'Theater of the Mind' from Antarctica: NPR News Reports from "The Ice"

Daniel Zwerdling

Daniel Zwerdling at the South Pole
Peter West / NSF

3/17/2008

As part of National Public Radio's  Climate Connections series, reporter Daniel Zwerdling and producer Peter Breslow traveled to Antarctica under the auspices of the National Science Foundation's media visitors program. They have, to date, aired four reports from their visit and posted a Web slide show narrated by Breslow:

From the story:

We take off by helicopter from America's main research base in Antarctica toward Cape Royds, where exactly 100 years ago, in 1908, scientists started studying the local penguin colony. It takes only 20 minutes to get there, but it's one of the most spectacular trips of my life. The Earth is blinding white in every direction. We pass a white wall of mountains off to the left and, on the right, an active volcano with steam curling out of the vent.

Then the helicopter drops us in a small clearing. We climb a snowy ridge, and there at the top are thousands of noisy penguins. They're crowded together on a mound of black volcanic rock, and they're squawking and cooing their hearts out.

These penguins are called Adelies. They look like emperors, which were showcased in the hit movie March of the Penguins. Only Adelies aren't as big — they barely come up to my thighs. Most are milling around; some are flopped on their stomachs on nests which they make out of stones. There are fuzzy chicks that look like toys.

Our guide is David Ainley, one of the most respected penguin researchers in the world. He says he loves studying Adelie penguins, partly because they're so out there. Literally.

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It's surprising to hear him talk this way, because researchers don't usually ascribe human emotions to animals. But when Ainley talks about these penguins, it sounds like he's talking about friends.

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Scientists say penguins are providing some of the first clues of how global warming is changing the planet. And Ainley has come up with evidence by asking very basic questions: Is this penguin colony growing or shrinking? Are the penguins finding plenty of fish to eat or are they hungry? To get the answers, Ainley arms himself with a syringe loaded with tiny computer identification chips. Then he and his colleagues grab a penguin and hoist it like a squirming dog.

"We put them under our arm and hold them tightly. They're extremely strong. They're very aggressive, and they're very territorial," Ainley says. "And they definitely aren't used to being touched ... They don't even want to be touched by another penguin."

Still, the researchers inject a chip in every angry penguin's shoulder. Then they take a computerized scale, which looks like a rubber mat, and they place it on the path so the penguins cross it. This system lets Ainley track all kinds of information. For instance, what time does each penguin go fishing and when does it come back? How much weight does the penguin gain or lose?

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During the past few decades, as climate patterns in some parts of the continent have changed dramatically, Adelies in some regions have almost disappeared. Their numbers have plunged 80 percent. But the Adelies where Ainley does his research are doing better than ever.

"These penguins are definitely being helped by climate change," Ainley says.

Ainley and other researchers think they know why. Most types of penguins go fishing only in open water, so they're all competing with each other to find food. But Adelies catch their fish by diving deep under the ice. In fact, they're just about the only penguin that can physically do that. So, when there's plenty of ice over the sea, Adelies hardly have any competition and they can get all the food they want.

Now the changing climate is shaking things up. In some areas where most of the ice has melted, Adelies can't survive. But Cape Royds used to have too much ice, and now it has just the right amount. So penguins here are doing great.

Ainley says here's the moral: Global warming is making life unpredictable.

The entire seven-minute story may be heard online.

The entire ten-minute story may be heard here.

From the story:

"[Manahan is] leading this expedition of 20 young PhDs who've come to work with him from around the world. They're all wearing the same uniform—bright red parkas lined with fur. It's about 10 below zero with the wind chill. When they get to their research area, they're going to take water samples so they can study life in the sea.

"We want to understand the transitions that happen under the ice in Antarctica, because there's all of these changes going on with the melting ice," Manahan explains. "We want to see what effect that has on the organisms that live here."

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Manahan and his colleagues have been studying the teeny babies that live in this sea — the microscopic larvae of fish, worms and sea urchins. To catch them, they drop a metal canister through the hole. As the canister sinks, it collects water at specific depths.

The researchers will take these samples back to their lab and run all kinds of tests. One experiment they've done, heating the seawater to mimic warming seas, has already produced some troubling results. Warming the water only one or two degrees causes the larvae's metabolism to go out of whack.

"Let's use a human analogy — if I heat up my body temperature by a couple of degrees, it's called a fever," Manahan says. "And once it gets beyond a few degrees, I go into a coma."

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But climate change is going to reshuffle life on the planet in complicated ways. It's not going to hurt everything or everybody. For instance, parts of western Antarctica are warming faster than any other place on the planet. But eastern Antarctica is still cold, and some parts are getting colder. Some kinds of penguins are doing great; others are practically dying out.

And as for Manahan's babies in this sea: So far, the water temperature hasn't changed, and the researchers haven't seen signs that the larvae are suffering. But it's a different story in the North Atlantic, where the water temperature has gone up a tiny amount. British scientists have found that, sure enough, the babies' ecosystem there has already gone out of whack.

Manahan says scientists around the world are holding their breath. They're wondering where they will see the next big changes.

"There will be losers and there will be winners," Manahan says. "The big issue, to me, is is human civilization going to be on the losing side?"

The entire seven-minute story can be heard online.

From the story:

"The South Pole lies ahead — a simple metal pole stuck in the snow. It marks the exact location of the bottom of the world, 90 degrees latitude. (Actually this pole has to move about 30 feet every year because the entire Antarctic continent floats.) And what a spectacular sight at the world's tip — in every direction, vast, austere, white emptiness.

Of course, it's not complete emptiness. Right near the pole is the official U.S. South Pole Research Station. It looks like a cross between a modern junior high school and an office building. We came down here to talk to the people who work in this building. What kind of people come for months at a time to live in the most difficult place on Earth? And why is the South Pole so important, anyway?

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A tiny group of Americans has lived down here since the 1950s, but they worked in funky buildings that were getting buried by snow. And in the mid-1990s, Congress asked a blue ribbon panel: Do Americans really need to live at the South Pole at all? Is it worth spending all that money?

The panel members answered yes.

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Things in Antarctica haven't always been stable. Just before World War II, the Nazi regime planted flags on the continent for Hitler. After the war, Britain and Argentina almost started a war over claims on a chunk of the continent. And when the Cold War started, the Soviets said they were going to set up a base at the South Pole, so the U.S. rushed there first.

But since then, more than 40 countries have signed a remarkable treaty that has kept the peace. It promises that all the countries can share Antarctica and that nobody can mine it, even though studies suggest there could be gold, uranium and oil beneath the ice. The blue ribbon panel worried that if the U.S. left the Pole, there'd be a power vacuum and the treaty might fall apart. So the panel told Congress to build this dazzling new base and to plan on staying here.

And, the panel said, there's another reason America needs this center: The South Pole is one of the best places on Earth to do scientific studies. The environment here is so cold and pristine, it's like a giant sterile laboratory. That's why the government's research agency, the National Science Foundation, runs the whole place."

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This is where researchers helped prove that the Earth is getting warmer. Other scientists are exploring how the universe is changing, such as Steve Meyer, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago. Meyer is standing at the base of what looks like an enormous white cereal bowl with lots of rivets.

"What we're looking at here is a 10-meter dish," Meyer explains. "The idea of the dish is to collect microwave radiation... [which] has its origin in the very early universe, the Big Bang radiation."

In fact, this dish can detect radiation from galaxies that are roughly 5 billion light years away. Meyer hopes it will help scientists learn more about the mysterious force called dark energy. Scientists think dark energy is shoving the universe apart.

"I view this as a continuation of astronomy that's been going on for thousands of years. And if we were to say at some point, 'Oh, Galileo, he found the planets were going around the sun, and this is all we want to know about the universe,' that's a very odd thing to say," says Meyer. "Our understanding of physics as a whole may change as a result of our beginning to learn about things like dark energy."

The entire 14-minute story can be heard online.

Vistas, Science and Staying Warm at the South Pole

The three-minute interview can be heard online.