Category: Environment


Why is Japan still killing whales in Antarctica?

By Midge Raymond,

In My Last Continent, when the fictional tourist ship Cormorant arrives at Whaler’s Bay on Deception Island in Antarctica, Deb observes …

 

…a shantytown of enormous oil containers and abandoned buildings—relics of the Antarctic whaling industry—so old and suffused with rust that they blend into the lava-blackened cliffs behind them. This reminder of whaling’s gruesome past makes me shudder: the whalers removing the blubber on the ships, then bringing the remainder of the bodies to shore, where they’d boil them down to get every last bit of oil. And the whaling industry isn’t even history—though the International Whaling Commission banned whaling in 1986, the Japanese have continued hunting in the Southern Ocean, killing minke and fin and even endangered sei whales under the guise of “research,” even though they haven’t published a paper in years and continue to sell the whale meat commercially.

 

It’s true that whaling has been banned by the International Whaling Commission since 1986 — and it’s also true that Japan is still killing whales in Antarctica. That’s because there is indeed an exception for “research” — but the slaughter of hundreds of whales a year by Japanese whalers can hardly be considered research.

In 2014, the International Court of Justice ruled that Japan’s whaling program did not meet the research qualifications, and Japan was ordered to stop whaling. But this only lasted one year — and, as this NPR story reports, Japan just returned from its 2016-2017 season with more than three hundred whales, all needlessly slaughtered.

It’s not enough that the whales are vital to the ecosystem in the Southern Ocean and should not be taken at all — but the methods are barbaric. Whaling vessels go after the calves, because they know the mothers (the real target) will not leave their babies. A member of Sea Shepherd Australia describes the way the whales are killed: They are “hit with an explosive harpoon that goes straight into their body; hooks come out, and shrapnel is sent through their body; it’s a terrible, bloody death… these whales can take up to 30 or 40 minutes to die.”

As Humane Society International Executive Vice President Kitty Block tells NPR, “It is an obscene cruelty in the name of science that must end.”

Visit the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to learn more about how this organization helps protect the oceans, especially from those who violate international law.



The scandalous sex lives of penguins

By Midge Raymond,

My friend Judy sent me this article on the “scandalous” sex lives of penguins, which mentions many of the penguin stories we’ve heard over the years, from the two male chinstrap penguins who raised a baby chick, to a nasty fight between two Magellanic penguins competing for a female. And indeed, the love lives of penguins are really so similar to our own: there is love, there is marriage for life, there is the raising of children; there is also divorce and cheating and all sorts of other drama.

The article references the observations from a scientist more than hundred years ago, buried because it was so scandalous at the time: George Murray Levick documented acts among penguins including necrophilia and group sex. Back in the early 1900s, editors cut the graphic descriptions of penguins’ behavior from Levick’s published work. As the article notes:

It took until 2012 for ornithologists at London’s Natural History Museum to finally dig up Levick’s “Sexual Habits of the Adelie Penguin”—by which point scientific inquiry had matured enough that they were able to publish it.

Of course, it should come as no surprise that penguins (or any animals) have such varied sex lives, or that their love lives mirror our own in so many ways. Humans often forget that we, too, are animals. We all just want to find love and share our nests with that special penguin, or person … and maybe raise a chick or two.



“Data as Art” from the British Antarctic Survey

By Midge Raymond,

I was delighted to discover this project from the British Antarctic Survey.

Data as Art shows sea ice, krill (seen below), the ozone hole, and other scientific data as works of art.

In keeping with the British Antarctic Survey‘s mission to “engage a wide range of people in science through a variety of methods,” these works of art — which use real Antarctic data sets that explain important scientific research — are wonderful to look at. Even more important are the stories they tell about this continent and how important it is to fight climate change and increase conservation.



Should we stay home to save the oceans?

By Midge Raymond,

“Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” Elizabeth Bishop asks in her poem “Questions of Travel”—the same question I asked myself upon learning, when I was in the Galapagos Islands last year, that more than 200,000 tourists visit this small archipelago every year. These islands, virtually undiscovered until the sixteenth century, are now bursting at the seams.

For all who venture to the Galapagos, it’s the trip of a lifetime—yet it’s also resource-intensive: I had taken 10 flights in 8 days to reach a place that is among our world’s most affected by climate change. And right now another travel season is wrapping up  in Antarctica, another remote and increasingly popular travel destination. Antarctica, which 20 years ago saw fewer than 10,000 tourists, will likely have counted upwards of 40,000 this season, more than 90 percent of whom travel on ships.

According to the World Tourism Organization, international travel increased in 2015 for the sixth year in a row, to a record 1.2 billion tourists, with 1.8 billion forecast for 2030. Only a week after a long-awaited marine protected area was established in Antarctica, the United States elected a president who has called climate change a hoax and seems intent on dismantling the EPA. Can the planet’s most vulnerable places handle much more? Perhaps it’s time we ask ourselves whether should do our part for the planet and leave a few of our bucket-list destinations in the bucket.

Instead of traveling to Antarctica—which can be as extreme financially as it is environmentally—perhaps we can get glimpses in other ways. Web-based citizen science programs like Zooniverse offer virtual experiences—a chance to count penguins and identify individual humpback whales in Antarctica, in addition to myriad other adventures. From our computers, we can “travel” the world, see incredible sights and creatures, and contribute to ongoing research efforts.

And even if we do travel to these fragile environments, we can help the oceans by playing a role in conservation and research. The website iGalapagos.org depends on travelers’ photos of the elusive and endangered Galapagos penguins to further their research toward protecting this species. And those of us who love the oceans can reconsider the role of seafood in our diets, as nearly 90 percent of the oceans’ stocks are extinct or depleted.

Not all travel is inherently bad, of course, and if you’re like me and you can far more easily give up seafood than a trip, how we travel can make a big difference in minimizing the impact of our presence—by choosing green hotels, using public transportation, buying local. Even the little things, like packing a reusable water bottle and shopping bag to minimize plastic, help a lot. Those traveling on ships can check out Friends of the Earth’s Cruise Ship Report Card before booking a trip (in its latest report, in 2014, no major cruise line earned a grade higher than a C; most grades were Ds and Fs).

Sometimes it takes visiting a place to fall in love with it and become inspired to help save it—and this may well justify our carbon footprints in the end. Which brings me back to the question: Should we stay home? There is no easy answer. But those of us who have the luxury of asking the question might consider that, for the sake of the planet, the oceans, and for future generations, the road less traveled—or not traveled at all—does make all the difference.



The sounds of Antarctica

By Midge Raymond,

Among the most amazing things about Antarctica (and there are so many) are the sounds. You can listen to the sounds of icebergs rubbing together here. It sounds a bit like furniture breaking apart, and then a little like a penguin colony from far away, and finally it becomes something completely otherworldly.

This wonderful article from Huffington Post offers a few sounds as well — including the voices of an Adélie penguin colony and the wind sweeping across the ice — as well as gorgeous photos and a glimpse of what life is like as a researcher on the continent.

These Antarctic sounds are incredible, but perhaps what’s most remarkable about Antarctica is the silence. The sounds of no human presence at all. It’s impossible to capture in a video or audio, but I did try to capture the feeling in My Last Continent:

” … we listen to the whistling of the wind across the ice and the cries of the birds. I savor the utter silence under those sounds; there is nothing else to hear—none of the usual white noise of life on other continents, no human sounds at all… “



The Most Important March of the Penguins

By Midge Raymond,

Last weekend, the least-populated region of this planet held a women’s march. For the penguins, this was the most important march of all.
The women’s marches taking place around the world last Saturday eclipsed the presidential inauguration in numbers and passion. The most far-reaching protest took place in Antarctica—and while this shipboard protest boasted only 30 marchers, it was one of the biggest in that this number represents the highest percentage of the continent’s population.


There should be so surprise that the protests extended this far south. As I write this, the President of the United States has been in office for only  a week, having already removed any mention of the environment from the White House website and having signed orders to move forward with the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines. He not only does not believe in climate change, he has picked Scott Pruitt—who likewise doesn’t embrace the unequivocal science behind the reality of climate change but also has a longstanding reputation against regulating pollution—to head the Environmental Protection Agency (which, by the way, he has sued no fewer than 14 times). And meanwhile, for weeks the world has been watching (or should be) as the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica threatens to break off into the Southern Ocean, which in the short term will change the landscape of the Antarctic Peninsula—and in the long term will leave the Antarctic glaciers vulnerable to flowing into the ocean, potentially raising sea levels by several feet. (And this is only the new administration’s environmental offenses…when it comes to human rights, it gets even worse.)

Environmentally, Antarctica is becoming one of the most important regions in the world. And this is why scientists and travelers held “Penguins for Peace” signs in Antarctica last week.

The number Adelie penguins on the Antarctic peninsula have already decreased by 70 to 90 percent. Climate change, pollution, and the fishing industry are all factors, and unless each of these is controlled, the penguins will not survive. The new administration is poised to ensure that these birds become extinct.

What can we do for the environment? Keep protesting. Write our representatives. Donate to causes that are on the ground working to protect the environment and its creatures (such as Sea Shepherd Conservation Society). And don’t forget that we can each can make a difference for the environment (check out Cowspiracy for the very best individuals can help). And, of course get ready to get out the vote next time around—2018 is right around the corner (and can’t come soon enough).



Tourism in Antarctica: How many visitors are too many?

By Midge Raymond,

With the Antarctic travel season upon us — the austral summer, from November to February, is the only time the sea ice allows tourist vessel access — the increasing numbers of travelers to this region raise many questions. How many tourists are too many before the region is compromised?

Antarctic tourism began in 1966 with fifty-seven travelers. Now, upwards of 40,000 tourists visit the continent every year. Most tourism is, in fact, concentrated in a two-square-kilometer region on the Antarctic peninsula — which means a lot of feet on the ground for such a fragile environment.

And Antarctic tourism shows no signs of slowing down — quite the opposite, in fact. Beginning in 2018, Argentina will offer commercial flights to Antarctica. And while the U.S. and Australia comprise the majority of Antarctic visitors, Chinese tourists are now visiting Antarctica in large and growing numbers.

Most travelers to Antarctica travel by ship, and thanks to IAATO (the International Association for Antarctica Tour Operators), tourism in Antarctica is well managed — for now. But tour operators are clearly adapting to the demands of travelers and will likely continue to do so. IAATO expects the number of visitors to jump 14 percent this season, with increasing numbers of landings on the islands; last year, cruises that included landings increased by more than 10 percent.

With IAATO being a voluntary membership organization, there is reason for concern — Antarctic tourism needs to be managed well, and already Antarctic treaty members have raised concerns and called for more regulation. Just yesterday, the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division announced that Princess Cruise Lines will plead guilty to deliberately dumping oil-contaminated waste into the ocean and covering it up in incidents dating back to  2005, resulting in seven felony charges and a $40 million penalty, the biggest fine yet in the history of criminal cases involving vessel pollution. While these ships were not in Antarctica, this is alarming given the increase and expansion of ship travel, as Reuters notes: “Cruise ship travel has generated concern among environmental groups and governments over water contamination and waste as the industry adds passengers, routes and larger ships.”

I’m often asked how many times I’ve been to Antarctica (once) and for how long (less than two weeks) and whether I will ever return. Even though it’s my favorite landscape on earth, I’m not sure I belong there, especially having already had the privilege of going once. In her poem “Questions of Travel,” Elizabeth Bishop asks: “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” When it comes to Antarctica, I lean toward yes.

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Bookstore Geek: New International Bookshop in Melbourne

By Midge Raymond,

While wandering around Melbourne’s Carlton neighborhood, we were thrilled to stumble upon The New International Bookshop, which calls itself “Melbourne’s famous radical bookshop.” A cooperative founded in 1994, the bookshop continued the tradition of the communist International Bookshop; learn more about the history here.

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The bookshop, located in the Trades Hall union building, a wonderful selection of progressive books, and even has a section devoted to environmental books, which was wonderful to see. The bookshop carries new and classic left-wing titles on everything from socialism to anarchism to philosophy to feminism.

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The store also has a great selection of shirts, bumper stickers, and cards.

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There is also a large secondhand section in the store which features donated books and a cozy reading spot.

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Don’t miss this treasure next time you’re in Melbourne … it’s well worth a visit!



See you at Wordstock in Portland!

By Midge Raymond,

I’m so looking forward to this Saturday’s festivities at the Wordstock festival in Portland.

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You can see the incredible lineup of authors and presenters here — and in addition to panels, workshops, and readings, there will be so many fun events, like Friday night’s LitCrawl and pop-up readings at the Portland Art Museum.

I’ll be on the panel The World Changed: Disasters Natural and Man-made, with Sunil Yapa and Alexis Smith, moderated by Zach Dundas, at 10 a.m. at The Old Church, and I can’t wait to chat about these amazing authors about their books.

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I’m also looking forward to my pop-up reading at the museum at 12:30…and to catching so many of the other events of the weekend. Check out the full Wordstock schedule here, and I look forward to seeing you there!



Is long-term peace possible in Antarctica?

By Midge Raymond,

Among the most amazing things about Antarctica — and there are so many — is that it is a place of peace. And this refers not only to its quiet, unspoiled beauty but to its lack of human activity for any purposes other than good.

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No one owns or governs Antarctica. It is one of the few places in the world that has never seen war — or any military activity, for that matter. It is a place whose only permanent inhabitants are wild animals (penguins, seabirds, seals, and whales among them) and whose human inhabitants are scientists and those who support their work.

The Antarctic Treaty, entered into force in 1961, stipulates that the continent be used for peaceful and scientific purposes only. Currently, mining, drilling, and any military activity is banned on the continent. Yet with the treaty up for review in 2048, there is concern that this may change.

China is stepping up its presence in Antarctica, with four research stations, a new air squadron, and plans to build another station, raising concerns about its intentions in Antarctica for exploiting natural resources, which include fish, oil, minerals, and perhaps even diamonds. As this article notes, “Beijing has made it ‘loud and clear to domestic audiences’ that these natural resources are its main interest in the region.” China is already fishing for krill, as are South Korea and Russia, countries that also have their eyes on securing their stakes on the continent. And the Japanese have long conducted illegal whaling hunts in the Southern Ocean under the guise of research.

Currently in Hobart, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) is meeting in hopes of establishing a marine protected areas in the Antarctic’s Southern Ocean. Russia is the one nation that, after blocking conservation attempts five times in the past, delegates hope will come on board this year. If CCAMLR can establish the three marine protected areas it hopes to this year (in the Weddell Sea, the Ross Sea, and East Antarctica), this will limit commercial fishing and help protect the entire ecosystem.

Antarctic peninsula-MRaymond

Antarctica is one of the few places on earth where animals can roam without any human predators, and where everyone works together for the common good. Unfortunately, the continent cannot fully escape what goes on in the rest of the world — the entire region is suffering the effects of climate change, and the Antarctic peninsula is among the fastest-warming places on earth — but right now, Antarctica the only place on earth where peace reigns. And we need to make sure it stays this way forever.

 



The dangers of polar travel

By Midge Raymond,

As the ice melts in the Arctic, tour companies are taking advantage of the ability to bring tourists to the region like never before. As I noted in this article for The Daily Beast, “despite all our technological advances, a ship is only as safe as her captain—and the capricious nature of ice and polar weather means even an experienced captain isn’t immune from human error.”

And due to these new opportunities, tour companies like the one that owns the luxury cruise ship Crystal Serenity, are taking advantage. Yet when it comes to polar cruises, bigger is most certainly not better. This article in The Guardian (titled “A new Titanic?”) made the point very clearly: “If something were to go wrong it would be very, very bad.”

And another article, in the Telegraph (titled “The world’s most dangerous cruise?”) reported: “In 2010 it took a Canadian icebreaker 40 hours to evacuate just 120 passengers from the 330ft Clipper Adventurer when it ran aground on an underwater cliff. At times, Serenity will be 1,000 miles and at least 11 hours’ response time from coast guard assistance.”

In other words, this cruise was extremely risky — and while its voyage was successful, the risks will increase if this type of tourism becomes a trend.

In the last 15 years, cruise-ship tourism in Norway has grown from 200,000 to almost 700,000 visitors. Canada’s fleet of passenger vessels was 11 in 2005 and rose to 40 in 2015. Iceland’s foreign tourists have more than tripled since the year 2000, to nearly a million visitors a year—about three times Iceland’s population. And in Antarctica, the number of visitors this season is expected to be upwards of 40,000—more than double what it was in 2004.

Can the planet’s most vulnerable places handle much more tourism?

As the Antarctic tour season begins next month, the concerns are similar to those of cruises in the Arctic; it’s an unpredictable place where there are not enough resources to rescue large numbers of passengers and crew were something to happen. Last year, a small tourist vessel was damaged by ice and, while all on board were safe, the company had to cancel its next voyage. It’s worth noting that this happened in the South Shetland Islands, which is pretty far north on an Antarctic cruise; in other words, ice is unpredictable even farther north and can wreak havoc on ships anytime and anywhere.

While Antarctic travel is considered safe (unlike these new uncharted voyages in the Arctic; as this Guardian article notes, “even before the Crystal Serenity began planning its voyage, the coast guard and local communities were raising concerns that the Arctic was not ready for the sharp rise in traffic through the Bering Strait”), all travelers should carefully vet their tour operators, most of which follow the guidelines of IAATO, and choose a company with vast experience in ice-filled waters. The Southern Ocean is highly unpredictable, and an experienced captain, crew, and staff makes all the difference — not only for the safety of passengers but for wildlife as well.

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Crime & punishment among the penguins

By Midge Raymond,

This New York Times article outlines one of the most interesting aspects of life in Antarctica: It’s a continent owned by no one, which means that there is no rule of law for a land nearly twice the size of Australia.

Everyone working in Antarctica is subject to the rules of their home country, which means that if you work at the U.S. base McMurdo, you’re required to live by the laws of the United States. But what happens when you visit the nearby New Zealand base at Scott Station?

As this article outlines, crime is fairly rare (there’s not much to steal and nowhere to flee), but the isolation and abundance of alcohol can make for criminal activity nonetheless — and this is when things can get complicated. As the article notes:

An unsolved death. Assault with a deadly weapon. Lots of alcohol-fueled misbehavior. It’s quite a rap sheet for a continent where almost nobody lives.

Fortunately, most researchers and staff go to Antarctica in peace. And, once there, that’s most often what they find.

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Book tour Australia

By Midge Raymond,

I was absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to go to Australia to promote My Last Continent … it was a whirlwind trip of work and play, with plenty of both. (And with Admiral Byrd along, I’m thinking he needs his own credit card to earn some airline miles.)

We began in Adelaide, where I did an interview with Cath Kenneally of Arts Breakfast on Radio Adelaide the morning after arriving in the country. You can listen to the interview here (I was a teeny bit jet-lagged; it took me a couple of seconds to realize we were on the air…).

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Post-interview was a great day for wandering around town. Adelaide is a beautiful city, a university town with two gorgeous museums near the University of Adelaide. We saw this bust of Antarctica explorer Sir Douglas Mawson, as well as an exhibit about his adventures in the South Australian Museum.

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The next day, John and I taught a marketing workshop at the SA Writers Centre, an all-day affair with writers from myriad genres. Adelaide has a great many pubs and restaurants, so that was a perfect way to end the day.

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Onward to Melbourne, where John, Admiral Byrd, and I spent several days enjoying the city, signing books, and meeting fabulous people, including my wonderful publishing team at Text Publishing and the lovely and talented writers Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist.

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Graeme’s new novel, The Best of Adam Sharp, has just launched in Australia, and Anne’s second psychological thriller, Dangerous to Know, was released earlier this year. Anne and Graeme are currently writing a novel together: Left Right, a romantic comedy set on the Camino de Santiago, is forthcoming from Text Publishing in 2017.

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While in Melbourne, I visited many fabulous bookstores (there will be many Bookstore Geek posts forthcoming!) and especially enjoyed seeing the majestic State Library of Victoria.

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Then it was onward to Brisbane for the Brisbane Writers Festival, where I had the chance to chat with Lionel Shriver at the opening reception just before she launched us into the festival with a presentation that turned out to be the talk of not only the festival but the literary world. (You can read Shriver’s full speech here. She also wrote an op-ed for the New York Times.)

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The festival was nonstop busy for most of us writers, but it was wonderful to get to meet and talk with so many at various events, as well as in the green room, which featured a fabulous spread of books. (My luggage was significantly heavier on the way home.)

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After three events onsite at the magnificent State Library of Queensland, my last event in Brisbane was BWF in the ‘Burbs, a conversation about My Last Continent at the Garden City Library about twenty minutes outside the city.

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Finally, it was onward to Sydney, where John, Sascha Morrell, and I presented a seminar on Writing About Animals at the University of Sydney.

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It was the perfect place to soft-launch Among Animals 2, and best of all we got to meet Sascha, AA2 contributor and university professor, who read from her haunting story “Roo,” which appears in the anthology. Learn more about Among Animals 2 here at Ashland Creek Press.

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And of course, the trip wasn’t all work … John and I got a chance to explore a bit of all four cities and loved them all, for their wildlife, botanical gardens, museums, and incredible beauty. We also ate twice our weight in delicious vegan food (not to mention Australian wines and beer). I’m already looking forward our return …

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On naming animals

By Midge Raymond,

I’m delighted to have a short essay appearing in the brand-new issue of Zoomorphic, a beautiful online magazine dedicated to writing that deepens our connection with wildlife and the more-than-human world. A brief preview: the story involves penguins.

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Check out the new issue here, and you can also explore previous issues for more essays, poetry, and art about the animals we share our planet with.

 



Women in Antarctica

By Midge Raymond,

It was such a pleasure to have the privilege of presenting My Last Continent at the Women’s Museum of California as part of its Second Sunday Author Series: Women’s Voices, Women’s Stories program. Although the narrator of My Last Continent is a female penguin researcher, women are relatively new to Antarctica — the first woman to set foot on the continent didn’t do so in 1935.

Still, women are a big part of Antarctic history; they made it possible for the explorers, all men, to be away for years at a time. (Check out the book Polar Wives for a fascinating look at the lives of the women behind the polar explorers.)

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It took a long time for women to become part of Antarctic research and exploration in their own right. The first woman to land on Antarctica, mentioned above, was the wife of a whaling captain. The first women to winter on the continent, in 1947, were the wives of expedition members. And even the first woman to work for the U.S. Antarctic Program, during the 1969-70 season, was there with her husband.

Yet by 1974, the U.S. base McMurdo Station welcomed the first female chief scientist, and now one-third of the scientists and support staff at McMurdo are women. We still have a long way to go, but it’s great to see this trend.

And this year has seen an increasing spotlight on women working in Antarctica. And, as part of an initiative to bring women scientists together, a women-only expedition to Antarctica will depart for the continent this December. In addition to science, tourism brings many women scientists, researchers, and naturalists to Antarctica as well.

For some fantastic reading about women in Antarctica, check out the short story “Sur” by Ursula K. LeGuin…one of my favorite short stories ever, and a brilliant glimpse, albeit fictional, into women’s lives in the Antarctic.

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