Global Warming Info, Antarctic Ice Diving, Expeditions to the Antarctic Peninsula,
South Georgia, Cape Horn, Falklands & Tierra Del Fuego
Satellite view of the Antarctic Peninsula with Elephant Island in the
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
OASIS UNDER THE ICE By Jim Mastro
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
· at least one tank
· regulator with console and Octo
· wet suit or dry suit
· 6.5 mm (or thicker) hood
· dive knife
· 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).