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Icebreaker Covered in Ice

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
Image located in Robert B. Klaverkamp's collection. Klaverkamp, an enlisted Naval Correspondent, participated in Operation Windmill. Malcolm Davis, zookeeper at the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, was also on the expedition and was assigned to the Icebreaker USS Edisto (AG-89) with the express purpose of collecting penguins, other birds, and leopard seals.

Image of an Icebreaker covered in ice. This Icebreaker could be either the USS Burton Island (AG-88) or the USS Edisto (AG-89). These ships were used for Operation Windmill (1947-1948), an expedition established by the Chief of Naval Operations to train personnel, test equipment, and reaffirm American interests in Antarctica. An expedition member can be seen in the left corner of the image.

Icebreaker with Equipment in Antarctica

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
Image located in Robert B. Klaverkamp's collection. Klaverkamp, an enlisted Naval Correspondent, participated in Operation Windmill. Malcolm Davis, zookeeper at the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, was also on the expedition and was assigned to the Icebreaker USS Edisto (AG-89) with the express purpose of collecting penguins, other birds, and leopard seals.

Aerial image of of either the USS Burton Island (AG-88) or the USS Edisto (AG-89), ships used for Operation Windmill. A helicopter and a plane can be seen on the deck of the ship. Operation Windmill (1947-1948) was an expedition established by the Chief of Naval Operations to train personnel, test equipment, and reaffirm American interests in Antarctica.

Operation Windmill Expedition Member with Penguin

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
Image located in Robert B. Klaverkamp's collection. Klaverkamp, an enlisted Naval Correspondent, participated in Operation Windmill. Malcolm Davis, zookeeper at the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, was also on the expedition and was assigned to the Icebreaker USS Edisto (AG-89) with the express purpose of collecting penguins, other birds, and leopard seals.

Image of an Operation Windmill expedition member standing near a penguin in Antarctica. Behind them is the Icebreaker USS Burton Island (AG-88), one of the two Icebreakers used during the expedition. Operation Windmill (1947-1948) was an expedition established by the Chief of Naval Operations to train personnel, test equipment, and reaffirm American interests in Antarctica.

Operation Windmill Expedition Members Playing in the Snow

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
Image located in Robert B. Klaverkamp's collection. Klaverkamp, an enlisted Naval Correspondent, participated in Operation Windmill. Malcolm Davis, zookeeper at the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, was also on the expedition and was assigned to the Icebreaker USS Edisto (AG-89) with the express purpose of collecting penguins, other birds, and leopard seals.

Image of Operation Windmill expedition members playing in the snow. Other members are standing on the ship watching the men on the ground. Operation Windmill (1947-1948) was an expedition established by the Chief of Naval Operations to train personnel, test equipment, and reaffirm American interests in Antarctica. The icebreaker in the background of the image is the USS Burton Island (AG-88), signified by the number 88 near the front of the Icebreaker. A second Icebreaker, the USS Edisto (AG-89) was also used during the expedition.

Operation Windmill Expedition Members Unloading Equipment

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
Image located in Robert B. Klaverkamp's collection. Klaverkamp, an enlisted Naval Correspondent, participated in Operation Windmill. Malcolm Davis, zookeeper at the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, was also on the expedition and was assigned to the Icebreaker USS Edisto (AG-89) with the express purpose of collecting penguins, other birds, and leopard seals.

Image expedition members from Operation Windmill in Antarctica, unloading equipment for their work. A sled can be seen on the ice and a motorized sled with tread is being placed on the ice with a crane connected to either the Icebreaker the USS Burton Island (AG-88) or the USS Edisto (AG-89). Operation Windmill (1947-1948) was an expedition established by the Chief of Naval Operations to train personnel, test equipment, and reaffirm American interests in Antarctica.

Navy Helicopter Flying Over Antarctica

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
Image located in Robert B. Klaverkamp's collection. Klaverkamp, an enlisted Naval Correspondent, participated in Operation Windmill. Malcolm Davis, zookeeper at the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, was also on the expedition and was assigned to the Icebreaker USS Edisto (AG-89) with the express purpose of collecting penguins, other birds, and leopard seals.

Image of a Navy helicopter flying over the coast of Antarctica. Under the helicopter in the water is either the USS Burton Island (AG-88) or the USS Edisto (AG-89), ships used for the Operation Windmill expedition. Operation Windmill (1947-1948) was an expedition established by the Chief of Naval Operations to train personnel, test equipment, and reaffirm American interests in Antarctica.

Breaking Ice in Antarctica during Operation Windmill

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
Image located in Robert B. Klaverkamp's collection. Klaverkamp, an enlisted Naval Correspondent, participated in Operation Windmill. Malcolm Davis, zookeeper at the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, was also on the expedition and was assigned to the Icebreaker USS Edisto (AG-89) with the express purpose of collecting penguins, other birds, and leopard seals.

Image of an Icebreaker, either the USS Burton Island (AG-88) or the USS Edisto (AG-89) moving through the ice during Operation Windmill. Operation Windmill (1947-1948), an expedition established by the Chief of Naval Operations to train personnel, test equipment, and reaffirm American interests in Antarctica.

USS Burton Island (AG 88) in Antarctica

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
Image located in Robert B. Klaverkamp's collection. Klaverkamp, an enlisted Naval Correspondent, participated in Operation Windmill. Malcolm Davis, zookeeper at the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, was also on the expedition and was assigned to the Icebreaker USS Edisto (AG-89) with the express purpose of collecting penguins, other birds, and leopard seals.

Image of the USS Burton Island (AG-88) off the coast of Antarctica. The number 88 on the ship indicates that it is the USS Burton Island. A second Icebreaker ,the USS Edisto (AG-89), was also used during the expedition. Operation Windmill (1947-1948) was an expedition established by the Chief of Naval Operations to train personnel, test equipment, and reaffirm American interests in Antarctica.

The USS Burton Island (AG-88) and The USS Edisto (AG-89) in Antarctica

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
Image located in Robert B. Klaverkamp's collection. Klaverkamp, an enlisted Naval Correspondent, participated in Operation Windmill. Malcolm Davis, zookeeper at the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, was also on the expedition and was assigned to the Icebreaker USS Edisto (AG-89) with the express purpose of collecting penguins, other birds, and leopard seals.

Image of the USS Burton Island (AG-88) to the left and the USS Edisto (AG-89) to the right breaking ice in Antarctica. A sled and skis can be seen in the ice. The two ships were used in Operation Windmill from 1947-1948. Operation Windmill was an expedition established by the Chief of Naval Operations to train personnel, test equipment, and reaffirm American interests in Antarctica.

USS Burton Island (AG-88) at the South Pole

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
Image located in Robert B. Klaverkamp's collection. Klaverkamp, an enlisted Naval Correspondent, participated in Operation Windmill. Malcolm Davis, zookeeper at the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, was also on the expedition and was assigned to the Icebreaker USS Edisto (AG-89) with the express purpose of collecting penguins, other birds, and leopard seals.

Image of the USS Burton Island (AG-88) at the South Pole. The USS Burton Island and the USS Edisto (AG-89) were the two ships used for Operation Windmill. The caption at the bottom reads: "USS Burton Island At South Pole." Operation Windmill (1947-1948) was an expedition established by the Chief of Naval Operations to train personnel, test equipment, and reaffirm American interests in Antarctica.

The USS Burton Island (AG-88) and the USS Edisto (AG-89) Breaking Ice

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
Image located in Robert B. Klaverkamp's collection. Klaverkamp, an enlisted Naval Correspondent, participated in Operation Windmill. Malcolm Davis, zookeeper at the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, was also on the expedition and was assigned to the Icebreaker USS Edisto (AG-89) with the express purpose of collecting penguins, other birds, and leopard seals.

Image of the USS Burton Island (AG-88) and the USS Edisto (AG-89) breaking ice in Antarctica, for Operation Windmill. The USS Burton Island can be seen to the left of the image with the crew standing on deck. The USS Edisto is in the bottom of the image and it is connected to the USS Burton by a rope. The caption at the bottom of the image reads: "Operation Iceikle." Operation Windmill (1947-1948) was an expedition established by the Chief of Naval Operations to train personnel, test equipment, and reaffirm American interests in Antarctica.

Cruise Ship Set to Sail the Perilous Northwest Passage

Smithsonian Magazine

It took humanity several centuries and uncounted deaths to finally cross the Northwest Passage, the legendary sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via a maze-like, mostly frozen path through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The Franklin Expedition and its 149 sailors famously disappeared in 1847. The McClure Expedition spent 3 years on their ships trapped by ice and starving. It wasn’t until 1906 that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen finally completed the route after a grueling three-year expedition. Now, 110 years later, the first full-size cruise ship has announced plans to traverse the Passage.

The Crystal Cruises ship Crystal Serenity will set out from Seward, Alaska, on August 16 carrying 1,700 passengers and crew through the icy waters to New York City during a 32-day luxury trip. According to Sophie Jamieson at The Telegraph, the ship will offer excursions to sites in Alaska, Pond Inlet and Cambridge Bay in Nunavut as well as several communities in Greenland. Visitors will be able to go whale and polar bear watching, take helicopter flights to the interior and even visit the world’s most northerly golf course.

In recent years, reduced sea ice has made the once iced-in Northwest Passage look like a viable shipping route. According to Discovery News, 220 ships, including several small “adventure” cruises had made the crossing as of 2014. That same year, a cargo ship made the first commercial crossing through the Passage. But a report from New York University published last year pours some icy water on dreams of a shipping route over the top of North America, saying the Passage is still too dangerous for commercial use and will be for several decades.

Still, the tourist ships are coming, but Nunuvut, the Northwest Territories and Greenland aren’t normal cruise destinations. Jane George of Nunatsiaq Online reports that local officials are holding meetings to figure out how to handle the influx of tourists, especially since the Crystal Serenity holds more people than the population of most towns in the area.

The government is taking precautions too. According to Discovery News, the United States Coast Guard, the Canadian Coast Guard, Transport Canada, Alaska State Emergency offices, Crystal Cruises and Alaska’s North Slope Borough will all meet next month to discuss plans in case things go awry. And there is a precedent for accidents. In 2010 the Clipper Adventurer, a tourist boat carrying about 200 passengers ran aground on a rock shoal in the Northwest Passage, leading to an evacuation by a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker.

There are also environmental concerns. The Crystal Serenity will be tailed by an oil clean-up ship just in case, and it will burn a low-sulphur oil to reduce its carbon footprint. The ship has also agreed to hold onto sewage and other waste that cruise ships normally dump into the ocean until it reaches the Atlantic.

John Sauven, director of Greenpeace UK is not impressed. He tells Jamieson at The Telegraph, “The melting of the Arctic sea ice should be a profound warning for humankind, not an invitation to oil companies and now tour ships to move in.”

Still, as long as the Crystal Serenity finds smooth sailing, the trips will continue. The company recently began booking for another trip through the passage in 2017 and announced that the world’s largest mega yacht, the Crystal Endeavor, will visit the area in 2018. That trip offers “extreme adventures by air, sea and land” and will bring with it jet skis, ATVs, seven-person submarines, eight electric zodiacs and two helicopters.

Connected Even on a Ship in the Arctic

Smithsonian Magazine

Not that long ago, going on a research cruise would have meant being out of contact with the world for weeks, maybe months, at a time. Today, though, satellite connections mean that you can easily keep up with the world—and the world can keep up with you—even on a remote ship in the Arctic.

The icebreaker Healy is ferrying 42 scientists this spring through the Bering Sea, where they’re conducting studies of sea ice, phytoplankton and seabirds, among other things. The ship also carries a photographer, Chris Linder, and a writer, Helen Fields (she wrote about dinosaur tissue for Smithsonian in 2006 and snakeheads in 2005). Chris and Helen are onboard to document what happens on the ship, and they publish Today on the Ice daily. Helen is one of a few people Twittering from the ship, and I’ve also been following her on Facebook, her blog Hey Helen and Scientific American’s 60-Second-Science. And when I emailed her last week, she was kind enough to answer some questions.

Why did you decide to take this assignment?

Seriously? There may have been jumping up and down and shrieking when I found out I got this assignment. I thought it would be fascinating to spend six weeks on an icebreaker on the Bering Sea, and I was right. I did worry that I wasn’t quite tough enough, but this has to be one of the cushiest ways to experience the frozen north. There’s a galley turning out four square meals a day, for goodness’ sake. And I’m convinced I have the coolest job on the ship – I spend the whole cruise going around asking people what they’re doing. I’m learning a little bit about everything, from the ship’s potable water system to how scientists figure out what krill like to eat.

Since you mentioned your four square meals, what is the food like?

It’s fine. It’s cafeteria food. I think they do a very good job of feeding 42 hungry scientists and 80 hungry Coast Guard crew members every day. It would be easy to put on a lot of weight on this cruise, with easy access to french fries, onion rings, and pie. I try not to eat pie every day. And I have a new rule: I can eat dessert if I eat something from the salad bar, too. I have been accused of putting carrots next to my dessert so the carrots can soak up the calories from the dessert, then throwing the carrots away, but there is no truth to this rumor. I eat the carrots, too.

What did you find most surprising when you first got on board the ship?

My stateroom is so much nicer than I expected. I can sit up in my bunk and there’s even carpet on the floor.

What has surprised you since?

Pretty much everything. The crew in the galley yells “brown tray” if you use one of the brown trays. (Don’t use one of the brown trays.) A Laysan albatross and a bald eagle have about the same wingspan. The ramp they put out so we can walk down to the ice is really freaking steep. The perfect instrument for moving krill is a Chinese soup spoon. Breaking ice slows the ship way down and is an inefficient use of engine power, so a lot of what you do when you drive an icebreaker is find ways to avoid breaking ice.

How do you spend your days?

I really like to nap. Oh, and work! Work. I’m working with Chris Linder, a fabulous photographer who has a grant to do a series of expeditions like this one, where he takes a writer and they report on a polar research project. Usually sometime in the morning we meet up, chat about what’s going on around the ship, and decide what story we want to do that day. Then we go report the story. He takes pictures and I take notes. After dinner we pick the eight pictures that will be on the web site the next day, then I write an introduction and eight captions. We have some ideas stockpiled – one of these days we’re going to do a story about how the ship moves, from the steering on the bridge to the propeller shafts and rudders in the back of the ship. I do take a lot of naps – being on the ship is sort of exhausting – but I also hate to miss anything, because I only have these six weeks to have this amazing experience. I could watch sea ice all day.

What kinds of animals have you seen?

Ooh! Today I saw my first ever albatross! It was a Laysan albatross. Two of them hung around the ship for a while. I was also excited to see snow buntings and McKay’s buntings in recent days, and to learn to tell a glaucous gull and a glaucous-winged gull apart. I’ve seen a ton of bearded seals and spotted seals, many with their babies. They give birth on sea ice, and some of the pups are so new you can see blood on the ice – once I even saw two gulls snacking on the afterbirth. I know, ew. On the fourth day of the cruise we passed a ginormous conglomeration of walruses – hundreds and hundreds. The bird surveyors on board, who also keep track of mammals, said they hadn’t seen a group like that in years. We’ve seen other walruses since then, but never more than a few at a time.

How do the scientists spend their days?

They work. Then they work, then they work some more. These people have just these 40-odd days to collect a ton of data, and they’re willing to sacrifice sleep to do it. Some also find time to do things like watch movies and knit. (I’m not the only knitter on board!!)

Day 5, April 6: Bongo nets being deployed off the back of the ship to collect krill. (Credit Chris Linder, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

What kinds of science projects are taking place?

Oh golly. Well, the work on board is all part of a big project to understand the Bering Sea ecosystem and how climate change could affect it – for example, if sea ice retreats earlier each year, or disappears entirely. It’s a huge project, incorporating everything from algae to birds and walruses and the people who live in and around the Bering Sea. This cruise is looking mostly at water, algae, and zooplankton. So, the smaller end of the ecosystem. As we go along, we stop at certain set sampling stations that are being used by many scientists over many years. At some stations, the scientists just make observations, like how much chlorophyll is in the water, and what kind of zooplankton, and how salty the water is. At others, a whole bunch of teams start experiments at the same time – for example, to see what krill eat and how fast they eat it, or how fast phytoplankton can suck up carbon at different light levels. Eventually the astounding quantities of data coming out of this cruise will be turned into computer models that will help scientists understand how the Bering Sea ecosystem works – and how it responds to climate change.

You may be connected electronically, but you’re still far from home. What do you miss the most?

My family and friends. It’s pathetic how happy I am when someone e-mails me with news from home. Also, crackers. There are Ritz crackers and saltines on board, but they all taste a little like plastic.

Have you discovered any shipboard romances or feuds?

I haven’t! I probably just haven’t found the right sources of gossip. I heard before I came out that these cruises can be kind of tense, with everyone worried about getting their data or someone getting mad that the other guy got to do his sampling when something else was cancelled, but these scientists all seem to get along really well. There’s a lot of laughter. And occasional profanity-filled tirades, but directed at equipment or ice, not people.

What’s the weather like right now?

Crazy warm. It was 39 degrees the last time I looked, and a few days ago we were getting excited about the temperature getting all the way up to 22. This evening I went out to watch some scientists put their sediment traps in the water and, with the sun shining and the wind blocked by the ship, it was uncomfortably warm for a little while there. (Then the wind found us and my ears got cold.)

Arctic Shipping: Good For Invasive Species, Bad For the Rest of Nature

Smithsonian Magazine

On September 27, 2013, the Nordic Orion, a commercial bulk carrier owned by the Copenhagen-based shipping company Nordic Bulk Carriers, became the first bulk carrier to cross the Northwest Passage—a route that connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans above Canada—arriving off the coast of Greenland after departing from Vancouver, B.C. ten days earlier. The ship was loaded with British Columbian coal, and was able to haul 25 percent more than it could have carried if it had been forced to take the Panama Canal, where ships have to sail higher in the water and carry less. The route, which snaked through Canada's Arctic waters, saved the shipping company nearly four days and $200,000 by the time the ship reached its final destination in the Finnish port of Pori. This shortcut wouldn't have been possible decades ago, but because of a reduction in Arctic sea-ice coverage in recent years, ships are now able to navigate more northerly passages, both through Canada's icy waters, and in Russia and Norway's northern seas. But cargo isn't the only thing that they're transporting: some marine biologists worry that ships carting cargo through the Arctic's newly opened waterways are introducing invasive species to the area—and bringing invasive species to some of America's most important ports.

Why is Arctic shipping suddenly a big deal?

For centuries, explorers have been searching for a Northwest Passage—a route connecting the Pacific and the Atlantic; the search for the Northwest Passage was the entire basis for Lewis and Clark's famed expedition. And they weren't the first, or the last, to go looking for it. As it turns out, these expeditions were just a bit early: rising global temperatures have caused Arctic waters to warm, decreasing the amount of ice cover. In the past 30 years, the Arctic has warmed more than any other region on Earth. Over that same 30-year period, according to satellite images, Arctic ice cover has declined by 30 percent in September, the month that marks the end of the summer melt season. Arctic ice loss is a problem for global warming, because it creates a kind of warming feedback loop—less ice means more dark water exposed, which means more sunlight absorbed by the water, which in turn leads to more warming.

What Arctic melting isn't bad news for, however, is the shipping industry, where 90 percent of all goods are moved via carriers. Until recently, ships that wanted to travel between oceans had two primary paths—the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal, both located in warm, tropical latitudes. As warming Arctic waters open up a northern route for shipping, the routes turn out to be more appealing for a few reasons. First, they're shorter, shaving valuable days off of traditional shipping routes. This means faster turn around for ships, and less fuel, all of which translate into big savings for the industry. Container ships that go through Arctic waters also aren't subject to cargo limits imposed for certain routes, like the Panama canal. Finally, ships passing through the isolated Arctic don't need to worry as much about piracy, adding a level of economic security.

An increasing number of ships have been using this new northern network of shipping passages in the past years. In 2013, 71 ships transited the Northern Sea Route, a route that crosses the Arctic Sea along Russia's northern coast. In 2012, the year of the lowest recorded Arctic sea ice coverage, 46 ships made the same crossing. In 2011, that number was 34. Contrast that to 2010, when just four ships made the journey. Nearly 19,000 ships cross the Suez Canal each year. So the number of ships crossing through Arctic waters is likely going to increase: a 2013 study published in PNAS argued that due to global warming and Arctic ice loss, by 2050 even ships not equipped with ice-breaking hulls will be able to navigate Arctic shipping routes.

So are people just using the Arctic for shipping?

Shipping routes through the Arctic are appealing to shipping companies, but that's not the only reason the Arctic might see more traffic in the coming years: melting sea ice has revealed natural resources ready to be exploited for profit.

"A lot of those [natural resources] are submarine, and as the surface ice dissipates, ships can get in there and explore and drill," explains Whitman Miller, a research scientist and assistant director of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center's Marine Invasions Research Lab, who along with his collegue Gregory Ruiz wrote a commentary about invasive species and the Arctic published in Nature Climate Change. "There’s also mining. Greenland, for example, as its ice is melting, is opening up some of the land for mining of rare earth metals, which are really important for a lot of consumer electronics." So, as Arctic ice melts, there will be two types of traffic plying these waters: a kind that uses the Arctic as a thoroughfare between Pacific and Atlantic ports, and a kind that uses the Arctic as a destination for obtaining natural resources. "All of these things mean invasive species—organisms are going to be moving with these ships," warns Miller.

Why will Arctic shipping increase the threat of invasive species? Aren't they transported via traditional shipping routes, too?

Yes, shipping containers and bulk carriers do currently contribute to the spread of invasive species—it's something that has been irking marine biologists for a long time. Bulk carriers (and ships generally) have things called ballast tanks, which are compartments that hold water, in order to weigh a ship down and lower its center of gravity, providing stability. Ships take in water from one location and discharge it in another, contributing to concerns about invasive species. The zebra mussel, an invasive species that has colonized the Great Lakes and caused billions of dollars of economic damage, is believed to have been introduced from the ballast tank of ships coming from Western European ports. Shipping is already the primary way that invasive marine species become introduced—contributing to 69 percent of species introductions to marine areas.

But Miller and Ruiz worry that Arctic shipping—both through the Arctic and from the Arctic—could make this statistic even worse. 

A cargo ship releases ballast water from its hull into the ocean. Microscopic organisms often thrive in ballast water, and when ships release the water in new ports, the new species can start an invasion. (Smithsonian Environmental Research Center)

"What’s happening now is that ships move between oceans by going through Panama or Suez, but that means ships from higher latitudes have to divert south into tropical and subtropical waters, so if you are a cold water species, you’re not likely to do well in those warm waters," Miller explains. "That could currently be working as a filter, minimizing the high latitude species that are moving from one ocean to another."

Moreover, the Panama Canal is a freshwater canal, so organisms clinging to the hulls of ships passing through have to undergo osmotic shock as saltwater becomes freshwater and back again. A lot of organisms, Miller explains, can't survive that.

These new cold water routes don't have the advantage of temperature or salinity filters the way traditional shipping routes do. That means that species adapted to live in cold waters in the Arctic could potentially survive in the cool waters in northern port cities in New York and New Jersey, which facilitated the maritime transport of nearly $250 billion worth of goods in 2008. And because routes through the Arctic are much shorter than traditional shipping routes, invasive animals like crabs, barnacles and mussels are more likely to survive the short transit distance riding along inside the ballast tanks and clinging to the hulls.

Ok, but the Arctic is pretty far from where I live. Why does this matter?

Invasive species are always cause for apprehension—a Pandora's Box, because no one really knows how they'll impact a particular ecosystem until it's too late. In an interview with Scientific American in March of 2013, climate scientist Jessica Hellmann, of the University of Notre Dame, put it this way: "Invasive species are one of those things that once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s hard to put her back in." There aren't many invasive species from the Arctic that are known, but one that is, the red king crab, has already wreaked havoc on Norway's waters; a ferocious predator, the red king crab hasn't had much trouble asserting near total dominance over species unfamiliar with it. "You never know when the next red king crab is going to be in your ballast tank," Miller warns.

Invasive species pose two dangers, one ecological, the other economic. From an ecological standpoint, invasive species threaten to disrupt systems that have evolved and adapted to live together over millions of years. "You could have a real breakdown in terms of [the ecosystems] structure and their function, and in some cases, the diversity and abundance of native species," Miller explains.

But invasive species do more than threaten the ecology of the Arctic—they can threaten the global economy. Many invasive species, like mussels, can damage infrastructure, such as cooling and water pipes. Seaports are vital to both the United States and the global economy—ports in the Western hemisphere handle 7.8 billion tons of cargo each year and generate nearly $8.6 trillion of total economic activity, according to the American Association of Port Authorities. If an invasive species is allowed to gain a foothold in a port, it could completely disrupt the economic output of that port. The green crab, an invasive species from Europe, for example, has been introduced to New England coasts and feasts on native oysters and crabs, accounting for nearly $44 million a year in economic losses. If invasive species are able to disrupt the infrastructure of an American port—from pipes to boats—it could mean damages for the American economy. In recent years, due to fracking technology, the United States has gone from being an importer of fuel to an exporter, which means that American ports will be hosting more foreign ships in the coming years—and that means more potential for invasive species to be dispersed.

Invasive species brought into the Arctic could also disrupt ecosystems, especially because the Arctic has had low exposure to invasions until now. Potential invasive species could threaten the Arctic's growing economic infrastructure as well, damaging equipment set up to look for natural gas and other natural resources in the newly-exposed Arctic waters.

As Arctic sea ice melts, new sea routes are connecting the Atlantic and the Northern Pacific Oceans for the first time in two million years. (Patrick Kelley/U.S. Coast Guard)

Is there anything that can be done to minimize these risks?

Obviously one big picture way to stop the spread of invasive species in and around the Arctic is to slow the rate at which the Arctic ice is melting—that means slowing, and decreasing, the rate at which we emit common air pollutants like soot and smog, as well as seriously curbing our carbon emissions over the long-haul.

Realistically, implementing these measures will take serious political and individual action—and in the short term, as long as Arctic ice is melting and allowing ships to pass through, shipping companies will look to those Arctic routes as a way of saving time and money. That means that steps need to be taken more immediately to minimize the possibility of invasive species spreading to and from the Arctic. 

One step, Miller explains, could be a wider-implementation of open water ballast exchange, which has been mandatory in the United States for the past ten years. Open water ballast exchange is when a ship replaces ballast water from coastal areas with water from the open ocean. Invasive species tend to be exchanged between one coastal water region and another (such as ports), but they are not likely to survive in deep water ecosystems. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is also looking into creating standards for the total amount of organisms a ship can discharge in its ballast water, sort of like current standards with smokestacks and pollution—if a ship's ballast water exceeds whatever limit is imposed, they must treat that water before releasing it. Currently, no standards or onboard treating systems exist, but it's an attractive option because it would create global standards for ballast water treatment.

Hulls are a more complex problem, Miller explains, but proper hull maintenance could help minimize the threat of things like barnacles or mussels making it to foreign ports. Hull husbandry is also important economically for ships, because it lessens drag through the water, leading to greater fuel efficiency.

As long as the Arctic continues to grow—via shipping, infrastructure and even tourism—Miller and Ruiz argue that it's in the world's best interest to give serious thought to limiting the spread of invasive species. "I think, probably more important than trying to pinpoint individual species, is the notion that there’s going to be such a mixing of the biota in a way that’s never occurred before," Miller notes. "That’s something that we need to give thought to."

Model, Static, Aerospatiale/Eurocopter HH-65A Dolphin, U.S. Coast Guard

National Air and Space Museum
1/32 scale; painted wood model in orange and white scheme; no undercarriage; black painted wood stand

Label 1:

Eurocopter HH-65A Dolphin

1/32 Scale

Since 1984, the HH-65 has been the primary short-range search and rescue helicopter for the U.S. Coast Guard. It also supports law enforcement, drug interdiction, and ice-breaking missions. The type originated in France as the Aérospatiale (now EADS) SA.360, which first flew in 1972.

Gift of EADS, Inc.

Label 2:

Eurocopter HH-65A Dolphin (SA.366G Dauphin)

Since 1984, the HH-65 has been the primary short-range search and rescue helicopter for U.S. Coast Guard. The Dolphin also supports law enforcement, drug interdiction, and ice-breaking missions. The type originated in France as the Aérospatiale (now EADS) SA.360 and first flew in 1972. The current SA.366G-2 model features twin engines for safety, emergency pop-out floats, and a winch capable of lifting 272 kg (600 lb). Its avionics package allows the pilot to shoot an approach to a 50-foot hover in zero visibility without touching the controls and features radar that can see out to 193 kilometers (120 miles). The innovative fenestron tail-fan helps to reduce noise levels and is much safer than a conventional tail rotor during operations aboard ship.

Including four trials aircraft, the Coast Guard has accepted 100 HH-65s, which have performed nearly 60,000 search and rescue missions. The Coast Guard originally adopted the high-visibility red color scheme for use in the Arctic, but has now retained it on all Dolphins.

Rotor Diameter: 11.94 m (39 ft 2 in)

Length: 11.63 m (38 ft 2 in)

Height: 3.99 m (13 ft 1 in)

Weight, empty: 2763 kg (6,092 lb)

Weight, gross: 4,037 kg (8,900 lb)

Engine: 2 x Honeywell LTS-101-750B-2 turbines, 680 shp each

Crew: 4 - Pilot, Copilot, Crew Chief, Rescue Swimmer

Manufacturer: Aérospatiale, 1985

A Maze of Palatial Icebergs Has Floated Into a Washington, D.C. Museum

Smithsonian Magazine

In the past few decades, icebergs have become a kind of potent visual metaphor for the threats posed by climate change. The ice dwindles while world leaders debate what should be done.

To the curious general public, however, how climate change affects icebergs and what that means can seem abstract. That's why the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. will offer a chance to visit an iceberg this summer. Fortunately, a harrowing helicopter ride isn't needed.

"Icebergs," an installation designed by the New York-based landscape architecture and urban design firm James Corner Field Operations, is an artistic interpretation of the underwater world of a glacial ice field. From July 2 through September 5, visitors will be able to explore underwater caves and grottos, and climb up a 56-foot-tall "bergy bit" to peer above the waterline—created by a suspended blue mesh bisecting the installation.

"What we are trying to do is create a very unique experience for the museum visitors, where they are able to immerse themselves in a landscape," says Isabel Castilla, a senior associate with James Corner and the project manager for "Icebergs."

The installation is intended to be a fun, family-oriented space to explore, with a mix of open spaces for gatherings of large groups of people and enclosures where a couple of people can chat more intimately. There will be a kiosk selling refreshments, a labyrinth for children to play and a slide providing a quick ride down from one of the icebergs. It is also a space for learning about the science surrounding icebergs. Ideally, the artificial icebergs will help visitors grasp what is happening to real icebergs at the planet's poles.

The firm studied photographs and research papers to understand icebergs. "We really got very involved in the iceberg world," Castilla says. "It is not something you know as much about as say, a forest ecosystem or a river." That deep delve into an icy world of glaciers gave Castilla and her colleagues a wealth of "ideas about design, color and light." They ended up choosing to work with materials they had never worked with before. The towering, pyramidal icebergs they created are built of reusable materials, such as polycarbonate paneling, a type of corrugated plastic often used in greenhouse construction.

Ironically, the National Building Museum's construction team recommended adding better ventilation to the largest icebergs, since they were so good at trapping heat inside, museum vice president of marketing Brett Rodgers says. These bergs won't melt, but visitors might've.

This map of depths in the southern Atlantic and Southern Ocean near the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia Island shows tracks for two icebergs in red. (From Journal of Glaciology, Scambos, T et al, 2008)

Another part of the installation features facts about icebergs printed on the bergs themselves. "[An] iceberg known as B15 was the largest iceberg in history, measuring 23 by 183 miles, nearly the size of Connecticut," details one of the factoids. "If melted, the B15 iceberg could fill Lake Michigan, or 133.7 million National Building Museums."

Scientists are still learning about the factors at play in and around icebergs. Researchers like Ted Scambos take extraordinary risks to study the masses and examine what their role is in the Earth's complicated ecosystem. In 2006, Scambos, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colorado, and his team sailed on the icebreaker ship A.R.A. Almirante Irizar to take them close to an iceberg measuring roughly seven by six miles and towering more than 100 feet above the sea surface. There, they climbed aboard a military-style helicopter. Their goal was to set foot on the iceberg, place a group of scientific instruments and then remotely track the berg's movement as it floated north to disintegrate.

But on March 4, 2006, "the light over the huge, very smooth berg was almost hopelessly flat—no features at all, like flying over an infinite bowl of milk," wrote Scambos in a research log for the mission at NSIDC's website.

How could the pilot land the team in those conditions? Throwing a small smoke bomb to the surface provided a point of reference, but it wasn't enough. During the first approach, the pilot couldn't quite judge the helicopter’s angle and one of the landing skids struck the iceberg's surface. "The massive helicopter staggered like a lumbering beast that had tripped," Scambos recalls. Fortunately, the pilot was able to recover, throw another smoke bomb and land safely.

Scambos and his team's measurements would provide them with information about how icebergs move and melt, a proxy for how the great Antarctic ice sheet may melt as the climate changes and global temperatures warm. For the scientists, the risk was well worth the opportunity to contribute to the collective knowledge about how ocean levels may rise and endanger coastal cities.

Scambos has seen how a melting iceberg leaves a trail of freshwater in its wake. As the ice sheet that gave birth to the berg moved over the Antarctic continent, it picked up dirt and dust rich in minerals like iron. When the traveling iceberg carries those nutrients out into the ocean, they nourish the water and provoke a bloom of marine algae. The algae in turn are gobbled by microscopic animals and small fish, which feed larger animals such as seals and whales. An iceberg creates its own ecosystem.

"They are really interesting in their own right," Scambos says. "It is an interaction between ocean and ice." He says he's glad that the installation will give the public a way to learn about icebergs.

For example, physical forces can act on icebergs in surprising ways. Scambos and the team described some of these movements after tracking the iceberg they nearly crash-landed on and other icebergs. The data they gathered allowed them to describe the dance of those huge but fragile plates of ice across the ocean in a paper published in the Journal of Glaciology.

Icebergs are steered by currents and wind, but a major influence on their movements that came as surprise to the scientists was the push and pull of the tides. The ebb and flow of the Earth's tides actually tilts the ocean surface into a gentle slope—a difference of just a few feet over 600 miles or so. An iceberg drifting out to sea inscribes curlicues and pirouettes on this inclined surface.

Some of the counterintuitive tracks that icebergs take has to do with their shape. Even though Antarctic icebergs are sometimes hundreds of feet thick, their wide expanse makes them thin in comparison to their volume. Scambos likens them to a thin leaf that drifts across the surface of the ocean.

(In Greenland and other locations in the Arctic, icebergs tend to be smaller chunks, as they break off from glaciers that aren't as large as the Antarctic ice sheet. In "Icebergs," the mountain-like constructions are inspired by Arctic, rather than Antarctic, bergs.)

Image by Courtesy Ted Scambos and Robert Bauer, National Snow and Ice Data Center. Researchers and crew load up the helicopter used to take Ted Scambos and the team to an iceberg in Antarctica. (original image)

Image by Courtesy Ted Scambos and Robert Bauer, National Snow and Ice Data Center. The team leaves the icebreaker ship behind and sets out over the iceberg. (original image)

Image by Courtesy Ted Scambos and Robert Bauer, National Snow and Ice Data Center. A view from the helicopter window of the edge of an iceberg. (original image)

Image by Courtesy Ted Scambos and Robert Bauer, National Snow and Ice Data Center. Scambos (foreground) and the team set up scientific instruments and cameras on top an iceberg. Thanks to the timing of the good weather window, they had to spend the night on the iceberg. (original image)

Image by Courtesy Ted Scambos and Robert Bauer, National Snow and Ice Data Center. The sunset on an iceberg, with a sled carrying RADAR equipment in the foreground. (original image)

Image by Courtesy Ted Scambos and Robert Bauer, National Snow and Ice Data Center. Another view of the edge of a large iceberg (original image)

Eventually, every iceberg's dance stops. Warm air flowing across the surface of the iceberg gives rise to ponds of meltwater that trickle down into ice cracks created by stresses when the berg was part of the larger ice sheet. The weight of liquid water forces the cracks apart and leads to the rapid disintegration of the iceberg.

The instrument station on the first iceberg toppled over into slush and meltwater in early November 2006, about eight months after Scambos and the team installed it. On November 21, GPS data showed the station "teetering on the edge of the crumbling iceberg," according to the NSIDC. Then it fell into the sea.

Watching the breakup of the icebergs taught Scambos and the other researchers about how ice shelves could collapse. "Within a year or so, we can see the equivalent of decades of evolution in a plate of ice that stays next to Antarctica and all the processes that are likely to occur," Scambos says.

As the ice shelf slides off the coast of Antarctica—a natural process that happens sort of like a tube of toothpaste being squeezed, but instead of a giant hand at work, the sheet moves thanks to its own weight—the ice braces against the rocky islands it encounters. When icebergs move and melt away, the movement of the glaciers that feed the ice shelf can accelerate and squeeze out more ice into the ocean to melt.

Scientists have estimated that an iceberg's lifetime from when snow first falls on a glacial field and is compressed to ice to when that ice melts into ocean can take as long as 3,000 years. Global climate change could speed that timeline up, ultimately sending more water into the oceans than is able to fall again as snow.

That's heavy information to absorb at a fun summer exhibit like "Icebergs," but the designers hope that the theme will seem natural . "We were designing the exhibit with the mission to speak to the general public about the built environment and the science," Castilla says. The icebergs are intended to be beautiful and simple, while still showcasing how the materials and shapes come together to create a useable space. In the same way, the science behind icebergs and climate change should emerge through the exhibit's educational facts and lectures on the subject of climate change.

After all, climate change is increasingly a part of everyday life. "It's less news and more something we are always aware of," says Castilla.

Day 2: Arriving at the Spectacular Antarctic

Smithsonian Magazine

Jan.19, 2010, McMurdo Station, Antarctica

At 8:30 a.m. we board a large Air Force C-17 cargo plane with about 60 other people bound for the Antarctic and find ourselves in a cavernous aircraft designed for utility rather than creature comfort. Much of the space in the plane is given over to a mountain of equipment and gear with the passengers fitting around it. We take off promptly at 9 a.m. for the five-hour flight and we are hopeful of landing at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. There’s always a chance of a “boomerang” flight, where we are forced to return to New Zealand because of poor visibility at McMurdo, but for now we are optimistic.

The Smithsonian and the Antarctic have a surprisingly intertwined history. The first confirmed sightings of the planet’s fifth-largest continent didn’t occur until 1820. In 1828, Congress voted to authorize the United States Exploring Expedition, conducted by the U.S. Navy under the command of then-Lt. Charles Wilkes. From 1838 to 1842, the “Wilkes Expedition” undertook the mapping of uncharted waters and territories of interest to the United States and collected natural specimens. The route of the expedition would take it to the Antarctic where it would attempt to map the outline of the land mass. The expedition was successful and was the first to show that Antarctica is a continent. The Wilkes Expedition played a major role in development of 19th-century science, particularly in the growth of the U.S. scientific establishment. Many of the species and other items found by the expedition helped form the basis of collections at the brand-new Smithsonian Institution in 1846. A staggering number of specimens were collected during the expedition, including more than 60,000 plants, birds and sea creatures. Scientists still use these collections and now are able to explore new dimensions of them using DNA technology. This past fall, a visiting scientist at the Smithsonian identified a new species of king crab from the collection, a finding that speaks to the value of collections, and of holding them. Since the Wilkes Expedition, the Smithsonian has supported and benefitted from many more Antarctic expeditions, such as the 1947-48 expedition of Finne Ronne supported by Secretary Alexander Wetmore.

Fast forward to the 21st century and the Smithsonian continues to have a presence in the Antarctic. Our astronomers are involved in the astrophysical work that takes place at the South Pole Telescope, and the Antarctic Submillimeter Telescope and Remote Observatory was operated by the Smithsonian for some 15 years. The National Museum of Natural History houses the U.S. Antarctic Program Invertebrate Collections, which currently number 19 million specimens. Natural History is also home to the U.S. Antarctic Meteorite Program with a collection of more than 12,000 meteorite specimens from the Antarctic. We also manage the U.S. Antarctic Diving Program from the Office of the Under Secretary of Science in collaboration with the National Science Foundation. (I was offered a chance to dive under the ice on this trip, but I declined since I would have had to shave my beard. It’s been with me since 1977 and I’m rather attached to it.)

In addition to the science of the Antarctic, the Smithsonian is engaged in the work of renegotiating the historic Antarctic Treaty. As noted earlier, this important international effort, which involves both scientists and diplomats, began with a symposium at the Smithsonian last fall.

Image by Smithsonian Institution. Preparing to depart from New Zealand is, from left, Tom Peterson, National Science Foundation, Steve Koonin, Department of Energy, Kristina Johnson, DOE, G. Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Ardent Bement, NSF and Karl Erb, NSF. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. Four emperor penguins standing together near the ice roads in Antarctica. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. Clough enjoying the birds-eye view from the C-17 cockpit. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. An ice breaker opens a channel for the annual supply ship. (original image)

Our flight to McMurdo turns out to be without problem. In fact, the weather is clear and sunny on arrival and the views are spectacular. General Gary North, the commander of the Pacific theater for the Air Force, is on our flight and he graciously invites me to sit in the cockpit with the pilots during the approach to landing at Pegasus airport, which serves McMurdo Station and Scott Station, the New Zealand Antarctic base. The pilot notes that a sunny day here is unusual and that this is one of the most beautiful he has seen. Below lies the jigsaw puzzle of broken sea ice and glistening icebergs sailing in splendid isolation in the dark waters of McMurdo Sound. The horizon is everywhere—a white landscape rising to majestic mountain ridges. In the distance is Mount Erebus, an active volcano whose 12,000-foot peak is set off with drifting plumes of smoke rising from the molten magma that lies inside the crater. As we approach Pegasus airport we see an icebreaker working below to clear a pathway through the sea ice that blocks the way to the port. This activity is critical since the once-a-year arrival of the supply ship is only a few days away.

The C-17 smoothly loses elevation as we target the Pegasus runway—a cleared area on the continental ice sheet near McMurdo Station. A large party meets the plane to remove the supplies and greet us, while another group of warmly clad passengers awaits to board the plane for the return flight to Christchurch. The air is crisp, the sun is bright and the temperature is about 30 F. On our ride from the airport to McMurdo Station we see four Emperor Penguins standing together near the ice road as if they are waiting for someone to drop by and pick them up. As we approach them for a better look we are told that when they are molting, the penguins often just stop and wait for the process to occur.

We arrive at McMurdo Station, having passed Scott Station on our way, at about 3 p.m. Our accommodations are not opulent by any means, but are welcome. From our location we can see the peak of Observation Point where lookouts were placed to watch for the return of Robert Scott and his four-man team from their race to the South Pole in 1912. Scott and his team never did return, but perished from a combination of exhaustion, hunger and extreme cold.

McMurdo Station itself, now home to some 250 people and supporting many more at the South Pole and Palmer Station and in other areas of the Antarctic, is not designed to esthetically impress, but rather to make the work of the science teams successful. There is urgency to this effort since the time for research is short given the onset of winter.

Dinner is taken at the commissary with the many and varied constituencies who work at the station. Later an elegant reception is held for the new arrivals. NSF is kind enough to recognize the Smithsonian with a beautiful medal showing Antarctica on one side and an inscription on the other: “The Antarctic is the only continent where science serves as the principal expression of national policy and interest,” a quote issued by the White House in 1970.

As I leave the reception and begin the walk to our residence, I am reminded I am in the Antarctic, not only by the stunning setting, but also by the sun, which at 9 p.m. is still high in the sky and will not set at all tonight. Tomorrow we will don our full cold gear for an early flight to the South Pole where it is estimated the temperature will be around 30 below. We have a full round of activities slated for us and will only arrive back in McMurdo at 8 p.m., unless we are detained by weather—always a threat in this dynamic climate. I look forward to another memorable day.

Day 4: Touring By Helicopter

Smithsonian Magazine

You won’t find many roads in Antarctica and those you do find don’t go far. If you need to get someplace on land, you’ll be going by air and if where you’re going doesn’t have a runway, you’ll need a helicopter. McMurdo Station keeps a fleet of helicopters operating almost full time during the summer months. They are particularly useful here because scientists are the kind of folks who want to go places that are hard to get to and where hardly anyone else would want to go, such as the Dry Valleys of Antarctica or far out on the ice. The scientists typically set up a camp at remote sites consisting of a few tents and sometimes a lab module—a small prefabricated structure that can be flown in by helicopter—if you can prove you warrant one.

Helicopters deliver the scientific teams to their sites and provide them with supplies that will last for the period of the work, often weeks or a month or two. Field work of necessity is intense, focused on an all-out effort to get as much done as possible in the short summer, record the data and take specimens for subsequent analysis in the more substantial labs found at McMurdo. It takes a special kind of person to make this kind of effort given that the “pay” for the work is essentially only the excitement of discovery.

Today we have the opportunity to visit field sites in one of the McMurdo helicopters, and we have another beautiful day for this trip. There is hardly a cloud in the sky and the temperatures hover around freezing, positively balmy for this clime. You can see forever in these conditions and the view never fails to inspire awe.

At 8 a.m., we arrive at the heliport where helicopters are already taking off for different locations. We are briefed on helicopter safety and given a helmet with a cord to plug into the helicopter’s voice system. We are weighed with all of our gear to make sure our cumulative weight will not create an overload. Fortunately, we pass the test and we board our helicopter. Because there are only five of us (not including the pilot and co-pilot)—Kristina Johnson, Steve Koonin, Tom Peterson, me and Dr. Alex Isern, an National Science Foundation employee program officer in the office of polar programs—we all get window views. Alex proves be adept in helping us understand the ways of the helicopter as well as being knowledgeable about all of the science we will see.

This morning our trip will focus on the famous Dry Valleys of the Antarctic, the driest places on earth. The only other places comparable to them are thought to exist on other planets, such as Mars. The Dry Valleys of Antarctica receive only the barest precipitation, and as best as can be determined, have seen no measurable precipitation for more than 2 million years. That’s a right pert dry spell by anybody’s calculation.

That is not to say that there is no water or moisture in the Dry Valleys because they do have massive valley floor glaciers as well as alpine glaciers that spill down the valley walls attempting to reach the valley floor. The valley glaciers move at a “glacial pace” of truly epic slowness toward the sea, not by virtue of snowfall in the valleys themselves, but because of small annual snowfalls up in the mountain peaks that are the glaciers’ source.

The “hanging glaciers” on the valley walls more often than not cannot ever reach the floor of the valley because the annual snow falls in the mountains that drive them are so small the glacial front reaches an equilibrium point where its ice front sublimates, or passes from solid directly to water vapor, as fast as the front tries to advance. Still, on a few rare warm summer days some of the ice of the valley glaciers and hanging glaciers does melt. Scientists call this melting a “pulse” because it occurs infrequently and for a short period of time. The pulse water flows into lakes that form in the valleys between the fronts of the valley glaciers. The flow into the lakes is so small and so much of the water evaporates during the summer that it gradually creates a salt lake, much like those you would find in a desert area.

As scientists learn more about these lakes they have found that the salinity is stratified with some depths more saline than others. The lakes range in depth from 25 to 40 feet, and are of great interest not only to biologists but also those who expect to find such features on the dry surfaces of planets that do not have as rich an atmosphere as the earth. NASA has even sent a submersible to these lakes to explore them at depth because it is believed if there are extraterrestrial lakes they might look just like those found in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica. Our helicopter lifts off around 9 a.m. and we take a flight path to the northwest across the sea ice of McMurdo Sound with sweeping views of Mount Erebus to the east and the snow-covered mountain ranges that contain the Dry Valleys. As if to emphasize that we are in the Antarctic, a group of large surprisingly rectilinear icebergs lounge at the boundary of sea and sea ice.

Our first stop takes us up Taylor Valley to Lake Hoare where a research team working with Diana Wall of Colorado State University is studying interactions between climate and other global changes on the abundance, diversity and distribution of soil biota. Looming like a massive white curtain wall across the east side of the valley floor is the 50-foot front of a glacier that has intruded itself just downstream of Lake Hoare after travelling down from a higher valley and making a sharp right turn into Lake Hoare where it appears like an uninvited guest. As we take a moment to look around, we are surprised to come upon the bodies of a penguin and a seal lying at the foot of the glacial front. Amazingly, these creatures had apparently made their way across the vast expanse of the glacier lying in the entrance to Taylor Valley only to fall over the precipice of the front. We are told these animals likely lost their way due to some failure of their natural navigation system and just kept going until their fate was sealed. In this arid and cold climate without the presence of scavengers, bodies mummify and remain for years. The Antarctic does not give mercy to those who make mistakes.

Lake Hoare lies in a valley surrounded by steep walls with exposed, bare rock showing sculpted scars created by the valley glaciers during the last period of glacial advance around 20,000 years ago. The valley walls exhibit faults and magmatic dikes that cut across the beds. These rocks are much older than the Antarctic continent itself, having been part of the ancient supercontinent Gondwana before it separated into today’s many parts. Standing in this spot you can see direct evidence for the power of nature and sense its patient processes: Tectonic plate movements that move continents and make mountains where none existed, winds that scour rocks and pulverize them, glaciers that silently move and strip bare rock walls, gravity that brings down big boulders so that the bounce like toys into the glaciers below, and freezing water that expands and cracks even the hardest rock. Humans have a difficult time appreciating all of this even though it is massive and constant because nature works on such a long time scale. We live on average 75 years and our species only goes back about 200,000 years, a blink in the eye of nature. Yet we are beginning to become something of a geologic force ourselves, because the cumulative impact of 7 billion of us on the planet is having an effect.

The camp at Lake Hoare consists of a few buildings, mainly housing laboratory equipment, and a series of individual tents for the scientists, set apart from each other to provide some degree of privacy.

This camp has more than the norm in the way of facilities because it is a base for other camps up the valleys. Its operations are run by Sharon (Rae) Spain, a contractor for the NSF Polar Program, who is famed for her ability to make things work in this remote and difficult environment. Rae is so outgoing and enthusiastic it is immediately apparent that she loves the life she lives here.

In fact, every member of Diana’s team is enthusiastic about the work they are doing and each brings different skill sets to the project at hand. I am pleased to meet Dr. Fred Ogden from the University of Wyoming, a hydrologist studying water and moisture movement, who is also a research associate at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. Antarctica is a long way from the tropics, and I ask about his research. He is studying water flow to develop better hydrologic models for forecasting as part of the Agua Salud project. Shallow subsurface water flow is an important part of the Panama Canal watershed and since all subsurface water flow is shallow in Antarctica because of the permafrost, it is actually simpler to study.

Image by G. Wayne Clough. A minke whale breaches the surface of the shipping channel in McMurdo Sound. (original image)

Image by Tom Peterson. G. Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian, at Lake Hoare. (original image)

Image by Tom Peterson. An Adelie penguin and a chick rest on the rocks. Hundreds of Adelies and their chicks call McMurdo Sound home. (original image)

Image by Tom Peterson. Clough approaches the Dry Valleys of Antarctica. (original image)

Image by G. Wayne Clough. A dark pulse of melt water can be seen in front of this glacier in Taylor Valley. The ice wall is about 50 feet high. (original image)

Image by Tom Peterson. Algae stain the face of a glacier at Blood Falls near Lake Bonney in the Taylor Valley. (original image)

Image by G. Wayne Clough. Blocks of ice that have broken from the edge of the shipping channel. (original image)

Image by Tom Peterson. These unusual tracks show how penguins use their flippers to propel themselves on their bellies over the ice. (original image)

Image by G. Wayne Clough. Edward Shackleton's hut at Cape Royd. (original image)

Lake Hoare itself is not a large lake, but is significant and saline. The beach is composed of a dark soil with inclusions of rocks that have fallen into it from the valley walls. There are octagonal patterns in the soil that mimic those seen in dry lake beds in the desert. Talus deposits of soil and rock (or scree, broken bits of rock) rise from the beach towards the valley walls. Where these deposits have a smooth surface, they are often eroded with V-shaped channels that appear to have been created by water. Beneath them as they lead to the lake, the soil appears darker.

The science team helps us understand what we see. Fred and Joe Levy from Portland State University explain that the V-shaped features we see in the talus slopes are indeed water induced, forming during an especially warm day as a pulse of melt water from the glaciers above flows in small streams downward toward the lake. The dark areas on the soil are created by the melt water but reflect small flows that continue from above but remain underground. As to the octagonal features, these develop with freezing and thawing cycles in the permafrost, much as are seen in permafrost in the Arctic.

So, there is water here in the soil but it is intermittent and comes very rarely. How is life sustained in the frigid, arid environment of the Dry Valleys? This is another matter of study for Diana and her team. They look for a creature known as a nematode that is all of a millimeter long and resides in the soil. A nematode may be small, but it is mighty in its evolved ability to survive in a hostile environment. This tiny creature understands that it lives two lives, one for the long dry times and one for the fleeting times when a small drop of moisture might come its way. During dry times it can give up almost all of its body moisture and simply stop normal body activities. It can lie patiently dormant for tens of years, but give it a bit of moisture and it will absorb it and come back to life, making the most of the moment. Why should any of this be of interest to us? First, as noted, these dry valleys may mimic similar environments on moisture-deprived Mars and other planets. We can learn how to look for life on other planets by studying these unusual creatures. Second, with climate change, creatures like the nematode may disappear, so we need to do all we can to understand them now. We can best deal with the effects of climate change if we understand what it does in all of its ramifications for the earth.

Although we could have stayed all day to hear more about the research at Lake Hoare, our schedule dictates we have to move on and we lift off to head further up Taylor Valley. However, shortly after lift-off we are notified that winds at higher elevations are reaching dangerous levels for helicopter travel—and indeed, the helicopter is already pitching and yawing. We reach the site of Blood Falls, a glacial front at Lake Bonney in the Taylor Valley. The ice contains algae that create an unusual red color on the front of the glacier. It is believed this algae is related to those that cause red algal blooms along coastal areas from time to time.

Alex and our pilot agree that we should return to safer air and we turn back down the valley and land at Lake Fryxell where Dr. John Gillies of the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev., and his colleague William Nickling are studying the aeolian—or wind-driven—processes that act on the valley soils and rocks. We are shown a rock with a split personality: One side has faced the winds that roar down the valley in the winter months while the other side was protected. Where it was exposed to the winds the surface is smooth and pitted with very tiny indentations. The protected side shows the rough rock surface one would expect: a graphic demonstration of the power of wind erosion.

Our next stop is for lunch at Marble Point, a site on the west side of McMurdo Sound that serves as a fuel depot for the helicopter fleet. It also is known for its gregarious cook, Karen Moore, who has prepared her famous chili for us. Maybe it is just the beautiful setting, the cold weather, or the excitement of being here, but this chili is maybe the best I have ever had. Topped off with cornbread fresh from the oven and it is a feast fit for a king. We can’t stay long, but we owe a debt of gratitude to Karen for making this stop both special and satisfying.

We board the helicopter and fly along the edge of the shipping channel that has recently been cut in the sea ice by the Swedish icebreaker Oden in preparation for the arrival of the annual fuel tanker and supply ship. The wind has disappeared and the air is calm. To the west, Mount Erebus stands in all its glory. Down below is the deep, clear water of McMurdo Sound. Suddenly, whales! Minke whales take advantage of the ship channel just as a car uses a freeway by cruising along the edge of the ice in pods of two or three. They glide through the water, occasionally coming to the surface for a blow and a breath of air before resuming their course.

Our pilot says he can land on the ice where it is around 30 inches thick if we want a closer look. Needless to say, we do. He lands about 100 yards back from the ship channel and the co-pilot uses an ice auger to measure the thickness of the ice. It checks out and we proceed on foot toward the channel; Alex warns us to look for cracks that form near the edge and to make sure that we stay on the main ice sheet. Waiting with anticipation, we are thrilled as several of the whales rise to the surface, blowing air and water vapor before they head down again. You have to be quick to get a picture since you never know where they will surface next, but we get lucky more than once.

The whales are the very essence of grace and seem not the least concerned by our presence. After our first delighted exclamations each time a whale breaches the surface, we grow quieter. Alex notices it first: A pinging noise followed by some low vocalizations. The whales are moving through the water below the ice we are standing on and using sonar to locate fish. Alex tells us Minke whales do not hunt creatures on the top of the ice as Orcas do at times, so we feel reassured the pinging is not about locating us as prey.

It really doesn’t get much better than this. We are standing on the sea ice of McMurdo Sound on a beautiful sunny day with no one else in sight. The quiet is so profound it seems as if we are in a vacuum. The dark surface of the water is a mirror, reflecting the shimmering mountains fronted by Mount Erebus. A rectilinear block of ice that broke off when the ice breaker passed through floats near the edge of the channel. Through the clear dark water its underwater mass gleams as an emerald green jewel, seemingly unconnected to the body of the gleaming white mini-iceberg above. And, under us and beside us are the graceful whales sliding through the water, allowing us to vicariously join them through their vocalizations. We are mesmerized momentarily by the seductive beauty of it all.

The spell is broken as we are called to board the helicopter for our next and final stop. The schedule must hold for we have an event this evening we must attend. This last leg of our helicopter tour will take us back in time and at the same time allow us to see yet another of the remarkable creatures that populate the regions of the sea ice.

Our destination is Cape Royd on Ross Island, the site of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s base as he prepared for his march to the Pole in 1907 as leader of the Nimrod Expedition. The hut he and his companions built at Cape Royd, along with 33 other sites from the “historic era” of Antarctic exploration, is protected by the Antarctic Heritage Trust, a New Zealand non-profit. The hut is a rough structure with an enclosure that was used when the explorers considered using Siberian ponies to help pull the sleds. The food for the ponies is still there, hay and oats, spilling out from the bins. Nearby are crates of foodstuffs and other supplies for the men that were left behind when the expedition locked up and left in 1909.

Inside, the hut is permeated by a human presence. Sweaters, pants and socks used by Shackleton and his men lie on the bunks. Canned goods, writing paper, cured hams and candles are stored neatly on shelves and in spare rooms. Down in a root cellar the curators recently found a case of Scotch whisky was Irish) that is thought to be still drinkable. The expedition used an ingenious gas lighting system to illuminate the hut and make it as liveable as possible. The names of the expedition members are inscribed above the bunks they slept; and above one, Ernest Shackleton has written his name in his own handwriting. In the quiet, you can almost hear them, men who were about to undertake an expedition that would challenge them to the core. I feel honored to be able to sign the guest book as a measure of paying respects to these brave souls.

Shackleton’s hut is located a short walk from an Adelie penguin rookery that is protected as a natural wildlife area. The setting for the rookery is a rocky promontory rising from the dark water of McMurdo Sound that is lashed by cold winds. Several hundred Adelies and their gray down-covered chicks call this spot home. Waves crash against the rocky outcrops and white blocks of ice wallow and roll in the shallows. Adelies hop from one block to another and enjoy the action as the blocks are roiled by the water.

For the Adelie colony this point would seem to be a protected place to raise chicks, but success in survival also comes down to access to food. Unfortunately, researchers studying the colony have found its numbers declining. The reasons for this are not completely understood, but there are signs that herring, a major source of much of the Adelies’ diet, are moving to new locations, possibly as a result of global warming. Penguin colonies in many areas in the Antarctic are under pressure as their food sources abandon their old haunts and depart to other parts of the ocean. Looking out over this place of rough beauty, I am struck by the fragility of the balance of life in the Antarctic and more firmly convinced than ever of the importance of the research done here to understand how best to conserve the diversity of this part of the planet.

We lift off from Cape Royd considering the contrast of Shackelton’s Hut juxtaposed against the penguin rookery. Antarctica is the last continent on earth where man’s first dwellings still stand but only because humans have never been a part of the ancient cycles of life here. We fly back to McMurdo for a special celebration that is fitting in view of what we have just seen. At 5 p.m. we join a contingent of New Zealanders from Scott Base to inaugurate the operation of three windmills that will supply green energy to Scott Base and McMurdo Station and help reduce the reliance on carbon-based fuels that have to be brought in on ships through dangerous waters. The Kiwis invite us over to Scott Base for a wonderful reception and dinner to close out a most fulfilling day.

As the day ends, I realize that tomorrow I will leave Antarctica and start the long trip back. The morning arrives only too early and the McMurdo team takes the few hours left to show us around the logistics operations for the station. The support staff and facilities are as remarkable as the scientists who are here to help understand this unique continent. The entire station exists to serve about 125 science projects and the people who are here to conduct them. The logistics are daunting: Everything must be shipped in and everything that is not consumed must be shipped out to keep the environment pristine. As we look out over the port we see the annual fuel ship arriving and the supply ship will not be far behind. As soon as the supply ship is emptied, it will be filled with waste to be sent back for proper disposal.

We pack up and are ferried out to Pegasus Airport. Our C17 lifts off from the ice sheet in gleaming sunshine and I feel fortunate to have had this second chance to see this remarkable continent. I am also proud to be a member of the Smithsonian family and of having had a chance appreciate the Institution’s long involvement in helping to understand the Antarctic and its future.

Five Unusual Ways Scientists Are Studying Climate Change

Smithsonian Magazine

Image via NASA

The effects of climate change can be seen everywhere. It’s melting Antarctica’s ice sheets, dooming major cities to future flooding, damaging coffee harvests and even changing the taste of apples.

This distressing situation nonetheless presents scientists with an opportunity. Because the climate change is so widespread, it can be studied by examining a tremendous range data. Many of these data are collected from satellite images, extracted through analyzing ice cores or found from sifting through atmospheric temperature records. But some are collected from a bit more unorthodox sources. In no particular order, here’s our rundown of 5 unusual ways scientists are currently studying the changing climate:

1. Fossilized Urine

The hyrax—a small, herbivorous mammal native to Africa and the Middle East—has a pair of uncommon habits. The animals tend to inhabit the same cracks in rock for generations, and they also like to urinate in the exact same spot, over and over and over again. Because their urine contains traces of leaves, grasses and pollen, the layers of dried urine that build up and fossilize over thousands of years have given a team of scientists (led by Brian Chase of Montpellier University) a rare look at ancient plant biodiversity and how it’s been affected by broader changes in climate.

Further, the nitrogen in the urine—an element that’s long been important to those who utilize the scientific properties of pee—along with the urine’s carbon content tell an important story as layer after layer of the dessicated substance, called hyraceum, is analyzed. In drier times, plants are forced to incorporate heavier isotopes of these elements into their tissues, so urine layers that contain an abundance of heavy isotopes indicate that the hyrax relieved themselves after ingesting relatively parched plants. Stacked layers of the excretions thus allow scientists to track humidity through time.

“Once we have found a good layer of solid urine, we dig out samples and remove them for study,” Chase told The Guardian in an article about his unusual work. “We are taking the piss, quite literally—and it is proving to be a highly effective way to study how climate changes have affected local environments.” His team’s most valuable data set? One particular pile of fossilized urine that has been accreting for an estimated 55,000 years.

2. Old Naval Logbooks

Few people care more about the weather than sailors. Old Weather, a citizen science project, hopes to take advantage of that fact to better understand the daily weather of 100 years ago. As part of the project, anyone can create an account and manually transcribe the daily logbooks of 18th and 19th century vessels that sailed the Arctic and elsewhere.

The work is still in its beginning stages: So far, 26,717 pages of records from 17 different ships have been transcribed, with roughly 100,000 pages to go. Eventually, once enough data has been transcribed, scientists from around the world who are coordinating the project will use these ultra-detailed weather reports to paint a fuller picture of how microvariations in Arctic weather correspond with long-term climate trends.

Although there’s no pay offered, there’s the satisfaction of adding to our record on climate variations over the past few centuries. Plus, transcribe enough and you’ll get promoted from “cadet” to “lieutenant” to “captain.” Not bad for a modern day scrivener.

3. Satellite Speeds

Not long ago, a group of scientists who study how the atmosphere behaves at high altitudes noticed something strange about several satellites in orbit: They were consistently moving faster than calculations indicated they should. When they tried to figure out why, they discovered that the thermosphere—the uppermost layer of the atmosphere, starting roughly 50 miles up, through which many satellites glide—was slowly losing its thickness over time. Because the layer, made of up sparsely distributed gas molecules, was losing its bulk, the satellites were colliding with fewer molecules as they orbited and thus experienced less drag.

Why, though, was the thermosphere undergoing such change? It turned out that higher levels of carbon dioxide emitted at the surface were gradually drifting upwards into the thermosphere. At that altitude, the gas actually cools things down, because it absorbs energy from collisions with oxygen molecules and emits that stored energy into space as infrared radiation.

For years, scientists had assumed the carbon dioxide released from burning fossil fuels didn’t reach higher than about 20 miles above the Earth’s surface, but this research—the first to measure the concentrations of the gas this high up—showed that climate change can even affect our uppermost atmospheric layers. The group plans to look back and see how historical changes in satellite speeds might reflect carbon dioxide levels in the past. They will also continue to track satellite speeds and levels of carbon dioxide in the thermosphere to see how our aeronautical calculations might have to take climate change into account in the future.

4. Dog Sleds

Unlike many sorts of climate data, information on sea ice thickness can’t be directly collected by satellites—scientists instead infer thicknesses from satellite measurements of the ice’s height above sea level and a rough approximation of ice’s density. But getting true measurements of sea ice thicknesses must be done manually with sensors that send magnetic fields through the ice and pick up signals from the water below it—the fainter the signals, the thicker the ice. So our knowledge of real ice thicknesses is constrained to the locations where researchers have actually visited.

In 2008, when Scottish researcher Jeremy Wilkinson first traveled to Greenland to collect such measurements on ice thickness, his team interviewed dozens of local Inuit people who spoke about the difficulties thinner sea ice posed for their traditional mode of transportation, the dog sled. Soon afterward, Wilkinson got an idea. ”We saw the large number of dog teams that were on the ice everyday and the vast distances they covered. Then came the light bulb moment—why don’t we put sensors on these sleds?” he told NBC in 2011 when the idea was finally implemented.

Since then, his team has attached the sensors to the sleds owned by a few dozen volunteers. As the Inuits glide over the sea ice on their sleds, the instruments take a measurement of the ice’s thickness every second. His team has now deployed the sled-mounted sensors in each of the last three years to collect the data. The information collected not only helps scientists gauge the accuracy of thicknesses derived from orbiting satellites, but also helps climate scientists better understand how sea ice is locally responding to warmer temperatures as seasons and years change.

5. Narwhal-Mounted Sensors

Narwhals are renowned for their ability to dive to extreme depths: They’ve been measured going as far as 5,800 feet down, among the deepest dives of any marine mammal. Starting in 2006, NOAA researchers have used this ability to their advantage, by strapping sensors that measure temperature and depth to the animals and using the data to track Arctic water temperatures over time.

The strategy gives scientists access to areas of the Arctic ocean that are normally covered by ice during the winter—because the Narwhals’ dives, which can last as long as 25 minutes, often take them under areas of the water that are frozen on top—and is much less expensive than equipping a full icebreaker ship and crew to take measurements. Before using narwhals, temperatures of the Arctic waters at remote depths were inferred from long-term historical averages. Using the unorthodox method has helped NOAA document how these historical averages have underrepresented the extent to which Arctic waters are warming, particularly in Baffin Bay, the body of water between Greenland and Canada.