Love and Loss on the Ice
By Matt Windsor
In his new book, Lost Antarctica, polar biologist Jim McClintock, Ph.D., offers plenty of reasons to be concerned about the fate of the frozen continent: a few trillion, at least.
That’s the approximate number of sea butterflies currently floating in the chilly waters of the Southern Ocean. The tiny, shelled creatures serve as the base for an intricate food chain that extends upward to the mighty blue whale. Hundreds of species depend on the sea butterfly, but it is under assault on a massive scale. Rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, transferred to the polar oceans by complex climate effects and simple chemistry, are making the sea butterfly’s home waters more acidic.
When the pH reaches a critical point, it will dissolve the animals’ protective shells—killing them and risking the collapse of an entire ecosystem. Acid seas are the “other CO2 problem,” McClintock says—one that, unlike the problem of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere, has received little media attention.
Lost Antarctica offers a host of other reasons why we need to sweat the seemingly small stuff now occurring in this icy world. Combining the latest scientific data with personal observations from two decades of Antarctic research, McClintock lays bare the intricate inner workings of his beloved continent. In Antarctica, he explains, everything from microscopic phytoplankton to state-sized ice shelves is interconnected—and under threat.
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UAB Magazine: Your book describes many worrying changes in Antarctica. Which is the most apparent when you visit?
McClintock: The most obvious to me are the changes in the ice, especially in the Antarctic Peninsula [the section of the continent closest to South America]. The annual sea ice along the peninsula has receded about 40 percent in the last 30 years. And that has had a major effect on a community that surrounds Palmer Station. There has been a large colony of Adelie penguins on Torgersen Island for 700 years, but in the last 30, it has dwindled rapidly. In the book, I call it a “ghost rookery.” The Adelies use the sea ice to reach their feeding grounds. But as the ice has shrunk, they have had to swim farther and farther to reach those grounds. These animals are living right on the edge of their energy budgets anyway, and they can’t make it. Then there’s the warming of the air, which makes it more humid and increases snowfall. The Adelies are genetically programmed to show up on Torgersen at the same time every year, but now they are often caught up in unseasonably late snowstorms while nesting their eggs. And when the snow melts, the eggs drown.
UAB Magazine: After 20 trips to Antarctica, what keeps you coming back?
McClintock: Several things. Antarctica’s natural beauty is just breathtaking. You look off in the distance and think you can reach out and touch a mountain range, and it’s actually hundreds of miles away. Also, Antarctica is one of the most fabulous places on our planet to study marine biology. When you dive under the ice, the seafloor is covered with life—just as much as you would find in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. There are so many intriguing scientific questions about the marine life and how it’s adapted to such a unique environment. I feel very lucky to get to work there.
UAB Magazine: Considering you named your book Lost Antarctica, do you have any hope that the continent can be saved?
McClintock: We haven’t yet lost the continent, but its marine life is genuinely being threatened. There is hope that remediations that will reduce the production of greenhouse gases will slow down what is happening. But the dramatic changes being witnessed are a wake-up call. I’m not saying we need to give up our cars tomorrow. But we do need to start thinking rationally about where we can make accommodations in energy conservation.
|Watch a live webcam of activity at Palmer Station—and follow UAB's Antarctica research team on their blog.|
In December I got the chance to lead a group on a philanthropic “Climate Change Challenge” expedition cruise for Abercrombie and Kent to Antarctica. With All Seasons Travel here in Birmingham handling the cruise bookings and in my role as a professor of Polar and Marine Biology at UAB, I took a group of 16 from Birmingham, which makes 100 people from this city that I’ve been able to take down there over the past six years. Many of them are business leaders and other very influential people in our community. It’s life-impacting. They come back and are ambassadors for Antarctica.
UAB Magazine: Do you ever see yourself retiring from Antarctic expeditions?
McClintock: Once you’ve been, getting back to Antarctica becomes a vocation in and of itself. I don’t see this amazing continent leaving my horizon until I physically can’t go. It’s a love affair, really, and I’m not ready to give it up.
James McClintock is the UAB Endowed University Professor of Polar and Marine Biology. You can purchase a copy of Lost Antarctica at any bookstore or online. The book’s website is www.lostantarctica.com.
McClintock on what he couldn’t live without on a polar expedition.
I’ve got it down to five “C”s. First is communication. When I was a graduate student on my first trip in 1982, all we had were Western Union telegrams. And at $3 a word, I couldn’t say much. Now I have an Internet-connected phone in my office and another beside my bed. To be able to talk to my wife and family whenever I need to is a wonderful thing.
You can’t go without a camera. You’ll never be able to accurately capture that amazing landscape with a camera, but you have to have one. You can’t walk ashore among 100,000 penguins without a camera—you’d go catatonic.
Camaraderie is vital. You’ve left your family behind, so you need that sense of connection to others. And I’ve always experienced a wonderful camaraderie, not only within my research station “family” but in many other settings. A ship pulls in from Argentina or Chile, and you get to share a glass of wine with the crew and talk about your work. The same thing occurs when you visit another country’s station. It transcends gender and age, too.
Warm clothing, of course, is another must. Despite climate warming, you still need to wear a jacket when you go outside! Several layers, in fact.
Finally, you need a good chef. Working in an Antarctic station is a lot like going to sea. Food is vital to the psychology of the experience; you have serious consequences to morale if you don’t have good food. We aren’t eating steak and lobster every night by any means, but the food has always been good. We even get fresh fruit and vegetables—what we call “freshies”—regularly, but it wasn’t always like that. Now, at Palmer Station, the ships come about once a month, at least.
When a ship arrives, everyone drops what they’re doing and goes down to the “freshies line.” We lift boxes of avocados, grapefruit, etc., and pass them from person to person until they’re safely in the kitchen.
When I worked at McMurdo Station in the 1980s and ’90s, we’d have periods with no freshies. I remember a sign over the lettuce, which had been grown in a greenhouse at the station, saying that each person was entitled to one leaf. Thankfully, that’s no longer the case.
Educating Truckers on the Go
By Todd Dills
When UAB nurse practitioner Karen Heaton, Ph.D., met her husband, a long-haul owner-operator, she discovered that the nation’s truckers carry a host of unmet health needs along with their cargo. In particular, “I was struck when I read that individuals who are sleep-deprived and driving have the same levels of impairment as those who are intoxicated,” Heaton says.
Now Heaton, an assistant professor in the UAB School of Nursing, is testing an online intervention program focusing on sleep and fatigue management among the nation’s truck drivers. She has been visiting industry trade shows and reaching out to trucking companies and associations to recruit drivers to participate in the study, which is funded by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
Heaton’s goal is to arm truck drivers with the information they need to recognize the importance of sleep for safety, well-being, and, ultimately, baseline human health. If the online model proves to be effective in reinforcing the basics of sleep among participants and encouraging them to modify their behavior, Heaton hopes that trucking companies will add it to driver-safety training. The program could even become part of the first health-related requirements for Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)-regulated training, something every new long-haul driver would take in the interest of public safety.
Energetics Research Could Provide Clues
By Jeff Hansen
Is obesity an adaptive response to poverty? Playmobil people explain in under a minute in this latest edition of Science in 60 Seconds.
In the summer of 2011, UAB researcher David Allison, Ph.D., often hiked up the Blue Trail of Oak Mountain State Park to Peavine Falls.
It turns out that he was starting a journey down an unconventional path.
Accompanied by postdocs, graduate students, family, and his dog, Gigi, Allison used the hikes to launch wide-ranging scientific give-and-takes, dreaming up hypothetical experiments and asking “what-if” questions about the origins of obesity.
In turn, those questions have led to one of UAB’s most unusual grants—an $8-million, five-year Transformative Research Award from the National Institutes of Health, the first ever for the university. These grants, the NIH says, target “exceptionally innovative” research projects that “tend to be inherently risky.” Loosely speaking, the funding enables researchers to gamble on big-payoff ideas.
Perception Is Everything
The ambitious idea from Allison’s team proposes that an organism’s perception of its environment has the power to make the organism change how quickly it ages (even though it may not be aware it is doing so). Furthermore, perception of the environment could make an organism alter its efforts to seek food and store more of that food as energy—in the form of caches of nuts and berries for birds, for example, or body fat in humans and mice.
Body fat is a key term, because ultimately, this UAB-led research seeks to understand one of the great public health puzzles of the past 20 years—why America has seen an explosion in life-shortening obesity. In Alabama, one of the fattest states, a higher rate of obesity among poorer groups of people creates health disparities. Obesity also increases rates of some cancers.
These problems are a focus for the Office of Energetics in the UAB School of Public Health, which debuted in July 2011 and is headed by Allison, a psychologist who also serves as the school’s associate dean for science. Energetics research looks at why and how biological organisms acquire, store, and use metabolizable energy—which includes food and body fat.