctica is known for, who knew it was once a publishing hub? (Well, sort of.)

I’ve been reading about the Aurora Australis — the first book ever written, printed, illustrated, and bound in Antarctica — soon to be offered at auction by Sotheby’s and expected to bring in £70,000.

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Photo from The Guardian.

 

Aurora Australis was produced during Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition of 1908–09, at Cape Royds on Ross Island in the McMurdo Sound. It was one of many activities Shackleton encouraged of his team so that “the spectre known as ‘polar ennui’ never made its appearance.”

What’s interesting is that by the time this book was created, publishing was not a new thing in the polar regions. Already explorers were publishing articles and newspapers detailing their expeditions — from Edward Parry’s 1819 expedition in search of the Northwest Passage to the South Polar Times, published during Robert Scott’s Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions. And now, of course, you can go online to read the news of what’s happening in Antarctica — for example, The Antarctic Sun, published by the U.S. Antarctic Program; and blog posts from the British Antarctic Survey.

Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition was sponsored by a printing firm, and Shackleton received training and traveled south with a printing press and paper. (Click here to learn more about the challenges of printing in the extreme temperatures of the Antarctic.)

Aurora Australis, which will be auctioned in London on September 30, is 120 pages long and contains poems, stories, essays, and illustrations by ten members of the expedition. Horse harnesses were recycled to create the leather spines, and the covers of the copy up for auction were made from a tea chest. Only eighty copies of the book were printed.



Pirates v. pirates on lawless oceans

By Midge Raymond,

It’s been great to see stories about illegal fishing on the front pages of two major newspapers over the past week. Overfishing is one of the biggest dangers facing our oceans … and yet, often there is little that can be done, as this front-page Los Angeles Times story points out. This is why the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s work is so vital; as the organization puts it: “It takes a pirate to catch a pirate.”

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The LA Times story focuses on the Kunlun, “a decrepit fishing vessel, its huge white hull streaked with filth and rust,” which was suspected of holding $5 million worth of illicit Patagonian toothfish, better known by its more user-friendly name “Chilean sea bass,” a fish whose stocks have been dangerously depleted due to overfishing and is now considered a threatened species. After the market for Chilean sea bass boomed in the 1990s, by the year 2000 twice as much of the fish was being caught illegally.

This article, as well as yesterday’s New York Times cover story, feature the Sea Shepherd’s efforts to end illegal fishing (as well as whaling and other atrocities against marine life) in international waters where poachers are rampant. The NYT piece focuses on the Sea Shepherd’s 110-day pursuit of the Thunder, a trawler considered the world’s most notorious fish poacher, via the Bob Barker.

As the Times points out:

Industrial-scale violators of fishing bans and protected areas are a main reason more than half of the world’s major fishing grounds have been depleted and by some estimates over 90 percent of the ocean’s large fish like marlin, tuna and swordfish have vanished. Interpol had issued a Purple Notice on the Thunder (the equivalent of adding it to a Most Wanted List, a status reserved for only four other ships in the world), but no government had been willing to dedicate the personnel and millions of dollars needed to go after it.

So Sea Shepherd did instead, stalking the fugitive 202-foot steel-sided ship from a desolate patch of ocean at the bottom of the Earth, deep in Antarctic waters, to any ports it neared, where its crews could alert the authorities.

It’s wonderful to see the Sea Shepherds getting such positive press for the important work they do. “Maritime lawyers question whether the group has legal authority for its actions — ranging from cutting nets and blocking fishermen to ramming whaling vessels — but Sea Shepherd claims its tactics are necessary. So do some Interpol officials.” In waters where no Coast Guard exists and where poachers will change a ship’s name and port registry up to a half-dozen times, as Australian senator Peter Whish-Wilson told the Times, “Sea Shepherd is doing what no one else will.”

Learn more about the Sea Shepherds and how they help protect the oceans … and, even better, help solve the problem at its roots by not eating fish (this article makes a good case for avoiding fish; these 99 reasons not to eat fish include endangered species as well as important health concerns; and this infographic shows the environmental and ethical impacts of the seafood industry).

 

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Antarctica is hot (and not in a good way)

By Midge Raymond,

From being a popular tourist destination (IAATO estimates the numbers of visitors expected in the upcoming 2015-2016 will be an astonishing 40,029) to the actual warming temperatures in the sea and air, Antarctica is hotter than ever. And this doesn’t bode well for the future of the continent or the planet.

While on one hand, the increasing tourism could be a very positive thing — but only if visitors return from Antarctica with a new vision of climate change and a commitment to do their part. On the other hand, the more feet on the ground in Antarctica, the more strain on the wildlife and native landscape. (Click here to check out John Oliver’s hilarious anti-tourism PSA).

And regarding the melting of the ice sheet, this article in OnEarth Magazine puts it very well:

If you want to cook something quickly, you heat it from both sides. This is the genius of the toaster. That’s what’s happening to the West Antarctic ice sheet—with alarming consequences…Think of it as the world’s largest panini press.

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In addition to news about the geothermal energy melting the ice from the water below, as well as from the warming temperatures above, is the appearance of king crabs in Antarctica — a species that until 2003 had previously been unable to survive in Antarctica’s icy waters. Now, as this article in The Conversation notes, “[t]hey are seemingly marching up the continental slope and towards the continental shelf, with nothing to stop them…In the Antarctic, the native inhabitants are particularly at risk. These animals have evolved without any major predators for millions of years.”

And this week, former NASA scientist James Hansen has announced a study that outlines a scenario of rapid sea level rise as well as intense storms. As the Washington Post reports:

“If the ocean continues to accumulate heat and increase melting of marine-terminating ice shelves of Antarctica and Greenland, a point will be reached at which it is impossible to avoid large scale ice sheet disintegration with sea level rise of at least several meters,” the new paper says.

It’s all frightening news, and it’s only getting more urgent. So what can we do?

 



The Penguin Counters

By Midge Raymond,

When I visited Antarctica more than 10 years ago, I met researchers from Oceanites, a nonprofit foundation founded in 1987 whose main focus is its Antarctic Site Inventory, which has been collecting and compiling data on penguins and their habitat in the Antarctic peninsula for the past two decades. When I wrote the short story “The Ecstatic Cry” and later MY LAST CONTINENT, I had a similar fictional organization in mind for the researchers in these stories.

These penguin counters do amazing work; their data offers important insights into climate change, the state of the oceans, the effects of tourism, and how best to conserve one of the most important areas of the world. For example, this article, “What Are the Penguins Telling Us?” by Steve Forrest, outlines the affects of climate change on the penguins: “the ice-loving Adélies of Petermann [Island] now number fewer than 300 nesting pairs, while the gentoos have risen to 2,400.” This is happening, he writes, at hundreds of sites in the Western Antarctic Peninsula, where the average temperature has risen several degrees centigrade in the past two decades: “Adélies are disappearing from their rookeries while the open-water loving Gentoos prosper.”

This video shows how irresistible these birds are…

 

…and it goes without saying we need to protect their habitat by taking better care of our planet and the oceans that sustain them.

Check out Oceanites to learn more , and click here for info on the film The Penguin Counters, inspired by Oceanites founder Ron Naveen.