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Guest Host: Steve Roberts
Giant predatory worms, 50-foot algae, sea spiders and leopard seals are some of the creatures living between the ice and snow of Antarctica. A leading expert on Antarctica explains what’s in this fragile ecosystem and why it’s under attack.
- James McClintock Marine biologist and professor of polar and marine biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Read An Excerpt
From Lost Antarctica by James McClintock. Copyright © 2012 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks so much for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts filling in today for Diane Rehm while she's away on vacation. Marine biologist James McClintock has made 14 expeditions to Antarctica living and working in a place most of us will never see. His research has given him a firsthand look at how climate change is transforming the continent. In his new book, it's called "Lost Antarctica: Adventures in a Disappearing Land," McClintock says that the countless marine organisms that have evolved to thrive in this harsh environment are under threat.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSJames McClintock joins me to talk about this, his three decades of work on this very faraway continent. Professor McClintock, welcome.
PROFESSOR JAMES MCCLINTOCKThank you, good to be here.
ROBERTSDelighted to have you here this morning, and you can join our conversation with James McClintock. Call us at 1-800-433-8850. And of course, there's always our email, is email@example.com. You can also join us on Facebook and Twitter. We welcome your participation in this conversation.
ROBERTSNow one of the things I didn't mention is there's actually McClintock Point?
ROBERTSA real -- I mean, how cool is that?
MCCLINTOCKThat is really cool.
ROBERTSThat is really cool. How did that happen?
MCCLINTOCKThat happened because of my work in the Ross Sea around McMurdo Station, the largest station that the U.S. operates. And we had been working in the area for about 15 years at the time when my name was put up in recognition of contributions to marine biology. And I'll never..
ROBERTSIs there a formal process for naming a place after you?
MCCLINTOCKThere is a letter that is submitted to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names and you wait a year or two and, lo and behold, a letter comes in your mailbox one day and a point of land was named in my honor.
ROBERTSNow, have you taken a picture of you standing on that point of land?
MCCLINTOCKI have a picture. I've hiked up on the point. I promised I'd never put a condominium there. It's going to remain wild and beautiful.
ROBERTSDo you have a sign that says McClintock Point?
MCCLINTOCKNo, not on the point...
ROBERTSStill, this is cool. But as I mentioned, you've been there 14 times and in your book, you talk about how you first got to go, but tell our listeners what drew you there. It was science, but it was also adventure. It was emotions, it's that simple.
MCCLINTOCKAll of the above. I'll never forget the day I was standing in my research laboratory at the University of South Florida and my professor came up and tapped me on the shoulder and said, would you like to go to Antarctica? And I was just stunned.
MCCLINTOCKSo I ended up getting an opportunity to go down to Kerguelen in the southern Indian Ocean and spend three months studying marine life there. It was like being kids in a candy store, so little is known about the marine biology of these Antarctic organisms.
MCCLINTOCKI came back and I knew that's what I wanted to do. I really wanted to pursue a career in studying Antarctic marine life. And I was very fortunate to get to go back as a post-doctoral fellow when I was at the University of California at Santa Cruz with John Pearse. It was a wonderful experience and the rest is history.
ROBERTSYeah, but you grew up in California?
ROBERTSIn Santa Barbara and your natural interest in marine biology was in a much warmer climate than Antarctica. How did you transfer your interest from Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz to Antarctica?
MCCLINTOCKWell, I grew up, you know, on the beaches of Santa Barbara, hiking, going through tide pools, surfing and so it was a natural progression to fall into marine biology when I started college at UC Santa Cruz. I actually started as an English Lit major, but I soon discovered marine biology and the progression wasn't that -- I mean, if you've ever jumped into the Pacific Ocean, you know it's pretty cold.
MCCLINTOCKAnd so it's not that much colder to dive in Antarctica. Of course, we don't use wetsuits like we do in California. We use a special suit called a dry-suit to get into water that's at the freezing level.
ROBERTSI should tell our listeners that Jim McClintock is wearing a tie covered in brightly-covered starfish, right?
ROBERTSAnd there are other marine organisms on this tie as well?
MCCLINTOCKUm-hum, some snails, various things there, yeah.
ROBERTSIs this sort of an in-joke for marine biologists?
MCCLINTOCKI came across this at a biology conference.
ROBERTSI bet you did.
MCCLINTOCKThis guy selling ties had every kind of biological life on them and I thought, I've got to have this one.
ROBERTSNow, as I mentioned, very few, if any, of our listeners have ever been to Antarctica or will be there. We're not talking about the south of France or Tuscany, right?
ROBERTSSo try to describe what it's like.
MCCLINTOCKI think the one thing that really strikes me about Antarctica is the grandeur of the landscape, the scale. You know, you look out and you'll think you can touch mountains in the distance and they'll be hundreds of miles from you.
MCCLINTOCKImmense glaciers, ice sheets, looking across and seeing hundreds of thousands of penguins lining a beach and covering the hillsides behind, it's really the kind of thing where I think you have to go and see it yourself to really appreciate it. I've tried my best in this book to bring it out in the prose, that type of scenery and the wildlife as best I can.
MCCLINTOCKBut just it's an amazing place. You get -- once you go, I really believe you come back an ambassador to Antarctica. And I know people who will do all they can to get back again and again.
ROBERTSOne of the evocative phrases that comes up again and again in your book is the ice. The ice, it just resonates as we're going back to the ice.
ROBERTSWhat does that mean to you, the ice?
MCCLINTOCKWell, the ice is the term that you -- after you've been your first time, you've earned the right to call it the ice and I think there's a lot of terms that you sort of develop from working in Antarctica over the years that you're going down. And the ice just stands out as being so representative of this amazing continent, the size of India and China, and covered with ice for the most part.
ROBERTSBut you can't use that term. It's like an initiation. You've got to earn it?
MCCLINTOCKI like to hear it the second time you go down, yeah. I mean, I'll tell people we're going to the ice. I guess on the way home, they can use it.
ROBERTSBut they have to spend a winter there before they can use it?
MCCLINTOCKWell, I don't know about a winter, but maybe an austral summer.
ROBERTSBut what was your biggest surprise at? You know, the sense of discovery threads through your book. What really just really grabbed you?
MCCLINTOCKWhat really grabbed me? I guess I'll never forget the first time that I put on a dry-suit at McMurdo Station and dropped below the ice. You have to drill a hole through the ice to enter this realm. And you know, I had seen pictures and things, but when you drop down and you can see...
ROBERTSHow thick is the ice?
MCCLINTOCKThe ice is about eight feet thick.
MCCLINTOCKYeah, so you drop down this hole in the ice.
ROBERTSNot good for claustrophobics?
MCCLINTOCKNo, and -- but the claustrophobia vanishes as you emerge from the hole.
MCCLINTOCKYes, because you can see forever. It's the clearest water to dive in on the planet. People have recorded 500 to 1,000 feet of visibility underwater, absolutely stunning. But the stunning thing to me and perhaps the most striking thing was looking down and seeing that the sea floor of Antarctica is covered with life, sponges, soft coral, and starfish as far as you see, just an amazingly rich marine system.
MCCLINTOCKIn terms of the amount of marine life, it's equivalent to the Great Barrier Reefs of Australia. So until I saw that myself and in such a spectacular way with the looking above and seeing this translucent, blue ceiling of ice. It would be like when you walk into the Sistine Chapel and you just can't help but look up and be taken by that beauty. It was the same kind of feeling.
MCCLINTOCKAnd the 30 minutes that I was down vaporized very quickly. I mean, it wasn't until my fingers and my toes told me it was time to get out that it was time to get out. So I think that speaks to the richness of the marine life and the potential it has to harbor things like compounds that might fight cancer and AIDS and the kinds of research that we've done in chemical ecology that exploit this unique environment in that sense.
ROBERTSWell that's one of the most interesting things you say in the book, that because it's, A, it is so rich, but, B, it is understudied.
ROBERTSThat for someone like you, you could just -- the sense of adventure and discovery was so special.
MCCLINTOCKYes, and it is and every time you go into the field to make collections of the organisms you're studying, you never know quite what's going to happen. You could end up being challenged by katabatic winds that can come out of nowhere.
MCCLINTOCKKatabatic are winds that are gravity-fed. They roll off the Polar Plateau and down the slope and can generate great speeds, hundreds of miles an hour. And they come up very suddenly so you have to be very careful when you're out in the field, being prepared. We always have survival gear with us, etcetera.
MCCLINTOCKThe other challenge when you're out in the field like myself, is encountering a leopard seal. And leopard seals are at the top of the food chain. They're ten feet long. They're 1,000 pounds. They're very aggressive. We have a policy of getting out of the water as quickly as possible when we see one.
MCCLINTOCKI'll never forget my first leopard seal encounter out at the ice edge at McMurdo Station one day when a leopard seal thrust his head out of the water, up on the ice and grinned at our dive team. And we immediately decided that we shouldn't dive in that location so we moved down the coast a ways.
MCCLINTOCKAnd my dive buddy, Ron Britton, he was sitting on the sea ice with his feet dangling in the water and about to put his mask on and the leopard seal came right up between his legs and stared him right in the face.
MCCLINTOCKAnd Ron did about a two and a half back gainer with 120 pounds of gear on and we decided being scientists we would not test the hypothesis that day about what would happen if we went in the water with that seal. So we left the ocean to the seal.
ROBERTSAnd you do describe it can be a very dangerous environment, the wildlife, the wind.
ROBERTSThe isolation, it's a very harsh climate for all the beauty you describe. It's a very dangerous place.
MCCLINTOCKIt is. You've got to be prepared and expect the unexpected and that's -- we're well trained. The U.S. National Science Foundation does an outstanding job making sure their scientists and support staff know the dangers of going out into the field, particularly down further south at McMurdo Station and not on the Antarctic Peninsula where most of the climate impacts are now.
MCCLINTOCKYou can go out on a beautiful clear day and find yourself in what's called a whiteout later that day where if you and I were sitting five feet from each other and we wouldn't be able to see each other. The dry snow gets lifted up off the surface of the ice and blown almost like a dust storm.
MCCLINTOCKIn the worst case, I was down there one year when they had to rope the buildings together.
MCCLINTOCKAnd the joke is that the first building that gets roped is the bar so you can find it and then the cafeteria, of course.
ROBERTSThis is James McClintock. He's a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His new book is "Lost Antarctica: Adventures in a Disappearing Land." Join our conversation. We've got some lines open. 1-800-433-8850, firstname.lastname@example.org is our email address. And I'll be right back, I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. I'll be right back with Jim McClintock with your calls and your comments so stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. And my guest this hour is James McClintock. He's a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham but he's also a marine biologist with a new book out "Lost Antarctica: Adventures in a Disappearing Land." He's been to Antarctica 14 times. We were talking before the break, Jim, about the physical dangers, the cold and the wind and tying the bar down to make sure everyone had a place to go. But these also were emotional dangers and not everybody makes it. Talk about that side of life in this rather bleak environment.
MCCLINTOCKWell, there is truth to that. Antarctica is remote. Just getting there can take about a week. And once you're down there some of the folks are down for a period of a year or more. I think the longest people stay is about 14 months. So I know that NASA has used Antarctica as a model system to look at isolation and its effects on human behavior. I've had colleagues who, you know, we talk about the issues of being away from the family for a long period of time.
MCCLINTOCKAnd what I find personally is that, you know, I want to have a regular schedule, go to the gym, keep, you know, exercise going. You got to -- you can't work all the time. You know, we're kind of workaholics being scientists but we try to give ourselves breaks and that's important. You have to go through a rigorous medical exam before you go to Antarctica.
ROBERTSYou describe it in the book in a lot of detail.
MCCLINTOCKYes, in great detail. Now if you actually spend the winter in Antarctica as, you know, maybe several hundred people do a year, you have to go through a much more rigorous exam.
ROBERTSBut no sun for three months.
MCCLINTOCKYeah, and there's actually a psychological exam you go through. And I have seen people come down and leave, come down and, you know, in two or three weeks they're on the ship and that's it.
MCCLINTOCKIt just doesn't work. Most people love it. I know -- I've seen people go to Antarctica and just do anything they can do to get back. I mean, their life sort of revolves around how do I get back. So it can be very addictive.
MCCLINTOCKTo the ice.
MCCLINTOCKTo the ice, yes. And so that's the majority of folks is they really love it down there. It's a family. At the station where I'm working on the Antarctic Peninsula now there's 44 people. So we all know each other. You know what everybody's doing and that's good. Sometimes it's bad but mostly good. And so it's a wonderful environment to work in. But yes, you have to be aware that you're going to be on your own.
ROBERTSNow also you describe some of the changes since you started going. And particularly in communications, that used to be much more isolated and now you have basically your own cell phone where you can call home.
MCCLINTOCKYeah, I've gone from telegrams where as a grad student I shuddered at the 3 or $4 per word it cost me to send a message to my fiancé at the time all the way to an IT...
ROBERTSI love you was 12 bucks, right.
MCCLINTOCKYeah, right. So then we went to Mars Grams which was sort of a military way of communicating where you sent a message and then it was typed into a letter and mailed home, to HAM radio, sort of phone patches, which were a little bit awkward because you know everybody's listening to what you're saying to your wife. And then we got the internet and we have internet phones, which work very well now.
MCCLINTOCKAnd I'd say that -- I remember last year or two years ago I was given a cell phone. It was an IP cell phone. I hiked up on top of the glacier behind the station all by myself with this gorgeous scenery and called home and it was like my kids were right next to me. So it's come a long way in the 30 years that I've been going there. It's a smaller world.
ROBERTSNow you mentioned your kids and one of the things that isolation can result in, it's not just a psychological distance but when an emergency happens -- and you describe in your book a car wreck your son was in and this was a very traumatic moment for you.
MCCLINTOCKIt was. It was a tough moment and I'll never -- my wife had the courage to let me sleep through the night before she called. She knew she really couldn't tell me much. But Lucra was in a very serious car wreck, was in emergency care for about 11 days in the hospital and several surgeries. Thank goodness he's fine but you know what struck me about that whole experience, besides the frustration of not being able to get home, was how the station came together around me like a family and were there for me.
MCCLINTOCKAnd one of the folks on the station made a big poster, a get well poster and we took a picture of all the personnel in the whole station holding it. And, of course, wonderful internet, fired it off. And that very afternoon my son had a big poster delivered to him in the intensive care unit, you know, from the entire station saying get well, Luke.
ROBERTSAnd there's a nice picture of that poster in the book.
ROBERTSYou know, in addition to these personal dimensions, I mean, you spend a lot of time studying marine organisms. But having been there 14 times you make the very strong point in the book that, you know, climate change is not a myth. You see it and you've seen it over your travels there. And describe to our listeners what you've seen on the ground.
MCCLINTOCKOkay. Well, what I'm talking about here primarily is happening on the Antarctic Peninsula, which is about 830 miles and it jets to the north from the continent. But we do know, there is evidence now that the western section of the continent of Antarctica is warming as well. So far the eastern side is not. On the Antarctic Peninsula you do not have to be a scientist to appreciate that climate change is happening.
MCCLINTOCKTwelve years ago when I first went down to Palmer, maybe once a week, twice a week, three times a week there'd be a huge crash and I'd -- we'd all leap up from our chairs in the building and run down, look into Hero inlet and there would be a big chunk of the Mar Glacier having calved into the bay and we'd watch the waves come up. This last time I was down just a year or so ago two, three, four, five times a day you would hear the glacier calving.
MCCLINTOCKWe know from monitoring the edge of the glacier that it's receded a third of a mile over the last 20, 30 years. And this is happening -- for 87 percent of the glaciers up and down the Antarctic Peninsula now are under rapid recession. So -- and you look around you see organisms that aren't supposed to be there. There's several species of penguins, the Chinstraps and the Gentoos that are warmer species that are found in the sub-Antarctic that are now moving down the Peninsula as it's warming to establish colonies.
MCCLINTOCKAnd perhaps the most iconic change --
ROBERTSThey're moving to a colder...
MCCLINTOCKThey're actually moving to a warmer area that used to be cold.
MCCLINTOCKYeah. And the iconic Adelie Penguin, unfortunately, is disappearing. And that's because of two things. They're very tightly tied to the sea ice. And as the sea ice is receding along the peninsula, it's receded 40 percent in 30 years, the -- it served as a platform for the Adelies to march offshore and dive out and catch the krill, the little shrimp that they feed on. And now they have to spend a lot more energy getting out to their food sources.
MCCLINTOCKOn top of that, ironically, as it's warming, the air's becoming more humid and it's snowing more and later in the season than it ever has. And so what's happening is the Adelies are genetically hardwired to lay their eggs at a specific time of the year. They come in, they lay their eggs and now they're getting hit with these late unseasonable snowstorms which bury the penguins completely. And when the melt of the snow occurs, the eggs drown. And so you lose an entire generation of the Adelie.
MCCLINTOCKSo 80 percent of the 15,000 breeding pairs of Adelie Penguins have disappeared around the area of Palmer Station over the last 35 years. Bill Frazier is the biologist who works on this story and he's got amazing data to show this happening. And sadly it doesn't appear that the Adelies are moving elsewhere. He's put tags on them and you just can't find them other places so they do appear to be disappearing. Now there's still populations to the south but this trend is moving southward. So you see it all around you. Climate change is everywhere around you now on the western Antarctic Peninsula.
ROBERTSAnd one of the particular focal points of your research are species moving into the area...
ROBERTS...that are being drawn by the warmer -- and you particularly talk about a species of crab in the book.
MCCLINTOCKYeah, it's an amazing story in collaboration with Rich Aronson and Sven Thatchy (sp?) I've got a project funded by the NSF where we're looking at the...
ROBERTSNational Science Foundation.
MCCLINTOCK...yeah, the National Science Foundation where we're looking at the invasion of King Crabs that have lived for a long time in the very deep sea around Antarctica but now are migrating for the first time up the Antarctic slope towards the shelf. And the danger of this invasion is that King Crabs are crushing predators. They've got big powerful claws. And the marine life in Antarctica has been without predators ever since it was isolated from -- by the Antarctic circumpolar current about 30 million years ago. There's no crushing fish jawed fish, there's no crabs, there's no lobsters.
MCCLINTOCKSo the marine life is weakly calcified. The shells are thin. I could hand you an Antarctic clam and you could crush it in your hand easily. So they're not...
ROBERTS'Cause they didn't develop this defense mechanism 'cause of the absence of predators.
MCCLINTOCKExactly. It might also be partly because it's a little more expensive to make a shell at low temperature, but I really believe it's this absence of predators that has driven this lack of physical protection.
ROBERTSAnd the Leopard Seals we talked about don't eat them.
MCCLINTOCKNo, they don't. So the King Crabs are moving up. The theory is that very low temperatures have kept them at bay and that now as the water is warming they are no longer being held back from moving up onto the shelf. And this is going to happen in decades, not centuries, not millennia. So big change is coming, I believe.
ROBERTSAnd you have a statistic in the book, which I found startling, that if -- I guess it's a worst case scenario but if all the Antarctic ice were, for some reason, to melt it would raise sea levels 10'?
MCCLINTOCKWell, that would be the western portion of the continent. If the western Antarctic ice sheet was to melt it would raise sea level 10'. If the entire ice sheet over Antarctica -- now remember that's two miles deep of ice and the eastern side is even larger than the western -- the estimates are more in the 150 to 200' rise level. Absolutely astounding however, rest assured, this is not going to happen anytime soon. So I don't think that's something that we need to worry about.
MCCLINTOCKWhat we need to worry about is that as the ice sheets along the peninsula are breaking out and there have been eight major ice sheet breakouts in the last 30 years, they are melting. The good news is that as ice sheets that are on top of the water melt they do not contribute to sea level rise 'cause they're already in the water. The bad news is when these ice sheets break free they essentially act as barriers to land-based glaciers. And the glaciers accelerate their movement into the sea when that ice sheet has moved away. And they have recorded two, three, four times the level of acceleration. And that ice, which is added to the sea from land, does contribute to sea level rise.
MCCLINTOCKI suspect that when the IPCC, this body that looks at the impacts of climate change comes out with their 2014 report that we are going to see a much higher estimate for the amount of sea level rise. Because in their last report they did not take into account Greenland or Antarctica as contributing factors to sea level.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You can join our conversation with Jim McClintock, professor at the University of Alabama Birmingham. His new book is "Lost Antarctica: Adventures in a Disappearing Land." And let me read a couple of questions from -- we got emails from a number of listeners, Jim. And this is from Austin who writes, "Please ask your guest if Ernest Shackleton and his exploration of Antarctica and his amazing story of survival spurred his interest in this amazing continent?
MCCLINTOCKThat's a great question and I'm a great admirer of Shackleton. I think that that is the most amazing story...
ROBERTSTell our listeners briefly what those were.
MCCLINTOCKOh well, Shackleton and his men were besieged in the sea ice and eventually their ship sank. And I forget how -- he had 30 odd men with him and he spent months and months floating on the sea ice. He built a camp and eventually they realized that the sea ice was breaking up, that he and his men were going to have to use the lifeboats that they had managed to salvage from the ship before it sank.
MCCLINTOCKThey got in these lifeboats. They had this horrendous voyage. They ended up on Elephant Island, which is up off the northern tip of the Peninsula, lived there for a while. Shackleton realized that they wouldn't be saved if nobody left Elephant Island and went to South Georgia. So he and three or four of his men took one of the boats and modeled it into a sailboat, took off on this 800-mile epic voyage across treacherous seas and happened to bump into South Georgia I think with only one clear night to look at the stars and reckon.
MCCLINTOCKAnd then the battle continued. They had to climb over these mountains to get to the other side of the island without pitons and ropes. And they bumbled into this whaling station so black with soot from, you know, the things that they'd been burning to cook their food for years, nobody recognized them, even though the station master knew them. It's an amazing story and yes, it did have an influence. I love historic -- the lore of what is known as the heroic era of Antarctica exploration. And I still need to do this. I want to go to South Georgia some day and visit Shackleton...
ROBERTSWhere is it?
MCCLINTOCKSouth Georgia is to the northwest of the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, a good distance. And it's a beautiful island covered with penguin colonies, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of penguins, an old whaling station and the graveyard that has Shackleton buried in it.
ROBERTSLiz from Baltimore, Jim, writes, "Please give us three to five specific things we can do to stop the destruction of Antarctica."
MCCLINTOCKWell, what's happening to Antarctica has a lot to do with carbon dioxide and fossil fuels producing that carbon dioxide. Because we're seeing the impacts of essentially global warming, climate warming. We're also seeing -- I think we're going to see very soon the impacts of ocean acidification which is also related to carbon dioxide production.
ROBERTSAnd a special interest of yours as a scientist.
MCCLINTOCKAnd a special interest. Yeah, I've got a research program right now with Chuck Amsler working down in Antarctica on ocean acidification. So to -- the answer to this question really gets back to what can we do as a society to lower our carbon footprint. And here -- energy conservation, you know, things like better insulation of buildings and better materials, increasing gas mileage for cars, alternative energies, wind, solar, biofuels.
MCCLINTOCKMoving to natural gas has been a plus for us as a country driven a bit by economic factors, perhaps more than environmental. But it has had a positive outcome if the fracking issues aren't too serious. And then I think education, telling people about what's going on. You know, this is something that's so important to tell your neighbors and friends, that more and more scientists now are coming out and talking about their objective views of what's going on. And, you know, when you witness it firsthand like I have it doesn't matter what your political persuasion is. It doesn't matter at all. It's what you're seeing happen.
MCCLINTOCKI see the concern about the environment and climate change in Antarctica as much in the guy or the gal cooking in the kitchen as I do in the scientist. Everybody there is very tuned into it because it's happening right there.
ROBERTSAnd as a scientist who deals with facts, is it frustrating to you that there's still so much doubt and confusion on this issue?
MCCLINTOCKYeah and, you know, I talk a little bit about that in my book. I think that some of the confusion and doubt comes from various things. First of all, the media always feels very compelled, and I think rightly so, to provide both sides of the story. And scientists, you know, on one side are, you know, very strongly convinced climate change is occurring...
ROBERTSHold that thought. We're going to have a lot of calls on this very subject. I'll be back with Jim McClintock. You stay with us. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in for Diane and we'll continue this conversation in just a moment.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. And James McClintock is with me. He's a professor at the University of Alabama. His new book is "Lost Antarctica: Adventures in a Disappearing Land." And we have a friend of yours, Janet Ort, who's a teacher at Hoover High School in Birmingham and who has got her class listening to this show. And Janet Ort, thank you so much for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
MS. JANET ORTThank you. It's good to talk to you.
ROBERTSSo what's on your mind? How can we help you this morning?
ORTWell, Dr. McClintock, you're such a great role model for education at all levels. We really would appreciate some takeaway for students of--maybe not in college age--but what can they do, personally and what do you think is the one message to them that's the most important?
MCCLINTOCKJanet, it's good to hear your voice. Thank you for calling. I think that they can consider, you know, doing things like I talked about earlier, in terms of conservation, recycling, all these things help. But also, you know, do lots of reading, go out on the media, explore the impacts of climate change so that they can learn from all the different people that are working in the field and get a sense of what's going on. Talk among their friends, these types of things are very important.
ROBERTSJanet, do you have a student there who wants to ask a question?
ORTI’m sorry, what?
ROBERTSDo you have a student who wants to ask a question?
ORTLet me check. Anybody want to ask (unintelligible) a question?
ROBERTSAll right. Can you tell me what he's saying? All right. We're gonna have to move on here. Thank you. Janet, thank you very much. Let's turn to Rodney in Ocala, Fla. Rodney, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
RODNEYYes. Hello. Thanks for taking my call.
RODNEYAnd I can identify with the good doctor and those researchers 'cause when I was 17 years old I spent a year in Alaska, remote, isolated, in the military. And that will also make you a strong environmentalist, understanding how we're just a small part of everything in this planet. And my concern is just about what's happening, of course, right now in the Arctic. And is there any consideration or any research being done with the possibility of moving some of the animals or flora or fauna or whatever to the Antarctic with the understanding that the Arctic, because of global warming--it's a reality, it's evolutionary--will soon disappear.
ROBERTSThank you, Rodney.
MCCLINTOCKYeah, Rodney, that's a good question. You're absolutely right. The Arctic is amazing in its change. As you may have read recently…
ROBERTSMuch more dramatic than the Antarctic?
MCCLINTOCKWell, in terms of the ice. I would say…
MCCLINTOCK…the recession of the polar ice sheet up there is--I was gonna say it's probably a record low this year. And it has been continuing in that direction. As far as the impact on the biology I would argue that the impact in Antarctica is even stronger. I don't think it would be a great idea to move organisms from the Arctic to the Antarctic. There's all sorts of ecological things that might happen that you wouldn't expect to happen.
MCCLINTOCKThat said I do know Arctic biologists that are concerned that some of the plants and things are actually going to disappear in the Arctic, the conditions are changing so radically. So they've actually gone to sort of an adaptational strategy where they're going to collect these plants and grow them and keep the seeds. And, you know, it's almost at that point with some of these high-altitude Arctic plants.
ROBERTSYou even describe in your book the perils of introducing alien species. You talk about they introduced rabbits at one point for a food source.
ROBERTSI think it was whalers who did that.
MCCLINTOCKYes, they did.
ROBERTSAnd then they introduced cats to take care of the rabbits.
MCCLINTOCKIt was a disaster.
MCCLINTOCKYeah, what happened is the cats discovered very quickly it was much easier to go into the bird rookeries and catch the chicks and eat the eggs than it was to chase a rabbit. And so I can remember walking across the fields of this sub-Antarctic island and seeing feral--which means wild--introduced wild things bouncing around everywhere, cats, rabbits. Huge problem on islands all over the planet, not just in the Polar Regions.
ROBERTSWe have an email from Andrew who asks, "Can you describe what the night sky looks like? I imagine there must be an enormous number of stars visible."
MCCLINTOCKWell, my first 15 years or so working in Antarctica there was no night sky because I went down during the summer to McMurdo Station and it's far enough south that the sun never set. However, I can tell you, now that I work on the peninsula and I do get to experience night. I can remember one night down at the end of the dock in front of the station where there was no incident light from the moon or anything. I have never seen as many stars in my life. I mean I could literally see other solar systems, galaxies. It was absolutely stunning. You can't imagine the purer atmosphere.
ROBERTSHas any photographer specialized in this? If someone who is compelled by this image wanted to see for herself, is there a book or a particular photographer who has specialized in the night sky in…
MCCLINTOCKI don't know, per se, if anybody's done that, but it wouldn't surprise me. I do…
ROBERTSWell, maybe one of our callers will come in and give us that…
MCCLINTOCKI do know…
ROBERTS… (word?) before…
MCCLINTOCKI do know that there's a big scientific effort to look at the night sky from the Polar Plateau at the South Pole that's because…
ROBERTSBecause of that.
MCCLINTOCK…because the atmosphere is so rarified at that level. So certainly that would be the place to do it in the Antarctic winter.
ROBERTSAnd you have astronomers down there…
ROBERTS…as part of these research teams.
ROBERTSLet's turn to Julia in Baltimore, Md. Julia, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
JULIAYes. I just a have question, is the professor familiar with Dr. Jerri Neilsen and her adventure, as you would call it, at the South Pole?
MCCLINTOCKJulia, I never met her, but I did get to know a medical doctor at Palmer Station who replaced her. he was the one that was flown into the South Pole to jump out of the plane. You know they came in right in the thick of things in, I guess, it was late winter.
ROBERTSTo remind our listeners. She was the physician who was diagnosed with breast cancer, if I’m not mistaken.
MCCLINTOCKThat's correct. And it's just a wonderful story of getting in and saving her. Of course, she had to do some of her own treatment down at the South Pole. So I did hear stories, first hand, from various folks that were involved in that. And, you know, there was another rescue not too many years ago. These things happen down there. And very, very touching.
ROBERTSThanks for your call, Julia. You were talking earlier about this is one of the reasons why people are screened so carefully for both physical and emotional vulnerabilities because it is so difficult to deal with that kind of medical emergency.
MCCLINTOCKThat's absolutely true. It's very costly to get somebody out of Antarctica. Believe it or not, dental problems can be a big factor. People have to get--if you have to get flown off the ice for an emergency, it's hundreds of thousands of dollars. If something serious happens to you because it wasn't diagnosed before you went down, your life could be at risk.
ROBERTSLet's talk to Aaron in Cazenovia, N.Y. Aaron, welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
AARONThank you. And I'd like to suggest that it wouldn't violate any kind of environmental purity if in order to help the penguin population come back, if humanity were to construct a network of bridges and docks, even some barges to help those penguins get to sea.
MCCLINTOCKWell, I like your creativity. That's kind of an interesting idea. I hadn’t thought about that. It would be difficult to do that on mass because we're talking about tens of thousands of penguins perhaps, if you looked at the population as a whole up and down the western Antarctic Peninsula. But you know you have to be creative when things like this happen and that's an interesting idea.
ROBERTSWell, you know, Aaron, I don't know what your inspiration is, but when you think, for instance, about the fish ladders that have been built in western rivers, this is the kind of thing you're talking about, right, Aaron?
AARONWell, you know, I can't say I’m inspired by that particular example. I'm more inspired perhaps by the fact that today is the second day of Rosh Hashanah and we have a custom to cast bread on the waters to let our sins go by. And I live on a lake with a beautiful dock jetting into it. And with that kind of imagery, it's just a matter of those penguins being able to get past the obstacles from one place to another and we can help them.
ROBERTSThank you so much for your call, Aaron. We appreciate it. And happy new year. This is Ken in St. Louis, Mo. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Ken.
KENGood morning, gentleman. I have a question. When I was in the Navy I missed the opportunity to do a winter-over for six months in the Antarctic with the Navy. And I really regret that. So what does one do or how can one have the opportunity to either volunteer or to get a paid position to work down in the Antarctic?
MCCLINTOCKGood question, Ken. And you did miss an amazing experience. I worked with the Navy down there for many years at McMurdo and almost all the Navy personnel seemed to really enjoy their winters down there. You would have to get in touch with a contractor that has the contract with the National Science Foundation Polar Program. I believe it's Lockheed Martin right now.
ROBERTSUsed to be Raytheon, you said, but now it's Lockheed Martin?
MCCLINTOCKYeah, I believe so, but…
ROBERTSNow, have they replaced the Navy as sort of being in charge of all the infrastructure?
MCCLINTOCKWell, they were there, too. The Navy was in charge of communication and transportation, but now the contractors have moved in. But you Google NFS Polar Programs, you'll find the contractor and they will have a website where you can apply for jobs. And do go, Ken.
ROBERTSMaybe we can put that up on our website here, people who are interested in this. But you mention in the book that it's very hard, that there are like 30 applications for every possible opening.
MCCLINTOCKAbsolutely. You know, you'll be walking around the station and run into somebody. And you'll find out that they're a pre-med student or they've got a Ph.D. in nuclear physics and they're cleaning the tables in the cafeteria. People will do anything to get down and experience that Antarctic.
ROBERTSAnd you also talk about the funding mechanisms because, like you said, it's very expensive. You've mentioned the expense of simply evacuating someone in an emergency, but you talk in the book about the process of applying for these grants…
MCCLINTOCKThat's right. That's right.
ROBERTS…which finance your time down there. It's highly competitive and only a small fraction are approved. And in times of budget crisis are you worried that the funds for that kind of science is gonna be shrinking?
MCCLINTOCKI am, but at the same time Congress has reviewed the Antarctic program over the years several times with actually increases in budget allocation. So the science in Antarctica is so timely and so important, particularly now with climate change on the table, that I'm not concerned that there's going to be huge cuts in that scientific budget. I really believe that those funds will remain. That said, you know, you wanna make sure from a scientific standpoint that all the work that's being down there is important and can only be done in Antarctica because it is an investment to work there.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have an email from one of your graduate students at the University of Alabama, at Birmingham, your longtime home. And he says I'm a graduate student of Dr. McClintock's. Would you please ask him about the state of microbiology research in Antarctica? We've heard a fair amount about the larger creatures, the seals and the penguins. I would love to hear about the absolute smallest creatures."
MCCLINTOCKWell, Hugh Ducklow, who's the director of the long-term ecological research program in Antarctica, works on bacteria. I mean you can't get much smaller than that. Several million bacteria in a teaspoon of sea water. And they're studying the bacteria in various sites up and down the coastline of the Antarctic Peninsula to see how climate change may affect those bacterial communities. It's a little early. The jury's still out on the bacteria, but we do know that the phytoplankton, the little plant cells growing in the water, are being impacted.
MCCLINTOCKOn the northern part of the peninsula where it's really warming up and becoming more moist and the winds are coming up at higher speeds, the plankton are being pushed deeper. Big species are disappearing to be replaces by small species of phytoplankton that don't support the krill that are so important to the Antarctic food webs. So it's really a dynamic change that's going on in terms of those. And then of course the--now, these aren't really micro--but the krill, themselves, are disappearing along the northern part of the peninsula, as the phytoplankton populations are being diminished.
MCCLINTOCKAnd of course, krill feed fish, whales, seals, penguins. So it's a huge ecosystem shift that's taking place right now. And it goes all the way down to the smallest of organisms, up to the Blue Whales that are over 100 feet long.
ROBERTSWe have time for one or two more questions and let's go to Elijah, who's also from Birmingham. Elijah, welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
ELIJAHHi. I just had a quick, I guess, question and comment for the caller. I spent a little bit of time working there in Antarctica and I was just amazed by how many support staff there are and how many hardworking people there are just to make that science possible. So I was just kinda hoping the caller could speak to that just a little bit.
MCCLINTOCKElijah, you've hit it right on the nose. The scientists down there couldn't do anything without the tremendous support of the folks that make the operation work. 'Cause everywhere from, you know, people that are shoveling snow out from under the buildings to the doctor on station and everything in between and it's just wonderful. And you're right. You know, as a scientist I'm spoiled, but I think the investment is important to have those support people because it is such an investment in science.
MCCLINTOCKTo make sure that the science goes right and you have everything you need, you want to make sure you have the support in place. And we do. And these people that support us love what they're doing and come back again and again.
ROBERTSTime for one more question, Mary Ann in Washington. Thanks for being with us on "The Diane Rehm Show," Mary Ann.
MARY ANNHi. I just wanted to call in. My dad was in the Navy and he was actually the commanding officer for the squadron that supported McMurdo Sound in the '60s. And he made the first ever winter flight to Antarctica to rescue a sailor who had broken his back.
MCCLINTOCKThat's fantastic. I'm proud to meet you, Mary Ann. That's quite a legacy…
MCCLINTOCK…that your father was involved in that. And I can't say I was at McMurdo in the '60s. I can say that some of my colleagues that I know were. So there's probably a connection there somewhere.
ANNProbably. He was known as the Red Baron.
MCCLINTOCKThe Red Baron, okay. I'll check into that.
ROBERTSWhat was his name, Mary Ann?
ANNCommander Dan Baylish.
ROBERTSExcellent. Thanks for sharing that with us.
ROBERTSOkay. Bye, bye.
ROBERTSWe only have another minute and I'm sure there are a lot of listeners out there. We had this question earlier about what can I do. You've described from a science point of view how visible and how overwhelming in some ways the climate change is. So you got a final word on this from, you know, from your special perspective as someone who as seen this in your own life and in your own scientific exploration?
MCCLINTOCKYeah, I would just say that having been down to Antarctica as much as I have and seen it change, it's the rapidity, it's the rapid rate of change that strikes me so much, that I can go back year after year and see the ice physically gone where it was there the year before. The polar climates amplify what we see happening on our planet. And Antarctica has provided a window into what's coming to the rest of the world, the temperate and tropical areas. And so I look at it as it's the canary in the coal mine in terms of raising awareness around the world about what's happening and what we should be doing to help mitigate it.
ROBERTSAnd does it frustrate you, as a scientist, that this obvious evidence right in front of you is not more widely accepted?
MCCLINTOCKIt does. And to be honest, that's one of the reasons that I wrote "Lost Antarctica," was I felt it was important as a scientist to give back and reach out to a very broad audience and make sure that I could share the adventures and the discoveries and the sheer beauty of this continent with people in my book and compel them to read about climate change.
ROBERTSJames McClintock, that book is "Lost Antarctica: Adventures in a Disappearing Land." Thanks so much for sharing an hour of your morning with us. And I'm…
MCCLINTOCKThank you, Steve.
MCCLINTOCKI'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane while she's away on vacation. And thank you, our wonderful audience for your comments and your calls, as always.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Susan Nabors, Megan Merritt, Lisa Dunn and Rebecca Kaufman. And the engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information.
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