Category: Antarctica


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.



The imminent collapse of the Larsen B Ice Shelf

By Midge Raymond,

The Larsen B Ice Shelf has been in the news recently due to a recent NASA report about the shelf’s increasing fragmentation, including visible cracks. This is alarming news, as the breakup of the remainder of this ice shelf — which could happen within the next five years — would cause a massive rise in sea levels globally. While the United Nations projected the planet could see a rise in sea level of up to three feet by the year 2100, due to human-induced climate change, this study did not take into account the potential loss of Larsen B.

Global warming has been increasing faster at the planet’s poles than elsewhere on the planet. The Antarctic peninsula alone is nearly 5 degrees warmer than it was 50 years ago — an astonishing increase in temperature. The big danger in losing the Larsen Ice Shelf is that it holds three of the continent’s glaciers in place. With the ice shelf gone, the glaciers will advance into the ocean; it’s this loss of ice that will cause the rise global sea levels.

The Larsen Ice Shelf has existed for 11,000 or 12,000 years, says lead researcher Ala Khazendar in this video, below. After a large part of the shelf broke off in 2002, it has been weakening quickly and is not expected to last more than a few more years. Without a doubt, he says, this will affect sea level rise.

“It is certainly a warning,” he says. “The conclusion is inescapable.”

 



Stunning, and tragic, images of Antarctica

By Midge Raymond,

I came across two very different glimpses of Antarctica recently — one terrifying, and the other gorgeous. Of course, they’re connected…the first (NASA images of a gigantic iceberg breaking off a glacier) is a strong warning that we need to do something about climate change before what we see in the second (stunning video captured by a drone) disappears altogether.

This graphic is amazing because NASA captured imagery of the iceberg splitting from the continent just before and just after. It may look small in this image, but remember, this was shot from space! The iceberg, which broke off of West Antarctica’s Getz ice shelf, is 17 miles long (larger than Manhattan) and only one of many that have been breaking off the continent’s glaciers and floating into the sea (which will cause the oceans to rise to catastrophic levels). Check out the article for more info and photos.

And this gorgeous film was made by a Swedish filmmaker visiting Antarctica during this last tourist season … it shows the continent it all its quiet beauty, and in a few of the images you can see just how tiny human life feels in this vast place. Below is one of the stills from Kalle Ljung’s film … definitely worth watching, especially if you need a few moments of peace — it’s very meditative.

Antarctica from Kalle Ljung on Vimeo.



The latest on Antarctic tourism

By Midge Raymond,

The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) is a voluntary membership organization founded in 1991 to help Antarctic tourism keep up the standards of the Antarctic Treaty, that is: to protect the environment and to keep developing guidelines to continue to preserve and protect the continent.

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Recently, IAATO released its latest tourism numbers, and I always find it interesting to gauge the activity in this part of the world. The total numbers of visitors traveling to Antarctica (with IAATO members) was 36,702. This is 2 percent less than the previous season; the highest recorded number of tourists visiting the continent was 46,265 during the 2007-2008 season.

IAATO also estimated the numbers of visitors expected next season, 2015-2016, and this edges closer to that high number: 40,029. The organization expects this increase to be among those smaller cruise ships that do landings, which means safer travel yet more feet on the ground in Antarctica.

This past season, 73 percent of Antarctic visitors traveled on small ships carrying fewer than 500 passengers — yet it’s the 26 percent of visitors who cruise through on larger ships without making landings that can be even more dangerous. These ships often carry thousands of passengers, and when you get into trouble that far south, rescues are challenging.

In 2007, a Canadian ship struck underwater ice in the waters off the Antarctic peninsula and sank within 15 hours. Fortunately, the ship had only 91 passengers, all of whom got into lifeboats and received help from a Norwegian ship that was nearby. In addition, the weather was good, around 20 degrees Fahrenheit (fairly balmy for Antarctica) and calm. But what if there had been hundreds more passengers, or if the weather had turned, or if no other ships were close by?

This is one of the questions that MY LAST CONTINENT tackles.

Traveling to Antarctica comes with inherent risk — it is, by nature, a wild and unpredictable place — and IAATO continues to keep the safety and environmental standards as high as possible. By now, most ships that travel to Antarctica are IAATO members, which wasn’t always the case. But with tens of thousands of tourists visiting annually, and this number only increasing, the continent is bound to be affected. My hope is that visitors return with a new respect for the planet and for all that we need to do to keep it healthy, and to keep Antarctica icy.

Of course, many believe we shouldn’t visit at all … like John Oliver, who has created a hilarious (anti) travel campaign for the white continent.

 



Citizen science & penguin research

By Midge Raymond,

When I was writing MY LAST CONTINENT, I did a lot of research on penguins and those who study them.

Then, a couple of months ago, I discovered Penguin Watch, which is a completely addictive website that uses citizen science to help study penguins. What this means is that we can all take part in the research and conservation of these amazing animals.

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How does it all work? The short of it is that the Penguin Lifelines project at the University of Oxford has set up a camera-monitoring program of 50 cameras set up throughout the Southern Ocean and along the Antarctic Peninsula. These cameras snap images of the areas overlooking colonies of gentoo, chinstrap, Adélie, and king penguins year-round, and they need volunteers to help annotate the hundreds of thousands of images being produced. For more info, click here — and sign up!

To coincide with World Penguin Day, the project has recently released half a million images and is offering the possibility of great rewards to volunteers: From now until May 25, for each day you count the penguins, you’ll be entered to win a trip to Antarctica with Quark Expeditions. (Learn more about Quark here.)

Penguin colonies are difficult to access during breeding season, but thanks to time-lapse cameras and online volunteers, the Penguin Watch program hopes to make big strides in conservation and protection.

Visit Penguin Watch and become a citizen scientist. It’s tons of fun, but be warned — you’ll lose hours to penguin counting! But at least you can say you’re doing it for science.