The UAB in Antarctica team has arrived at Palmer Station and begun their work. Since the team left Birmingham two weeks ago, two events have made international news and illustrate the importance of protecting and studying Antarctica.
First, the Japanese ship Nisshin maru caught fire and began drifting in Antarctic waters. At least one crewmember has since been confirmed killed. There were fears the ship might flounder, run aground, or even sink and spill thousands of gallons of fuel oil near a breeding ground for 250,000 penguins. The latest information about the ship is that the fire is out and it is waiting for a tow back to port.
As if the news about a burning and possibly sinking ship near a fragile and pristine habitat wasn't bad enough, it turns out that the Nisshin maru is a whale processing ship. It reportedly was part of a Japanese flotilla in Antarctica waters participating in what Japan calls a scientific study. According to media reports, the Japanese group in charge said they plan to continue the hunt despite the loss of the ship.
Japan, with other nations like Denmark and Norway, wish to end the ban on whaling. The issue is very controversial with both pro- and anti-whale hunting nations debating their positions passionately. This story illustrates that even though Antarctica has no permanent population; its fragile ecosystems are still in danger from fishing, pollution and other threats.
The other piece of news from Antarctica is both welcomed and exciting. Researchers have long known there are large lakes deep beneath the ice. Lake Vostok is one of the most studied and largest these lakes. It is more than 13,000 feet below the ice and is the size of Lake Ontario.
Researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography recently published evidence that some of the lakes are connected by a system of large rivers under the ice. Some of the rivers lie beneath large ice streams, which are rivers of glacial ice that flow out to sea. Scripps' team observed that these sub-glacial rivers seem to cause the ice streams above them to flow faster to the sea.
This system of sub-glacial lakes and rivers are extensive, and much larger than originally believed. The team observed more than 500 billion gallons of water drain from one lake during the three-year observation. Scientists do not yet understand what affect these rivers have on the glaciers, the Ross Ice Shelf, ocean currents and possibly climate change.
What is amazing to a layperson is that despite human traveled to the Antarctic region for a century; we have just now discovered a water system on the scale of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. If it has taken a century of exploration to discover this, what other great discoveries are still waiting to be found by tomorrow's explorers?