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Satellite view of the Antarctic Peninsula with Elephant Island in the top corner

Curiosity and Concern -- Exploring the World's Natural Laboratories

By Sean J. Kearns

In some places on this driest of continents in terms of annual precipitation, the ice sheet is three miles thick. Underneath it are active volcanos and lakes of liquid fresh water.

Thus, while cultures and societies shaped the Arctic from its fringes for millennia, Antarctica remained unseen by humans until less than 200 years ago.

How can we be in a desert if 70% of the world's freshwater is here?

Welcome to Antarctica.

How can we be on an ocean if that bear is coming at us?

Welcome to the Arctic.

Though connected by meridians that converge at each pole, the last, vast frontiers of the polar regions are dissimilar in many ways.

The Arctic, after all, is an ocean surrounded by land, while Antarctica is vice versa.

As an Arctic scientist put it, "We've got the pond. They've got the island." Oddly enough, the pond has polar bears, and the island has penguins.

To emphasize the scientific importance these regions hold, from basic curiosity to global concern, the National Science Foundation (NSF) selected "Polar Connections, Exploring the World's Natural Laboratories" as the theme for National Science & Technology Week, April 26 to May 2, 1998.

The theme underscores NSF's role in funding about 500 research projects annually in the Arctic and in Antarctica. NSF manages the U.S. Antarctic Program, and it leads the efforts to coordinate science activities of 12 federal agencies in the Arctic.

Long ago, humans reached the northern realm and, about 10,000 years ago, crossed the Bering Sea land bridge to people the Americas.

In the South, 25 million years before humans evolved, the last land bridge to Antarctica disappeared as the continent broke away from the ancient southern supercontinent of Gondwana, a separation that left it isolated by its circumpolar ocean. Thus while cultures and societies shaped the Arctic from its fringes for millennia, Antarctica remained unseen by humans until less than 200 years ago.

Today Antarctica is a platform for exploring the deep ocean forces behind El Niño and the atmospheric causes for ozone depletion. It provides an earthly porthole to the heavens that is unparalleled in its clarity.

The Arctic is a wellspring of winter storms that batter the U.S. and Canada and, in a weird reciprocation, acts as a collecting pool for pollutants that make their way north from temperate latitudes.

Something about the polar regions rearranges one's perspectives, bends them, reflects them, sometimes breaks them -- generally clearing the stage for bold new discoveries. It's called ice.

More than 98% of Antarctica is covered with a massive sheet of ice. At the South Pole, where the temperature averages -58 deg. F, the ice rises 9,200 ft. above the bedrock.

In some places on this driest of continents in terms of annual precipitation, the sheet is 3 miles thick. Underneath the ice are active volcanos and lakes of liquid freshwater. On its surface, hundreds of millions of birds congregate near the sea edge, while, across the interior, thousands of meteorites have been scattered like pepper. And if you look deeply into it (with the right technology, of course), visions appear of sub-atomic particles that have traveled from the far reaches of space -- and through the Earth.

In the Arctic Ocean, the sea ice seldom exceeds 6 ft. thick. But breaking through from underneath it can be tricky, even for a U.S. Navy attack submarine. In 1995, the sub that carried the first civilian science mission under the Arctic was able to surface near the North Pole, where the ice was 3 ft. thick. For most of the ship's attempts to surface, however, the ice was either too thick to penetrate safely or too thin to hold up equipment.

Twice when camps were set on the ice, visiting polar bears cut short the scientific agenda. The cruise, zigzagging 10,800 nautical miles under the ice, still collected enough data to answer questions about chemistry, currents and the continental shelf -- and to chart an undersea plateau that rises nearly 10,000 ft. from the depths.

From both regions come samples of buried ice. Extracted by drills reaching more than 10,000 ft. deep into ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica, these ice cores yield a chronology of climate dating back hundreds of thousands of years.

Every year, the expanding and shrinking realm of floating sea ice affects the global weather. Acting as a variable lid on the polar oceans, it reflects the sun's energy rather than allowing it to be absorbed by the dark ocean. The ice cover also prevents the release of the ocean's heat energy upward to the atmosphere. Such interactions are surveyed by SHEBA, the Surface Heat Budget of the Arctic Ocean project. As part of this, the largest and most complex science experiment ever supported by NSF in the Arctic, a research vessel was left in October 1997 to drift, frozen in the Arctic Ocean for 13 months.

The poles also serve as drop-offs for data from the rest of the world. In polar orbits about 500 miles over the earth, remote-sensing satellites follow meridians from pole to pole 15 times a day, gathering images of the globe as it spins. Thus, after making a swing over a new swath of the globe, the satellites return above the polar realm, where their data can be transmitted to a single station.

"So," as a geophysicist puts it, "if you want to look at the whole earth every day, you do it from a polar orbit."

Northern Lights and Meteorites

When you look upon a star, it makes a difference where you are.

If your heart's desire is to look higher, go where the sky is cold, clear, dark and dry. Go to a place like Poker Flat, a research range 30 miles northeast of Fairbanks, Alaska. Where a century ago prospectors sought gold dust, scientists today explore the secrets of the aurora borealis.

One dark and geomagnetically stormy night, these northern lights danced for poet Robert Service: "It swept the sky like a giant scythe, it quivered back to a wedge;/ Argently bright, it cleft the night with a wavy golden edge."

Aurora Borealis in Alaska

Now we know that the swirling glow occurs when electrically charged particles of the solar winds are drawn toward the earth's poles by electromagnetic fields. When the particles reach the upper fringes of the atmosphere, they excite nitrogen, oxygen and other gases there, simultaneously creating crowns of color that cascade above each pole. They may reign in the sky from 50 to 600 miles above Earth, in crimson, blue and green. On the space shuttle, as it cut through the northern crown about 190 miles up, an astronaut described the aurora as "forests of columns of light."

As auroral understanding has increased, so has the ability to predict the phenomenon's range and intensity a few days ahead, and not just for stargazers. Many others need to know when a geomagnetic storm is brewing because a strong aurora can disable power grids (especially in Canada), knock out satellites, disorient homing pigeons, tweak navigation instruments and corrode the Alaska pipeline by inducing a current that commonly reaches 1,000 amperes.

Its southern sister, aurora australis, has fewer
viewers but is just as spectacular
The two auroras often project near-mirror images.

Antarctica, particularly at the South Pole, presents special challenges and charms for those who seek to learn the sky's secrets. At the pole, for example, with severe cold and near absence of water vapor, the infrared skies are consistently clearer, cleaner and darker than anywhere else on the Earth. Indeed, less than a mile from the main building at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station sits an observatory in a region called "the dark sector" because light and radio waves and other electromagnetic noises are minimized.

Curiously, one of the most intriguing ice-dependent studies of the heavens is focused downward. Lying on the ice are specimens from space that take just an eye to spot and a hand to grasp: meteorites. Says Ralph Harvey, leader of the U.S. search for meteorites in Antarctica: "Most of the time we go to places where any rock we find on the ice had to fall there from the sky." Antarctica, he adds, offers a vast landing field, relatively barren and undisturbed, "a unique collection site to pick up pieces of the universe."

Last season, NSF's Antarctic Search for Meteorites program picked up about 1,100 extraterrestrial rocks, bringing its 20-year total to about 9,000.

(European and Japanese efforts have gathered an additional 7,000 from the ice.) Most, says Harvey, are "ordinary chondrites," almost certainly hailing from the asteroid belt, "a region of space where Jupiter and the sun play a tug-of-war and throw rocks around." Rocks from Mars and the moon are rare exceptions, amounting to about two dozen from among the world's collection of 20,000 meteorites. "They get most of the attention. That's how science is," he says, philosophically.

The proof of Martian origin came from a tiny bubble of atmosphere locked in the glass of a once-melted rock. The ratio of gases within -- including argon, krypton, xenon, radon, nitrogen and carbon dioxide -- matches perfectly what the Viking lander told us about the atmosphere of Mars.

"Antarctica," says Harvey, "is nature boiled down to rock, ice and sky. It offers us a great base line on almost any scientific endeavor you may undertake ... That's what keeps me going: I'm standing in a simple place looking at a place more complex."

Diving and Dining

"Almost everything about emperors is impressive." Gerald Kooyman is talking about penguins. A biologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Kooyman for years has left San Diego for Antarctica to monitor the emperors' lives.

After breeding in the winter, the males "face the polar night head on," he says. They huddle on the ice, each holding on his feet a single egg blanketed for incubation under a fold of the abdomen. "There are 9,600 species of birds," says Kooyman, "and there's only one adapted for year-round high-polar living."

To endure the harsh, wind-driven cold, the males stick tightly together, reshuffling their huddle, with birds taking turns on the perimeter to cut individual heat loss by half. With feathers under their toes and insulative pads on the back of their feet, they can rock back "when it really gets cold," Kooyman says. "Thus they have very little contact with the ice." With a highly insulative cover of feathers and limited surface area for body size, emperors retain heat extremely well. "But that's at a cost," says Kooyman. "They're not very mobile." Except in the water.

Emperors can generally dive down to 320 ft. for about 10 min. at a time. However, in one dive out of 200 to 400, they go down more than 1,600 ft.; after -- or away from -- what, Kooyman isn't sure.

In these same seas, Weddell seals can descend to 2,300 ft. for as long as 82 min. How do these divers do it? According to Kooyman, "The answer comes down to oxygen." Pound for pound, Weddell seals can store more than four times as much oxygen as humans can; emperors more than double. The trick is not holding their breath -- indeed, the seals' lungs collapse by design at depths -- but in storing oxygen in myoglobin, an iron-rich, oxygen-binding protein.

Studies of the prolonged, deep diving of seals may help us understand how organs survive low blood flow and oxygen depletion, possibly leading to new treatments for shock, stroke and transplant patients; and research into the ways oxygen-rich blood and other means allow seals to stop breathing may yield insights into Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

While the seal and the emperor dive to dine, feeding on the fauna of the southern ocean, musk-oxen and caribou feed on the flora of the terrestrial far north. That's where Robert White and Brad Griffith find them.

As a fog lifted off the tundra, White, director of the Institute for Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, once found himself surrounded by a hundred newborn caribou calves. Bleating their distinctive "Ott, ott, ott, ott," the calves instinctively go to the largest image on the horizon -- in this case, White. "

Obviously, the guys aren't very discriminating," he says. Griffith, a biologist with the institute's Large Animal Research Station, has found himself on the skids of a helicopter, poised to "net-gun" an adult caribou out of a herd running below. "They look like greyhounds with boxing gloves on their feet," he says. With the kickback of each step, a concave hoof launches a large snowball, leaving Griffith to duck and bob on the fly.

Though at first glance the big, brown, horned herbivores seem similar, musk-oxen and caribou rely on different tapestries of adaptations to survive. The weaves begin with the grasses they choose.

Caribou select the choicer vegetative cuts, such as lichens, which they can smell through the snow. It's like "taking the good stuff" out of trail mix, says Griffith. For a herd of 100,000 to feed, it has to keep moving; and the larger the herd, the faster it moves. Some herds zigzag as much as 1,680 miles a year.

With every step of the animals' long legs, their extremely elastic tendons recapture energy, says White, who awards caribou the "world record for most efficient walking." With long, hollow hairs and a fine layer of underwool, caribou are well insulated, he says, "and when they swim rivers -- we're talking serious water -- they're very buoyant." The ability to lift their hairs, called piloerection, allows the caribou to release heat after exertion. Thus without overheating, they can choose flight over fight when approached by a predator.

Musk-oxen have wide mouths that can mow a valley floor down to its woody stems and stomachs to digest poor-quality grasses and sage. "They tend to locate in valleys and exploit them intensively," says White. "Only the immature males wander away."

In some ways, their survival strategies resemble the emperors'. They have extreme insulation (provided by long guard hairs that create a thick shaggy wool called qiviut) and short legs to reduce surface area -- and both traits reduce mobility. But they don't dive, and there's the qiviut caveat: "Musk-oxen have a real problem dumping a heat load," says Griffith. "They just don't ever run from a predator; they use their horns for defense. So wolves will try to run musk-oxen until they get a heat load." Their reward could be a warm dinner.

When it comes to polar pollution, what goes around, comes around ... and stays around. Carried by patterns of atmosphere, seasons, metabolism, oceans and animal migrations, effluent of industrial society can find its way to the seemingly pristine Arctic.

Persistent organic pollutants move up the food chain. Pesticides move north from as far south as India. Mercury in humans in the Arctic is 5 to 12 times as high as in more southerly populations. Radionuclides there hail from decades-old testing of nuclear bombs, the 1986 accident at Chernobyl, and releases from European nuclear processing plants.

While the Arctic faces increasing environmental threats, Antarctica begins an era of unprecedented protection. In January 1998, the Environmental Protection Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty took effect, proclaiming the continent to be a natural reserve devoted to peace and science. It bans mining and mineral exploration for at least 50 years. It requires nations with scientific operations there to remove garbage and reclaim old dumps. It prohibits pesticides, polystyrene packaging and pets, including dogs.

Globally, polar science has diagnosed two environmental ills of atmospheric proportions: the ozone hole and Arctic haze. Both are attributed to society's discharge contacting the harsh cold of higher latitudes. Both diagnoses met skepticism, but after hundreds of scientific second opinions, the hole and the haze are recognized as serious threats to the planet's health. Their annual onsets, however, are as different as north and south.

With a fabric of oxygen atoms bound together three at a time, the ozone layer serves as a stratospheric security blanket, protecting the earth from ultraviolet rays. Each spring over Antarctica, as the layer thins, more UV hits the earth -- particularly wavelengths known as UV-B, as in "bad." When scientists realized that from 1975 to 1985 stratospheric ozone levels fell 40%, creating a "hole," they warned the world. Like moths among wool, something eats away at the blanket. Decades of research identified chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as the main cause of damage.

Used as aerosol propellants and refrigerants, as well as to produce plastic foam, these gases eventually rise to the stratosphere, where intense UV dismantles them, releasing their chlorine, which then breaks up the molecular oxygen trios. While some researchers use balloons, satellites, lidar and other means to peek at the chemical pathways of the stratosphere, others focus on the impact of increased UV on marine ecosystems. There it appears to reduce phytoplankton production -- crimping the beginning of the food chain -- and to damage icefish DNA.

Ozone above the Arctic, though declining, remains intact partly because the stratosphere there is warming all winter. Far below, less than 3 miles above the earth, coldness contributes not to depletion, but accumulation -- of a seasonal smog called Arctic haze.

"The largest pollution pool known on planet Earth," according to Glenn Shaw, one of the first geophysicists to investigate its origins. The degree of pollution, he says, "is comparable to an Ohio countryside, but not to Cleveland."

The Arctic air becomes stagnant during winter because there is little solar radiation to mix it, Shaw explains. As winter progresses, it becomes colder, more stable, and expands from just above the pole to become "an air mass the size of Africa, massively and homogeneously polluted with aerosols, trace gases, lead, cadmium, sulfates ... a kind of witches' brew of industrial pollution," says Shaw. Then he peers out his window to catch a mirage of mountains levitating in blue sky, an image crafted by light's refraction through the crisp cold layers above Fairbanks, Alaska.

Watching a red, squashed sunset in Alaska about 20 years ago, it dawned on Shaw: "Whatever it was [in the haze], it was very small particles ... and it was coming from a long way away." It has since been traced to the smokestacks, exhaust pipes and other outlets across North America and Eurasia. On rare occasions, it holds dust from the Gobi Desert.

Each summer, as the air warms, the haze, like a mirage, abruptly disappears, only to reform the next winter. "Where does it go? It's an unsolved mystery," says Shaw. Over the past decade, it has not grown substantially, but toxins and trace metals are found increasingly concentrated in the Arctic soil, oceans and biological tissues.

Shaw adheres to the theory of a "fractional distillation machine." As the volatile compounds from warmer industrialized regions reach the atmosphere, they may tend to stay there until they migrate to a colder region, where they condense and descend. As seasons and temperatures change, the cycle may repeat itself continually, ultimately stratifying the pollutants by latitude, according to the specific coldness that each pollutant needs to condense.

"Easy to say, hard to quantify," according to Shaw, but "in the end [each year] the Arctic haze contamination is removed and enters more 'permanent' media [in the Arctic]."

From beneath sea ice to beyond the stratosphere, polar science continues to uncover clues to how our planet works. By going to these ends of Earth, we increase our understanding of global changes and extend our vision to the far reaches of the universe. We learn more about how Earth's coldest regions are connected -- to each other, to the rest of the world and to us. -------------------


February 13, 2000




Link to Antarctic stories and information:


Antarctica FAQ.

Here are the answers to the seven most commonly asked questions about travel to the region, by GWC Antarctica expert Jeff Rubin.. How cold is it? It's not that cold. Along the coast during the Antarctic summer, which is where and when most tourists visit, temperatures are warmer than you might imagine. Anyone who has lived through a reasonably tough winter in the northern part of the Northern Hemisphere should be fine without buying a lot of expensive clothing. The most important item of clothing to bring is a windproof and waterproof jacket.

Will I see penguins and polar bears? You'll see penguins, but not polar bears, which live only in the Arctic. Penguins live only in the Antarctic.

What is there to do in Antarctica? Aside from viewing Antarctica's fantastic scenery -- the gigantic icebergs and ice shelves are found nowhere else on the globe -- visitors enjoy watching the antics of penguins, seals and seabirds as they feed, breed and raise young.

All of this wildlife is unafraid of people and will sometimes even walk right up to discreet tourists. Whale-watching from small rubber boats is also a highlight for many visitors since the whales often approach to within hand's reach. In recent years, more opportunities to sea kayak, mountain climb, ski tour, camp and even scuba dive in Antarctica have become available to intrepid travelers.

How can I get to Antarctica? The vast majority of tourists visit Antarctica by ship, although a small number visit camps in the remote interior by aircraft. A growing number of tourists arrive aboard chartered yachts, which offer the chance to see Antarctica under sail.

Where will I eat and sleep in Antarctica? There are no hotels or restaurants in Antarctica, so nearly all tourists eat and sleep aboard the ship that brings them to Antarctica. This is especially convenient, since while you are eating and sleeping, the ship moves to a new area for viewing wildlife and other attractions. It also helps to preserve the pristine Antarctic environment.

When can I go? The Antarctic tour season is very short - just four months - from early November to late February, which is summertime in the southern hemisphere. No tourists visit Antarctica during the winter, because pack ice extending for 600 miles around most of the coast effectively barricades it against all ship traffic. In any case, few people would wish to experience the Antarctic winter with its near-round-the-clock darkness and extreme cold - the thermometer can plummet to minus 60 degrees F. At that temperature, boiling water thrown into the air freezes instantly and noisily into a cloud of snow.

Antarctic Check-Up

Adelie penguins at Cape Byrd. New Zealand researchers are studying the Antarctic food chain to find out why thousands of penguin chicks have starved to death in recent years.

It is hard to imagine life thriving on the world's coldest continent. Antarctica is covered with ice and holds the world record for the lowest temperature ever recorded: 129 degrees Fahrenheit below zero.

But untouched by humans for millions of years, parts of Antarctica are home to a fragile ecosystem. And in the past few years, it's become one of the world's most important outposts to study the far-reaching effects of human civilization. And the ozone hole, climate change--even tourism--are all taking a toll on Antarctica's web of life.

Traveling to the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf is like traveling to the ends of the earth. This is the southernmost stretch of ocean in the world, so close to the frigid South Pole that much of the sea is draped by a floating blanket of ice.

As far as the ice edge, don't go too close because the water comes and it wears it out underneath so it's like a ledge and it looks solid but it's only a couple inches thick. You can probe for weak spots with a mountaineering ice ax.

We want to see one of Antarctica's most magnificent residents: the killer whale. You just kind of make some noise. They're curious animals, they'll come over and check it out.
The scenery here is breathtaking with huge icebergs floating in the open water. A snow-covered volcano on the horizon--with steam rising from its summit. In a matter of minutes, our noise-making works.

Four killer whales. So close we can hear them breathe. One whale pokes its head above water just ten feet away. They're just out here cruising around these different slots here looking for something to eat and they hear noise. They want to see what it is.

They're not afraid of people though. Just about everything down here has no fear of man at all. Whales and seals were once close to extinction here, hunted throughout the oceans that encircle the Antarctic mainland.

But international treaties have transformed the entire continent into the world's largest wildlife sanctuary. It's a unique laboratory to study how life survives in such hostile conditions. Most of Antarctica's wildlife lives at sea, not on land. So marine biologists must sometimes dive beneath the ice.

Ice divers from California's Moss Landing Marine Lab and the Canadian Museum of Nature prepare to study the wealth of underwater creatures and videotape giant sponges and worms that thrive on the sea floor. these thrive in the Ross Sea, the southernmost ocean on earth.

The light when diving is muted because you've got--what--ten feet of ice with snow over the top of it and so not a lot of light is getting down through the ice, but your eyes adjust to it.

It's sort of like--if you could imagine floating over a desert with a full moon--the sponges are sticking up kind of like cactus. And the ice overhead is sort of like clouds. And the hole is sort of like the moon. The hole is sort of a spotlight shining down on you.

Gearing-up for an Antarctic dive is a bit like preparing for a space walk. A heavy rubber suit will keep you warm. It's just 28 degrees down below--the freezing point for salt water. Ropes tether the diver to the surface.

Researchers investigate what happens when six months of winter darkness give way to round-the-clock sunshine during summer.

That period when it comes on to 24-hour sunlight is a huge boom time and it lasts for a couple of months and then it goes down to a bust for the rest of the year. And that's when the animals out there are reproducing like mad. They're eating like mad, and their offspring are getting as big as possible before it goes down to bust conditions again.

Divers spend half an hour at a depth of 100 feet. You cans see the under-ice. Big pockets of air, some of them are big enough you can stick your head up into and breathe. When the divers reach bottom they encounter a vibrant jungle of shapes and colors.

There's quite an elevation difference because the large sponges can be several feet tall. And then the tunicates are bright orange and they look rather like big pumpkins with two vase openings which they will close in when you get close to them. And then there's soft corals. The large soft corals look like trees, they're orange. And then there's smaller ones that look like little snowflakes that dot the bottom.

As a diver begins his underwater photography, he's joined by creatures who're attracted to the lights. Bright yellow, bright white. Pink stars, purple worms. The color is really amazing down there when you put a little bit of light on it.

The University of Southern California, is studying ingenious adaptations life develops to survive and reproduce in water this cold. Fish, for example, have organic anti-freeze in their blood. Bacteria have found ways to sustain biochemical reactions at lower temperatures than normal.

You put your hand in that water and you wonder how anything can live in it. It is so painful to a human hand to put it into Antarctic sea water. And yet when you look under the ice here, it is one of the most abundant environments on earth. However, fish and wildlife now encounter conditions that nature never intended.

Global warming is causing ice sheets to crumble and lake levels to rise--which alters habitat for a wide range of species. As well, the entire continent is subjected each spring to the ozone hole.

The University of San Francisco is measuring how baby sea urchins are coping with the effects of ozone depletion. The earth's ozone layer normally blocks the sun's deadly ultraviolet rays. But industrial pollution now creates a huge ozone hole each year above Antarctica.

As a result, U-V exposure jumps by 50 to 100 percent. Millions of microscopic plants and animals are exposed to a potentially lethal sunburn.

Beneath the microscope, you can see why baby sea urchins are vulnerable. They're nearly transparent, like jellyfish.

The D-N-A in organisms like these is poorly protected and can easily be damaged by ultraviolet radiation. Baby sea urchins aren't the only victims. Worst hit are phytoplankton, the tiny plants that comprise the base of the food chain. Scientists have detected a 15-percent drop in photosynthesis when plankton cells are hit by increased U-V light. Researchers don't know exactly what the consequences of this may be. The ozone hole is a relatively new phenomenon, first discovered in 1985.

We have no baseline data. There's no UV work done here prior to the ozone hole. We come down after the ozone hole has already been around for a decade, and so what we're looking at now is already an altered system. And so it's very difficult to make any kind of assessment.

However, a decrease in plankton could create a food shortage that might ripple up the food chain to larger species--like penguins.

The rocky beach of Cape Byrd is home to more than 50-thousand Adelie penguins. There's never a dull moment here. Chicks relentlessly chirp for a meal of regurgitated seafood.

Some of the Adelie penguins are quite aggressive and they rush up and flip and bash you around the legs. Other ones just ignore you or come up and gently wave their arms backwards and forwards at you trying to identify what you are. And other ones take off, terrified, and rush around in circles for a while and then decide you're all right and give up.

In the past two years, penguins have been the subject of disturbing news. Australian researchers discovered the mass starvation of Adelie chicks in three separate regions of Antarctica last year. Their parents were not able to find any food within 100 miles of shore. To find out why--New Zealand researchers are netting 80 penguins for an unusual scientific procedure.

They're draining the food from penguin stomachs to see exactly what the birds are eating. A plastic tube is slipped down the penguin's throat and researchers massage its belly as they turn the bird upside down.The ordeal is disorienting for the penguin...but it's certainly better than killing the bird, which is what researchers used to do to examine stomach contents. Now the penguin is back to normal within an hour.

The stomach samples suggest this colony may be suffering from inadequate nutrition. Instead of feasting on krill--a shrimp-like organism that's the mainstay of the penguin diet--the birds are relying mostly on fish.

The contents are heavily-digested which indicates the penguins are swimming a long way to find dinner and are burning it up before getting home to regurgitate a meal for their chicks. Most alarming are specimens showing some penguins with nearly nothing inside their stomachs after a week at sea. The entire sample the bird had in its stomach is probably only about two tablespoons of food.  And this bird's been out doing serious fishing and that's all it's managed to come back with.

The decline in penguin food supply raises serious questions. Is the ozone hole to blame? Is ultraviolet light damaging the marine food web? Or is global warming sweeping the food supply away by disrupting ocean currents? Or have commercial fishing fleets been too greedy in the southern oceans? Scientists just don't know. Die-offs might well be part of a natural cycle. It may be decades before they're sure.

Researchers have identified a different threat to Antarctic wildlife, however, that people definitely can control. Experts are concerned that waves of tourists might overwhelm Antarctica's fragile environment. Even small groups of people can cause penguins to panic and abandon their young. And even the most careful tourist can trample delicate lichens and moss. That's why scientists fear the growing popularity of Antarctic expeditions. The International Committee for Antarctic Information and Research is investigating the cumulative impact of tourist visits.

Some sites are actually getting two or three tourist ships a week and tourism is responsible for the two worst disasters in Antarctic history. In 1979 a sight-seeing jet crashed, killing 257 passengers. Then, in 1989, a ship spilled 150,000 gallons of fuel when it ran aground and sank while carrying tourists in a scenic bay. Since then, tour companies have taken steps to improve safety and minimize environmental damage.

Most of the tourists are very environmentally aware and probably wouldn't come if they thought there was going to be a huge negative impact.They are now prohibited from visiting some sites in Antarctica--and rules are being developed to make tour companies liable for the costs of cleaning up any damage they cause. It's part of an international treaty that also bans mining and oil production here for the next 50 years.

Despite the threats to Antarctica's penguins and whales--and even its microscopic plankton--this is still the least-spoiled place on the planet.There are fewer people on this vast continent than you'd find on a single block in Manhattan. It'll remain that way for the foreseeable future--because it's incredibly expensive to get here and even more costly to stay alive once you've arrived.

Environmentalists point to the progress in regulating tourists and banning oil production as proof that the world recognizes the value of preserving this striking landscape. That makes Antarctica one of the world's great environmental success stories. The earth's most isolated continent will remain a place of natural wonder.



Exploring the surprisingly rich world hidden Beneath the Antarctic ice

HEAVILY INSULATED in a dry suit and loaded down with scuba gear, I slide into the dark water. My lips, the only exposed part of my body, go numb almost immediately. I give my dive partner the signal to follow, then begin to descend. It is a tight squeeze, as the hole we drilled through the thick ice is beginning to freeze in. Finally, two meters (6.5 ft.) down, I come out the bottom of our passageway into a new world.

My dive partner and I drift down, over a scattering of orange sea anemones and soft corals. Then, at 30 meters (100 ft.), we find ourselves floating over a dazzling array of sponges: long, thin yellow fingers; giant, white vases; pink staghorns; bright yellow cacti; deep, green globes; and bright red clusters. Among the sponges are other bottom-dwelling, or "benthic,"

creatures: tuber-like sea squirts, bryozoans (tiny animals that form delicate, lacy colonies) and groves of lavender hydroids (flower-like relatives of sea anemones). White sea cucumbers hang precariously on sponge perches. Several perfectly round, bright yellow-green mollusks lie scattered about. Spindly sea spiders crawl over the thick brown carpet of debris that covers the rocky bottom.

We are diving in McMurdo Sound, near Ross Island, Antarctica, as part of an ecology study funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation. Above us is a frozen wasteland--the world's driest, coldest and most barren desert, where hurricane-force winds scour the glaciers and lifeless volcanic rock. Yet here, just a few meters beneath the ice, we are discovering a richness and diversity of animals to rival some tropical environments. Each dive is an excursion into an unexplored world.

We can't afford to sight-see, however. Our team is investigating ways that immobile or sluggish bottom-dwelling creatures keep predators at bay by producing distasteful and toxic compounds. My job is to locate specific organisms and promising new groups of creatures. Working as far as 40 meters (130 ft.) below the surface, we have very little time to complete our task without risking a case of the "bends," or decompression sickness.

I swim over to a large colony of bright yellow "finger" sponges and pinch off a few slim pieces to take back for chemical analysis. It is somewhat like pruning a tree, and the animal won't miss the parts. Since we want to minimize our impact in this unique and largely untouched environment, we carefully avoid stirring up any bottom sediments and judiciously select bits of sponge to collect.

The complexity of the communities we are seeing points to a long history of evolution and development. In fact, the Antarctic benthic community has evolved in response to one of the most stable and predictable environments on Earth. Three key factors shape this unique ecosystem: water temperature, anchor ice formation and an annual plankton bloom.

The water temperature in McMurdo Sound is below freezing year-round. Because it is salt water, though, it doesn't freeze. Only the surface of the ocean, which is exposed to winter temperatures as low as -50 degrees C (-58° F), will turn to ice.

This "sea ice" (also called "annual ice" to differentiate it from the thicker, more permanent ice shelves) forms a 1.5- to 3-meter-thick (4- to 10-ft.) lid covering the ocean.

Every spring, though, in a tiny seasonal fluctuation, supercooled water pours out from beneath the massive Ross Ice Shelf to the south and lowers the water temperature by about one-tenth of a degree Celsius. At this slightly lower temperature, ice begins to crystallize on bottom rocks, and even on some unlucky animals. This so-called "anchor ice" grows in flat,

hand-sized crystals that interlock, forming a fuzzy, bluish blanket on the sea floor. This icy "blanket," which can be as thick as half a meter (20 in.), completely covers the ocean bottom down to about 12 meters (40 ft.) below sea level. From 12 to 18 meters (60 ft.), it occurs in widely separated clumps. Below 18 meters, though, water pressure keeps the ice from crystallizing.

Normally ice floats, because it is less dense than water. The only reason the ice stays on the bottom is that it is literally "anchored" onto rocks and animals. But occasionally the ice will grow large and buoyant enough to lift its anchor and break free. I have witnessed all manner of items floating under balls of anchor ice: sea stars, sponges, urchins, rocks--even a metal bucket.

The growth of anchor ice essentially scours the ocean floor and helps divide the bottom into distinct biological zones. In shallower areas where anchor-ice activity is greatest, one finds only creatures that can "outrun" the ice before it forms: sea stars, urchins, sea spiders and the occasional giant isopod.

In deeper waters, where increasing water pressure impedes ice crystallization, beds of sea anemones and soft corals flourish. Beginning at about 100 ft. and going deeper (where no anchor ice is found), the sea floor is virtually covered with an array of sponges and accompanying organisms.

All of the animals in these three zones ultimately depend on an annual bloom of microscopic plankton for their survival. Every year in late summer, as the surface ice breaks up and currents bearing nutrients flow in from the north, an enormous surge of plankton growth brings a cornucopia of food. Much of the plankton settles to the bottom, where the benthic creatures feast on it, storing up energy for the dark and foodless winter.

Many of the invertebrates (creatures without backbones) of the Antarctic ocean floor live by sifting their food out of the water. Sponges are the largest such group of bottom-dwelling filter feeders in the Antarctic. Every natural community, however, has its predators. In this case, a variety of colorful sea stars and a few species of frilly, white nudibranchs feed on the sponges. But the sponges have evolved a variety of strategies to combat predation. Some, such as the slimy sponge and the bushy sponge, reproduce and grow faster than the sea stars can eat them. Others, such as the spiky sponge, display a daunting array of long, sharp needles as protection. Still others, such as the red sponge, the green sponge and the cactus sponge, mount chemical defenses that seem to discourage sea stars and nudibranchs from eating them.

Our research team is interested in these defensive chemical compounds for several reasons. Identifying all the animals that produce and use them will help us understand the complex dynamics of this community. We are also curious to see if we can isolate any new or unusual chemical structures. Finally, these natural compounds may have powerful anti-tumor or antibiotic properties, and thus, like penicillin, possible medicinal uses.

Our search for animals likely to harbor these compounds takes us far afield. One place we visit is Little Razorback Island, a small, rocky outcropping not far from Ross Island. Our first foray beneath the ice there is a lesson in splendor and bio-diversity.

Unlike the steep slope of loose volcanic rock so common at other sites, we find ourselves descending into a spectacular ravine. Nooks and crannies in the jagged rock walls form micro-habitats populated by an astounding variety of creatures, many of which we have not seen elsewhere.

The visibility, as is often the case beneath the ice, is more than 200 meters (660 feet). The winter months of complete darkness (May through August) have eliminated nearly all sunlight-dependent plankton, so the water is crystal clear. Though illumination is certainly reduced by the ice cover, a surprising amount of light does come through.

The ice stretches off into the distance above me while the hills and valleys of the sea floor spread out below. I have the exhilarating feeling that I am flying. But danger lurks: Distant objects appear much closer than they really are, and some divers in such conditions have strayed dangerously far from their only access to the surface. I glance back frequently at our dive hole, making sure I keep my bearings.

At other times, helicopters take us to the western side of McMurdo Sound, far from our base at McMurdo Station, the U.S. research and logistics center on Ross Island. These forays allow us to explore underwater landscapes that humans may never have seen before. On one such trip our pilot leaves us on the sea ice at Granite Harbor.

After chipping a hole into a natural crack running out from the shore, we spend several hours building a protective wall of snow blocks. Finally slipping into the water, we discover a boulder-strewn bottom populated by sea whips, giant sea stars and a rare vase sponge. Unlike its white, smooth-sided relatives, this vase sponge is brown and has folded sides. I long to take a sample, but it is our policy not to remove or damage unique or rare organisms.

I also discover the largest white vase sponge I've ever seen: (8 ft.) high and at least (6.5 ft.) in diameter at its base. A diver easily could fit through the cavernous mouth, or osculum, to disappear within the central cavity. I wonder how old such a formidable creature might be, given how slowly the sponges appear to grow.

During a 1956 U.S. Navy exercise in Antarctica, a vehicle dropped through the sea ice and settled on the bottom near McMurdo Station. Forty years later, divers found the largest of the vase sponges growing on the disintegrating metal frame to be about half a meter (20 in.) long. With a growth rate that slow, the giant sponge at Granite Harbor could conceivably be hundreds of years old.

But it is at New Harbor that some of our most amazing dives take place. New Harbor is only 64 kilometers (40 mi.) away from Ross Island, yet the benthic environment couldn't be more different. New Harbor is largely cut off from ocean currents and from the organic matter that such currents carry.

Thus, the waters that bathe New Harbor lack
nutrients. In this respect, New Harbor mimics the
cold, nutrient-poor waters of the deep ocean,
making it the only known place on Earth where
divers can actually interact with an environment
normally the province of expensive deep-ocean

Getting into the ocean there, however, isn't easy. The ice at New Harbor is more than 4 meters (13 ft.) thick--and rock hard. After several days of difficult labor to make a dive hole and erect a warm hut over it, we finally are able to enter the inky water. Four meters of snow-covered ice doesn't transmit much light, and it takes a long time for my eyes to adjust to the dimness.

I sink cautiously down to find a bottom composed largely of fine silt and sand. As things come slowly into focus, I suddenly realize that I am floating just above a veritable forest of Gersemia antarctica, a rare and beautiful soft coral. Never before have I seen more than one at a time. Here, spread out before me in the New Harbor gloom, I count at least two dozen of the magnificent animals.

Gersemia is one of Antarctica's most compelling creatures. This bright-pink soft coral can stand more than 1.5 meters (5 ft.) tall, towering over the bottom like a giant sequoia. And, unlike other species of soft coral that are permanently rooted and must wait patiently for food to drift by, the New Harbor Gersemia have evolved a remarkable adaptation to their nutrient-poor environment.

They deflate their thick trunks and bend down onto the substrate, like a tree bending over to lay flat on the ground. Once there, they use their polyps to forage through the fine sediment for organic matter and microscopic creatures. Sweeping in a full circle, they scour the immediate area for food. Then the Gersemia pulls itself, along with the small rock to which it is attached, across the sand to a new spot to repeat the process. Individual animals may move as much as 3 meters (10 ft.) in a 24-hour period. This is remarkable behavior for a colonial, filter-feeding animal with no brain.

We drift in for a closer look and discover that each Gersemia hosts several sea spiders, or pycnogonids. These creatures are known to eat soft corals and hydroids, but we can't determine whether these particular ones were helping themselves to dinner or hitching a ride.

Perhaps the pycnogonids are letting the soft coral do the traveling for them, instead of expending their own energy searching for food. If the coral stumbled onto a hydroid colony, the sea spiders could feast. During lean times, the hitchhikers could nibble on their host. Either way, the sea spiders couldn't lose.

Tearing ourselves away from the Gersemia, we discover gardens of delicate crinoids, huge sponges, bizarre sea cucumbers and a host of other unusual and rarely seen animals. Even in the impoverished environment of New Harbor, creatures have somehow adapted and flourished. The community we find is as interesting as any in the waters around Ross Island.

On the surface after the dive, as my dive partner and I compare notes, we are as excited as two biologists can be. Later, I pause to reflect. I feel a sense of awe and reverence for these communities of animals, ancient and sublime as they are, hidden in the gloom beneath a protective, concealing cap of ice.

To slip through that blue barrier and drift into their world is to enter a secret enclave, a mysterious and beautiful cathedral of life that few have ever seen. The magic of some encounters is enough to overwhelm even the most hard-nosed scientist.

One such encounter occurs while we are ascending from a deep dive at Discovery Bluff. We are already excited from exploring a new place, and knowing we are the first to see the eerie beds of fan worms and the oddly shaped sponges sitting like sentinels in the darkness below. Then, unexpectedly, a young Weddell seal approaches us.

We are probably the first humans he has ever seen, and we must be a strange sight to his eyes with our rubber suits, steel air tanks and bubbles issuing from our mouths. So he is cautious at first, but soon his curiosity overcomes his fear.

As we continue our survey, the seal swims alongside, probing us with his whiskers and pressing his nose into our masks. He swims circles around us, playfully doubling back and sneaking up on us from behind, coming so close it is impossible not to reach out and touch him. We spend the better part of 20 minutes playing with this wild animal like one might play with a new puppy.

Then, as we pause below our dive hole to decompress, the seal vanishes as suddenly as he appeared. We are alone again in the mysterious, ice-covered sea.

Ice diving is definitely something to experience! Imagine diving under the ice and looking up light streaming through and people walking above you. It's really a kick, and it's not that cold if you use a dry suit - only 32 degrees F!

Dry suits are optional the same way clothes are optional for skiing in a snow storm. If you are not a dry suit diver a dry suit class is required. As an Ice diver , you will need to have the following gear:

· at least one tank
· regulator with console and Octo
· B.C.
· wet suit or dry suit
· 6.5 mm (or thicker) hood
· dive knife
· whistle
· small slate
· Log Book

**All equipment must be in perfect working order**

These items are in addition to your basic diving gear.
(mask, snorkel, fins, gloves, booties, & weight belt).


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