Hot Science in Cold Lands

Study of the ends of the Earth is warming up political debate over the fate of the polar regions — and the entire planet

  • John Carey
  • Apr 01, 1991
The temperature is 30 degrees below zero on a summer day at the South Pole. Atop a sheet of ice and snow more than a mile thick, breathing heavily in the thin air 9,300 feet above sea level, University of New Hampshire glaciologist Paul Mayewski and a small band of hardy scientists are collecting ice from the wall of a ditch.

Clothed in sterile masks and special "clean" suits, this team is after no ordinary frozen water. In these hard-won samples are chemical clues to one of the great mysteries of the Earth: how the planet's stratospheric layer of protective ozone has waxed and waned over thousands of years. Already the evidence supports the theory that the ozone "hole" (a gap in the ozone layer over the Antarctic in the austral spring) is the unprecedented result of recent human activity.

Six months later, high above the Arctic Circle at the other end of the planet, Paul Becker is up to his elbows in whale blood. It's July, and the Eskimos are conducting their annual hunt of beluga whales off Point Lay in northwest Alaska. The native hunters herd the massive beasts into the protected waters of Kasegaluk Lagoon, kill them with well-placed rifle shots and drag the carcasses onto the gravel beach. That's when Becker, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, goes to work.

Wearing gloves and wielding titanium knives that help prevent contamination, he deftly slices out hunks of blubber and organs, drops the samples into Teflon bags and freezes the bags in liquid nitrogen. When scientists probe the whale pieces for PCBs and other chemicals, they will learn the extent to which the Arctic's inhabitants are subjected to everything from oil drilling to volcanic ash to pollution from distant cities. "The Arctic has always been thought of as pristine," explains Becker. "But it is the recipient of pollutants from all over the world."

That is one reason scientists are converging on the ends of the Earth with new urgency. Long fascinated by adaptation of wildlife to the harsh environment, by troves of fossils and meteorites and by the polar night skies, researchers now consider the Arctic and Antarctic the Earth's miners' canaries. These regions are the first that will be irrevocably altered by the thinning ozone layer or by the warming of the greenhouse effect. In their fragile desolation—where icebergs crash into frigid seas with implacable force, where foxes stalk voles on treeless tundra, where penguins huddle in huge groups to survive the winter chill—lie clues to the fate of the entire globe.

One step behind the scientists are the politicians, with a difficult double agenda: protection of the environment and a quest for natural resources. Already, the Arctic supplies much of the world's oil. In Antarctica, countries like Japan and the Soviet Union are harvesting the shrimplike krill that lie near the base of the food chain. If the krill is depleted, predicts Texas A&M biologist Sayed El-Sayed, the system will collapse. "There are no shock-absorbers in these polar ecosystems," he says. "That's why we need to protect them."

El-Sayed's call to arms is motivated by more than cold-eyed pragmatism. "You can't really describe the fantastic beauty of the area," says El-Sayed. "Nothing else in the world comes close." Where else can we see the night skies display spectacular colors, or watch a polar bear wait by an ice hole for a seal to poke up its doomed whiskered head? Recalls Loyola University biologist John Janssen, "The first time I stepped off the plane in Antarctica, I felt like I was on another planet."

Treasure-chests: The resources that interest mankind at the north and south ends of the Earth are remarkably similar. Both regions harbor abundant deposits of oil and gas. Both are home to rich fisheries and stunning collections of other biological treasures. Even many of the creatures—whales, seals, krill and marine birds—are the same. True, penguins live only on Antarctica; only the Arctic boasts polar bears. But many inhabitants of the two frigid regions could theoretically thrive if transplanted from one icy habitat to the other—though a defenseless species could well become a welcome treat on an-other's menu. Take penguins, for example. "The Antarctic Peninsula," says National Science Foundation polar expert John Lynch, "would be polar-bear heaven."

Sub-arctic waters contain some of the world's richest commercial fisheries and basic parts of its longest food chain—five levels from phytoplankton and zooplankton to arctic cod, seals and bears. More than 40 million seabirds of 30 species live in the Alaskan Arctic year-round. Coastal antarctic waters, also among the most productive on Earth, support 65 million penguins, 35 million seals of six different species, 12 whale species and sponges large enough for divers to swim inside.

In other ways, the regions couldn't be more different. Unlike the Arctic's combination of ocean, islands and surrounding land masses, Antarctica is a giant continent. At 5.5 million square miles, it is twice the size of Australia. Once a piece of the ancient southern supercontinent Gondwanaland, along with South America, it broke off from Africa millions of years ago. Now, surrounded by the lashing winds and towering waves of the Southern Ocean and covered with a sheet of ice up to 2 miles thick, it is the highest, coldest, most desolate place on the globe.

At the other end of the Earth, explorers were still trying as late as 1907 to find the continent that was supposed to cover a good part of the Arctic. Now scientists are trying to figure out if sections of continents performed an intricate dance around the Arctic Ocean or if the ocean itself spread because of tectonic activity.

They do know that the tundra of the Far North's land masses is perhaps the youngest of the Earth's ecosystems, having emerged between 15,000 and 3,000 years ago when the great ice sheets melted after the last ice age. Some areas of Greenland and eastern Canada remain much as they were when they first emerged from beneath the ice. The tundra is home to massive musk oxen, millions of lemmings and the only bumblebee that can generate heat to control its own temperature. At first glance, the landscape seems barren, writes author Barry Lopez, "but one begins to notice spots of brilliant red, orange and green among the monotonic browns. Time and again you come upon the isolated and succinct evidence of life—an animal track, or the undigested remains of a ptarmigan in an owl's casting."

Hot politics: Those who would protect the ends of the Earth from exploitation face no simple task. The two regions' biological treasures alone have already prompted grave destruction. Hunters of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries decimated vast herds of elephant and fur seals, almost wiped out sea otters and killed hundreds of thousands of whales. Even seemingly benign scientific efforts and growing tourism are depositing mountains of trash and threatening fragile ecosystems.

To the south, the coldest continent on Earth has long been a potential hotbed of international disputes: Antarctica belongs to no nation and has been claimed by many. Some countries have gone to great lengths to stake out territory. In 1939, Germany dropped metal swastikas from the air over an area of the continent subsequently claimed by Norway. Argentina deliberately flew a pregnant woman to one of its' science bases so the nation could claim the first "native." All the claims remain to be resolved. But in 1959, 12 countries (later joined by others) agreed to keep Antarctica a region of science and peace, and signed a treaty setting aside the territorial claims.

The Antarctic Treaty, however, has one big hole. It doesn't control oil drilling or other resource development. So even though most experts think large-scale exploitation is at least 40 years away (because conditions are so harsh), 33 nations have negotiated the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resources Activities. Finalized in 1988, the agreement requires approval from two-thirds of the signatories for any proposed exploration and gives any country power to block the action on environmental grounds. "It is one of the strongest international agreements ever negotiated in terms of environmental protection," says William E. Westermeyer, polar expert and senior analyst at the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment.

Not everyone shares that view. At a Paris meeting in 1989, France and Australia dropped a bombshell when they refused to ratify the agreement, arguing that Antarctica should be made a wilderness park, protected forever from mineral development. Environmentalists in the United States—including Senator Albert Gore (D-Tenn), who introduced legislation calling for the park—rallied behind the plan.

Critics of the park idea call it seductive but naive. "There is a lot of emotion behind the idea of a wilderness park," says Tucker Scully of the U.S. State Department, the U.S. negotiator of the minerals convention. Adds Lee Kimball, senior associate of the World Resources Institute, "The idea that it would prevent mineral activity from being carried out is a pipe dream. The minute someone needs minerals from the Antarctic, the ban would go by the wayside." And if that happens, says Scully, "the environment and the international political system would be the big losers." That's why most hopes are pinned on working out compromises, such as a short-term ban on development, that could win Australian and French support.

While the world's major nations struggle to hold off development in Antarctica, the Arctic has already passed the point of no return as a critical source of raw materials. One-quarter of all crude oil produced in the United States gushes from the Alaskan Arctic; the oil under Prudhoe Bay is more than half drained. Nearly two-thirds of the Soviet Union's oil comes from northern Siberia. And the development that has occurred so far, warns Lloyd Lowry, marine mammals coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, "is the proverbial tip of the iceberg."

Lowry and fellow conservationists thought Alaska had won a costly reprieve from future exploitation when the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of North Slope crude oil into Prince William Sound early in 1989. For months afterward, sensitive areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge seemed safe from drilling rigs and pipelines. But when Iraqi leader Sad-dam Hussein invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990, "what had been politically impossible," says Oran R. Young, director of Dartmouth's Arctic Studies Institute, was "suddenly on the front burner again."

U.S. Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan, Jr., told Alaskans in August 1990, "There is no reason why we should not explore in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge." What's more, say arctic biologists, the Soviets are quietly tapping arctic offshore drilling expertise of U.S. and Canadian companies to expand their own exploration for oil.

Unlike the Antarctic, the frozen North is home to some of the world's most unusual peoples, who are threatened by development just as surely as are walruses and the arctic fox. In June 1988, the Gwich'in natives living on the edge of the arctic refuge convened the first tribal gathering in many generations, calling for a ban on oil exploration and development in the refuge. The Gwich'in depend on the vast caribou herds that calve on the refuge's coastal plain—and fear the worst. "If the herd goes, we go," says Gwich'in elder Abel Tritt. "Oil does not combine with living things."

At the same time, natives of the region are also capable of some environmental damage. Now that the Eskimos use rifles and motorboats instead of harpoons and kayaks, the population of beluga whales that feed during the summer in Canada's Baffin Bay is declining rapidly because of overhunting.

The good news is that while international relations in the Antarctic have heated up over mineral rights, disputes among nations in the frozen North are cooling. On August 28, 1990, representatives from scientific organizations of all eight countries that collectively own the nearly three million square miles of land within the Arctic Circle met in remote Resolute, Canada, to found an historic International Arctic Science Committee.

For the first time, western researchers will have access to the huge Soviet Arctic, and perhaps even to such information as measurements of ice thickness—critical for studying global warming—taken by Soviet missile submarines. In addition, the United States and the Soviet Union recently announced their intention to form an international park covering neighboring regions in Russia and Alaska across the Bering Sea.

The scientists' race: The new cooperation is a boon to scientists, who are scrambling to understand the Arctic before it is irreversibly changed. "The polar ocean is the last great unexplored ecosystem," says Canadian biologist and arctic veteran Buster Welch. Even now, it's not hard to find new species." Everywhere scientists look, in both the Arctic and Antarctic, they are still making basic discoveries.

Even subjects as obvious as polar bears yield new findings. For years, biologist Ian Stirling of the Canadian Wildlife Service has been studying how the polar bear survives its harsh environment. "The whole name of the game for the bear is energy conservation," explains Stirling. Because of its 4.5-inch-thick layer of blubber, the massive predator overheats quickly, burning twice the energy of most other large mammals when it moves. Not surprisingly, the bear's preferred method of hunting seals is to simply snooze by holes in the ice as it waits for a meal.

With study leader Ralph Nelson of the University of Illinois, Stirling has discovered that the bear's adaptations go beyond shrewd hunting methods. The key is a remarkable metabolic switch. The bears can apparently "turn their hibernationlike physiology off and on at will," Stirling says. "That's very exciting. It's the ultimate evolution of a species that lives in the Arctic." And it means that bears can conserve energy by entering brief hibernationlike states.

In the Antarctic, shrimplike amphipods that live in extraordinarily rich communities under the ice are more concerned about being eaten by fish than they are in saving energy. So one species has hit upon a clever strategy, biologist Jim McClintock of the University of Alabama recently discovered. The shrimp latch onto small sea slugs laden with nasty-tasting chemicals. When he offered the shrimp and their living backpacks to antarctic cod, "the fish shook their heads and spit the couples out," he says.

McClintock's laboratories are the diverse communities of sponges and starfish under the antarctic ice. Above the water, a few penguins are the only signs of life on a windswept landscape. But under a ceiling of shimmering ice, and surrounded by abundant life, he says, "it's like floating down in the Sistine Chapel." There he has also discovered surprising chemical defenses in a range of sponges, sea slugs, starfish and other creatures. Scientists previously had thought that such defenses would only evolve in tropical waters, where many more browsing fish threaten a wide range of prey species.

Some of the most important new information is coming from decades of painstaking measurements. Only by understanding the changes from year to year can scientists discern how people are affecting the fragile webs of polar life. A classic case is a recent dramatic decline in the antarctic population of skuas, a predatory gull. On January 28, 1989, the Bahia Paraiso, an Argentine supply and tourist ship, ran aground off the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, spilling 170,000 gallons of fuel. The next spring's skua breeding season was a disaster. Less than one-third of the population even attempted to breed, most skuas that did laid only one egg instead of two, and thousands of chicks starved. The most obvious conclusion: The oil was wiping out the skuas.

"But in this case, the oil got a bad rap," explains ornithologist Wayne Trivelpiece of Old Dominion University. Trivelpiece and colleagues have been studying penguins and skuas in Antarctica for more than a dozen years and have been able to prove that the breeding failure is part of a complicated natural phenomenon. It turns out that the skuas are selective eaters; they catch only minnowlike antarctic silverfish that are between 2 and 3 inches long and seven or eight years old.

Survival of baby silverfish, in turn, depends on the winter ice pack. Colder weather means more ice, making life tough for the young fish. As a result, seven or eight years after a cold winter, silverfish of the right age are scarce and skuas fail to breed. Seven years after a warm winter, however, the gull population soars. "It's a real boom-or-bust species," says Trivelpiece. The 1989 collapse, therefore, was caused by cold winters in 1980 and 1981, not by the spill.

Trivelpiece's study of antarctic birds has also overturned one of the cherished pieces of polar dogma. Scientists had observed that penguin numbers, particularly those of the chinstrap penguin, more than tripled between the 1940s and 1980s. During the same period, hunters killed thousands of whales. Since both whales and penguins eat krill, scientists reasoned, the dramatic decline in the huge mammals left vastly more food for the penguins. But the real story isn't so simple. Chinstrap penguins winter in the open sea, and their breeding success soars after warmer winters. So the long-term rise in chinstraps is directly related to an increase in the percentage of warm years. Such discoveries offer far more than simple understanding of nature's rhythms. Changes in wildlife populations can also be sensitive indicators of human impact. "Our findings give us great hope that if human pressure does affect the polar ecosystems, we will be able to see it," says Trivelpiece.

This year, teams of scientists are trying to answer one of the most urgent questions of all: Is the antarctic ozone hole beginning to affect the ecosystem by allowing more harmful ultraviolet (UV) light to reach the Earth? "Antarctica is the only place on Earth where UV levels have gone up dramatically," explains University of Chicago atmospheric scientist John E. Frederick. "So if there are biological effects, that's where they'll show up first." Scientists already have shown that increased UV light slows the growth of antarctic phytoplankton. Now they worry that the slower growth could damage the entire ecosystem. Recent evidence shows that the Arctic may also experience a similar seasonal ozone loss.

In effect, the Arctic and Antarctic are the metaphorical conscience of the world. In decades to come, the raucous calls of chinstrap penguins or arctic ringed seals may be telling us about a warming Earth or the disastrous effects of ozone loss.

Just as important, the poles are crucial tests of international political resolve and our collective ability to find the right balance between protection and exploitation. Can fractious nations put aside their differences long enough to protect these delicate realms of land and ice, and judiciously guide or forestall the inevitable development? Can we find a way to have both Alaskan oil and thriving herds of caribou? That's why the stakes are so high in the scientists' race. We need to understand the remote and mysterious polar regions well enough to answer these questions before it's too late. As Texas A&M's El-Sayed says, "The polar regions are the very last frontier we have on Earth."

John Carey is a science correspondent for Business Week.

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