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Lost Antarctica

USAP scientist publishes book about climate change on southernmost continent

James McClintock, a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and National Science Foundation-funded researcher, has distilled 30 years of research and experiences in Antarctica into a new book, Lost Antarctica: Adventures in a Disappearing Land.

McClintock’s first book traces the evolution of his career as a young graduate student on his first expedition to his current research into the effects of ocean acidification and invasive species on the Antarctic environment. Lost Antarctica has garnered praise from such science luminaries as Edward O. Wilson and Susan Solomon to billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates and historian Douglas Brinkley.

McClintock recently answered a few questions about the book for The Antarctic Sun.

1. What made you decide to write a popular science book, and what do you see about the story that you have to tell that makes it stand out against the recent canon of climate-change books? Obviously, few if any delve into Antarctica as you do, though there have been a few mainstream books over the years.

I initially began my college studies as an English major — before discovering marine biology in the second half of my freshman year. As such, I have had a long-time interest in writing. About three years ago, I decided that there was a need for more established scientists to step up to the plate and take important science to a broad general audience. Earlier in my career I had befriended E.O. Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Award-winning Harvard scientist and Alabamian, and he saw the potential and encouraged me to write. He also provided me the guidance I needed to secure a literary agent and develop a book proposal to market to publishing firms.

From the [beginning], I set out to write a book that set itself apart from a growing laundry list of climate-change books. I wanted to engage my readers with a “page-turner,” something difficult to do with page after page of facts about climate change. Accordingly, I interwove my narrative about the dramatic ecological effects of climate change occurring on the Antarctic Peninsula with stories of my 30 years and adventures and discoveries as an Antarctic marine biologist. As such, I also believe my book stands apart from those written about Antarctica from the perspective of writers and reporters that have visited Antarctica.

2. The book not only covers your research but also delves into a number of other projects under way, from biological (the Palmer LTER program) to glaciological and geological (the LARISSA program). There’s such a large amount of research that goes on around the Antarctic, how did you choose what to include?

I chose ongoing research programs in Antarctica that fit two criteria. They had some link to climate-change research, and there had to be individuals involved in the program that I knew personally, as friends and/or colleagues. This allowed me to personalize my writing about research programs related to but tangential to those I am directing myself.

3. You devote a whole chapter of the book to ocean acidification, and you recently embarked on a project with your long-time colleague Chuck Amsler, also at UAB, on this very subject at Palmer Station, as well as conducted some preliminary experiments before 2012. What are the results so far from your experiments and observations, and how concerned are you about the vulnerability of polar marine organisms to acidifying oceans based on current climate projections?

The research program I am collaborating on with Chuck Amsler and Robert Angus — both faculty in my biology department here at UAB — has completed its first of two field seasons at Palmer Station. We have two doctoral students involved in the research. Julie Schram and Kate Schoenrock spent the 2011-12 field season investigating the impacts of ocean acidification and rising elevated seawater temperature on calcified marine invertebrates (two gastropod species) and a calcifying alga (coralline alga), respectively.

They are currently analyzing their data and conducting laboratory-based studies on the specimens shipped back to UAB. The results should become apparent over the next few months. I am hoping that the conditions we simulated in our studies (levels of carbon dioxide and temperature anticipated my mid-century) will demonstrate that at least over the near term there are not negative effects on the species we investigated. The jury is still out.

4. Another chapter is devoted to what you call “The March of the King Crabs,” referring to an invasion of this species onto the continental slope of Antarctica, where organisms have evolved over millions of years without such predators. You have been involved in some research on this topic, and recently received a new grant from the National Science Foundation to examine this phenomenon in more detail. Your proposal says the invasion “could result in a wholesale restructuring of the Antarctic benthic ecosystem.” Would you talk a little bit about this upcoming project?

Our NSF-funded research program (Rich Aronson and I are co-PIs on the project) is conducting an intensive survey of the shelf and slope waters off of Marguerite Bay on the lower western coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Our goal is to establish details of the population size and structure of king crabs.

In 2010, our first cruise discovered that king crabs were indeed present on the slope and we estimated a population of over half a million crabs in the region of Marguerite Bay. Most of the crabs were at the base of the slope but we did discover some that were within several hundred meters of the shelf break, an indication that with rising seawater temperatures the crabs may very well be poised to move up and on to the shelf.

In our upcoming project we will greatly expand upon our initial cruise running transects across the shelf and down the slope in two additional regions of the bay. Each transect is conducted by a remote operated vehicle we lease from Woods Hole [Oceanographic Institution] that is towed behind the ship and equipped with high-quality image cameras that take a photo every few seconds and send it immediately to the ship at the surface for real-time analysis.

We will couple the transect work in the upcoming cruise with an attempt to trap crabs and bring them to the surface so as to better evaluate their reproductive condition and feeding habits (gut contents). Our initial cruise study suggested they are reproductively active, and our upcoming cruise should provide sufficient data to make certain. We also want to know what the crabs are feeding upon in order to evaluate their potential to consume common Antarctic invertebrates.

There is no reason to suspect that should the crabs move up on to the Antarctic shelf that they will not have a dramatic negative impact on populations of Antarctic marine invertebrates such as clams, snails and brittle stars. Accordingly, a unique and ancient seafloor ecosystem may suffer rapid and permanent ecological shifts.

5. Most scientists agree that climate change is occurring on a global scale, due largely to anthropogenically produced carbon dioxide and other greenhouse emissions. But what would do you see as the biggest uncertainty today in climate-change science, and how does Antarctica fit into the picture?

Almost all climate scientists now agree that the Earth is warming and that humankind is by and large responsible for this through the burning of fossil fuels. The uncertainty that exists around this issue is primarily fabricated by those that are paid by the energy industry to plant doubt (the same companies that were paid by the cigarette industry to plant doubt about the danger of cigarettes) and thus slow the process of moving away from lucrative fossil fuels.

The uncertainty that surrounds climate-change science is not whether it is occurring but just how bad it will get. So far, climate scientists appear to have underestimated the coming impacts and rates of climate-related events. For example, the arctic ice is melting much faster than early models predicted.

As per Antarctica, until recently there was some uncertainty about whether West Antarctica was warming in concert with the Antarctic Peninsula. In a recent paper in Nature, scientists demonstrated through satellite and ground station data that indeed West Antarctica is warming, albeit at a much slower rate than the Peninsula. Fortunately, so far there is no evidence that East Antarctica is warming, probably because of current patterns of the Southern Ocean.

6. Despite what can be a depressing state of affairs based on the changes under way in Antarctica that you document in the book, the last chapter ends on a note of hope. You talk in great detail about the global action that took place after the discovery of the annual ozone hole over Antarctica. You obviously see Antarctica as a potential catalyst for worldwide action on climate change. Why do you think it hasn’t happened yet — and is it already too late for the world to take action given current climate projections?

There is still time for Antarctica and its wildlife to serve as a catalyst of hope when it comes to bringing attention to the climate-change impacts occurring increasingly on our planet. In part, I see my book as one of the several ways to help make this happen. It is important that those [who] visit or work in Antarctica help share the story of Antarctic climate change and its impacts with friends and family and with their elected representatives. Remember that as a polar ecosystem, Antarctica is uniquely sensitive to climate change. It is the canary in the coalmine. It is a wake up call — and the phone is ringing.

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Curator: Michael Lucibella, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Peter West, Division of Polar Programs