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I returned from Antarctica nearly two months ago to find it considerably busier ’round these northern parts. Among the things that almost slipped past:

Dumping iron in the ocean to get carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. It’s premature to do it commercially, and it may never turn out to be a good idea. But we could learn a lot about how the ocean works if we do some more experiments in that direction. That’s the gist of a special issue of Oceanus on the subject, in which I got to write five of the articles. Also covered: It’s become quite common to ridicule the idea for various appalling but unspecified side-effects; here are some details. Also, could it ever work? Why are economists and carbon traders interested? And what makes us think it might work in the first place?

Apparently, way more water has been dragged into the bowels of the Earth under Costa Rica than anyone ever thought before. Time was you could just dig up a handful of olivine crystals and spin the story any way you wanted – but that was before Jenn Wade got ahold of some clinopyroxenes and squeezed from them the truth. The verdict: Throw away your boron, your beryllium. Cast out your futile barium/lanthanum assays. Stop clinging to the illusions conjured in your strontium-neodymium dens. There are two kinds of magma beneath Costa Rica, and I, for one, am not going to pretend otherwise any longer. Questions? Ask the magmatic maverick herself (and check out her dancing skills) at Danger Bay.

There’s a fascinating story about whether chickens came to South America in Spanish galleons, via the Atlantic, or Polynesian outriggers, via the Pacific, here. (Thanks to El Nuthatchenyo for the tip.)

And thanks to the New York Times for keeping tabs on kimchee‘s inexorable expansion around the globe… and into outer space.

p.s. Hands up who wants to hear the best parts from Bleak House?

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Every once in a while the New York Times runs an article just to see how many jokes it can slip under the radar; today is just such a day.

How else do you explain the most revered newspaper in America dedicating valuable paper (ca. $1,200 a column inch, if I’m not mistaken) to news about the punctuation on a city train? Siccing their reporters on the likes of Louis Menand and the woman who wrote “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves” (never mind Menand’s arch New Yorker review of ES&L, which was far more haughty than a mere pan; here, they agree)? Digging up a Kurt Vonnegut quote that includes both Hemingway and his second-most despised punctuation mark? Someone even drew out the perfect quote from Noam Chomsky, giving Bush detractors and Chomsky haters alike something to laugh about.

And the coup de grace – was this the brilliant late addition of an overworked copyeditor? – bringing a mass murderer into the story; it’s just a setup for a groaner at the end of the sentence.

One of the school system’s most notorious graduates, David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam serial killer who taunted police and the press with rambling handwritten notes, was, as the columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote, the only murderer he ever encountered who could wield a semicolon just as well as a revolver. (Mr. Berkowitz, by the way, is now serving an even longer sentence.)

(Thanks: C.A.H.)

(Image: semicolon subway commuters; Scribble Images)

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Tracker Alerts the Headline Police

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Would you read a story about a new advance in in vitro fertilization, whereby an inherited mitochondrial disease is averted through transplantation of a fertilized nucleus?

How about a story about scientists creating the first embryo with three parents?

That’s what I thought. Never mind the scientists, who in one well-reported story, said “it would be incorrect to say that the embryos have three parents.”

What really happened was a neat but unfrightening transplant of a fertilized egg nucleus (with the standard set of DNA from two parents) into a donor egg containing a third woman’s mitochondria. As you may remember, mitochondria are those little steam engines that live in our cells by the thousands. They have their own set of DNA that governs how their machinery converts glucose into energy the rest of the cell can use.

Interestingly, mitochondria are the descendants of bacteria that our cells enveloped way back in the mists of evolutionary time back when “we” were some version of multicellular sludge in a tidepool somewhere. Mitochondrial DNA has had very little to do with the rest of our genes ever since – it’s one reason why they’re so useful to biologists tracing evolutionary lineages. So given the origin of mitochondria, you might just as well argue that we all have three parents.

But what good is explaining all that to a headline writer who has only 10 words with which to catch the eyes of thousands of readers? That’s how we get “Brit scientists brew up three-parent embryo” and similar rickety headlines appearing all over the world.

Fortunately, the world has someone who calls out headline abuses such as these: the Knight Science Journalism Tracker. It’s his job to scan news stories each day and point out what’s been done right and wrong. It’s much-needed peer review for journalists, conducted by one of their own with four decades (correct me if I’m wrong) of experience. Worth checking regularly.

And how did the Tracker resist the too-easy headline for his own post? He bypassed “parents” and went straight for the oldest attention grabber of them all: Sex triangle – though the headline continues, honorably: “An embryo with one woman’s mitochondria, and another’s nuclear DNA (a man’s involved too) “

(Image via the X-men)

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The new year ticked over while I was in Kaikoura, New Zealand, a southern hemisphere version of Monterey. That is to say, a deep submarine canyon veers close to shore and pumps nutrients into the surface waters. Seabirds and whales gather for a year-round feast. Seals lounge on flat mudstone reefs; kelp fronds drape the rocks and anemones tremble in the tidepools. California quail sit on fenceposts, and someone’s even planted Monterey cypress in the park entrance.

I spent new year’s eve (the daylit portion of it, anyway) in a 25-foot boat with Gary Melville, an old fisherman with hair the color of sea spray and hands like cured ham. A deckhand on a tractor backed us down the boat ramp while we were aboard, and Gary gunned the engine as soon as we were floating. The raw windswell was running about 5 feet at 4 seconds, which is to say burly. Gary approached it like a tailback, gunning sideways for openings or slowing to take the unavoidable hit head-on. For 20 minutes, it was all red-billed and black-backed gulls.

At a sudden stop, Gary ran to the stern and I figured Oh Great, engine trouble. But he just opened a metal bucket and flung over a hunk of fish liver in a metal cage. In a few minutes we had Buller’s shearwaters all over us, two-toned gray-and-brown upperwings, clean white below. Then came the others, escalating the armaments: Hutton’s shearwater (endemic to right here); northern giant petrel, shy albatross (two subspecies), and the big kahuna, wandering albatross. By the end, we had a half-dozen of them, the big Antipodean subspecies and the massive Gibson’s subspecies. 

They flew in from upwind, carved a clean bottom turn in our wake, wings stretching out past both sides of view in my binoculars, and coasted in through a pile of petrels and shearwaters to take possession. Bigger than a turkey, with massive chest, they were deceptively light on their wings. The biggest one arrived in one swoop past the bait, then calmly hung out its left foot in the water and made a neat pivot like a kayaker catching an eddy. 

Not feeling the proper respect from all present, the bird went after its neighbor, a slightly smaller wanderer, by rearing up on its wings and chest-thumping its opponent, then diving in with a beak to the neck. Its point was made, and everyone calmed down. Minor skirmishes distracted the albatrosses’ attention, and in those few moments a little red-billed gull or mottled, chocolatey cape pigeon nipped in to grab a string of fat. Back at the dock, 14 gannets made a late appearance, heading north in formation. Happy new year to you, too. 

(Photo via flickr)

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Fast and Loose

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Those of you who have been glued to the Polar Discovery website (bless you) already know of our Christmas-day hike to the 1911 stone igloo at Cape Crozier. It was great. We walked across the stupendous Crozier landscape, straight into a fog bank that draped us like a sheet. MacOps, the official radio folks at McMurdo, gave us the wrong gps coordinates for the igloo and led us out to the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, where we couldn’t see a thing. (We stopped before the crevasses started.)

We may have been lost, but we wasn’t bad lost. We knew right around where we was lost at. And we were armed to the teeth with technology. I whipped out the Iridium phone and called the paleoceanographer-staffed GPS Assistance Hotline that operates out of Santa Cruz, Calif., and we were on our way.

So, the funny part is that now we’re back in Christchurch, New Zealand. Chris picks up the weekend paper, and on the FREAKING FRONT PAGE, FOLKS, right under poor old Benazir Bhutto, is this headline:

Mind-googling rescue recalls ghosts of Antarctic heroes

No kidding. It’s totally cool to have the story picked up in The Weekend Press (“New Zealand Newspaper of the Year,” if the masthead is to be believed). On the other hand, it would have been nice if the reporter had actually talked – or even hazarded an e-mail – to anyone involved. Or perhaps just mention that the “quotes” he got from us were just text lifted from our websites.

No harm done, really, except perhaps for making us sound like a somewhat clueless “team of five modern-day penguin researchers” rather than a group of friends out for a Christmas-day ramble. And the cardinal sin: no links back to our sites. Bad reporter.

(Image: Viola)

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Shackleton’s Hut at Cape Royds

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First of all, thanks to all you faithful readers who have been checking out the posts at Polar Discovery and writing in with questions and encouragement. The pace has been somewhat grueling so far, with so much to learn and so much of my brain out of commission due to being shellshocked by all the scenery and penguins and so forth.

I’m not trying to gloat in this picture, but I thought since I had  managed to get the camera pointed at both me and Ernest Shackleton’s 1908 hut at the same time, it would be kind of silly not to post it.

We camped with David Ainley and Jean  Pennycook on a rise just out of sight to the upper left of this picture. Each morning we would file down past Shackleton’s hut and out to the penguin colony, which is  only about 150 meters away in the direction I’m looking.

You might notice the bright yellow wood of the front door in this picture – that’s a new door, complete with padlock, that the Kiwis put on just this year when they finished renovating the place (a bit more on that here, if you haven’t seen it already).

Even with the knowledge that the place wasn’t exactly the same as it was when the last men left it in 1914, it was still a shivery feeling walking in and seeing the cots laid out, the old, rusting tools stowed on the shelves, and the stores of candles and table salt still stacked up against the wall. Old wool socks, incredibly long, almost waist high, and patched here and there with leather and long stitches with what looked like sail thread, and left looped to dry over a clothesline made it seem much closer than a century away. And I finally saw the famous reindeer-hide sleeping bags – big square things with not a stitch of fabric on them: just leather on the outside and fur on the inside. They had the design of a fuzzy slipper, with a hole at about chest level you climb in through, and big collars to wrap over yourself.

The color of the original wood is amazing, a cold gray with the grain exposed, ridged and pitted where it’s been sandblasted by storms slinging volcanic dust. I found strips of wood that had been ripped from the siding or roof – and even cast-off food tins, corroded and deep red-brown – and blown a half mile away  or more, over three or four ridges, to settle in amongst the dirt.  My last day at Royds, I got a small sample of that wind.  It whistled out of the south and buffeted our tent. We hitched a ride back to McMurdo with some passing fish biologists (from Santa Cruz, it turned out) since the helicopters weren’t flying. The wind hit Cape Royds and funneled up the gullies, strengthening as the sides narrowed. Coming over the lip carrying a box of solar panels and headed down to the ice. I was stood straight up by the force of it, and had to lean out against the air just to get started going downhill.

Now I’m leaving for a week at Mt. Morning, sampling young (25,000 year old) lava flows with geologists. We’ll be posting to Polar Discovery by Iridium phone – follow me there…

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orange_duffel.jpg I carried my bright-orange duffel through the last of the crisp 60 degree new Zealand air and onto the C-17, which – unlike last Friday – took off and headed for Antarctica at 300 knots. One of the most comfortable flights ever, despite the reputation, owing to unlimited legroom and even more elbow room than you get on commercial flights. The C-17 is cavernous. We sit backs to the fuselage, facing monstrous shipping containers – one holds an ice-coring drill that aims to go back 150,000 years in time through the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Coming out of the dim recesses of the plane and into Antarctic whiteness was breathtaking. The horizon opened up and hulking black mountains appeared as little chevrons in the distance. It felt vast. Looking out the door I had guessed at our orientation from the shadows, and I immediately started piecing together the sights. This must be White Island, where the Polar parties made a dogleg before heading straight to the pole. There’s the Royal Society Range, with the broad Koettlitz glacier running at its feet. Behind me, I realized, was McMurdo, huge brown dorms stacked on the hillside, crosses to fallen explorers standing on windy ridgetops, the geodesic instrument dome I had seen in so many pictures in full view. Like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, it has a familiarity, but also surprise as the pieces come together slightly differently than you’d imagined.

We had landed on the thick blue ice of the Ross Ice Shelf. It wasn’t until 15 minutes later that we touched the gray-brown volcanic rock of Antarctica. It was 20 degrees  outside and cooling off.

So where exactly am I, you ask? Somewhere down in Antarctica, but I have realized in recent conversations that not everyone has been reading quite so much on the subject, nor do they have quite such a grasp on the geography of the place. So let’s start at the beginning:

 Antarctica is big: 40 percent again larger than the U.S., and that’s not counting the tremendous ice sheets or the pack ice that forms each winter. It looks a little like a rubber ducky with a very long beak (just tilt your head to the left). That beak is the Antarctic Peninsula, which is technically part of the Andes and juts up toward South America.

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 We’re going to the other side, down behind the neck of the ducky. That curve between neck and back is the Ross Sea, the place where ships can get their farthest south, all the way to about 78 degrees south latitude, or a bit more than 1,320 miles from the pole.

rosssea_n.jpg If the Ross Sea doesn’t look like much on the map, then McMurdo Sound is nothing, just a little comma at the southwest edge. Pretty hard to pick out without zooming in.

Guarding the eastern edge is Ross Island, a speck wedged up against the Ross Ice Shelf that nevertheless contains a 13,000 foot active volcano and 450,000 adelie penguins (if you count the youngsters). Not to mention McMurdo Station, our home base for the next month.

 McMurdo Station is on Hut Point peninsula, where Scott made his Discovery expedition camp in 1902. To the north is Cape Evans, where the Terra Nova expedition stayed, and 20 miles from McMurdo is Cape Royds, our first camp, with David Ainley and about 4,000 pairs of penguins. We’re hoping to be there by Saturday.

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 Jump across McMurdo Sound – that comma that you couldn’t even see from the Ross Sea map. About 50 miles from McMurdo is Mt. Morning, where we’ll spend the middle of December with Woods Hole geologists Mark Kurz, Adam Soule, and grad student Andrea Burke.

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 After a scheduled laundry day at McMurdo, we’ll head back out to Cape Crozier, of Worst Journey fame, for Christmas with Grant Ballard and some 300,000 penguins (adults and young). Here we’ll hope to investigate Igloo Spur as well as make the trek over to the Emperor penguins huddled on the sea ice south of the Adelies.

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(I love the little penguin icons on the map.)

 And that’s our month in Antarctica – now you’re situated. So far it’s been great, but it’s been nine hours of mostly indoor heat and cafeteria food. We’ll see how melting ice for water – not to mention sleeping on it – work out. Hope you stay tuned.

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Faster Than the Speed of Luggage

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I spent 40 minutes sitting in a traffic jam on the taxiway at LAX. Dense fog had confused the pilot ahead of us about which way he was supposed to taxi. As those minutes ticked by on the already delayed flight, they trickled away from my margin for making my trans-Pacific connection to Auckland. That led to a mad dash across three terminals and a security screening a few minutes after they let me off the plane.

I made the flight, but my bags didn’t. I wound up in Christchurch Wednesday morning with the clothes I was wearing, plus several thousand dollars in electronic equipment. My warm clothes, spare contacts, sunglasses, insulated boots, and emergency chocolate were somewhere in the western hemisphere, I was told, or if not there then possibly in the eastern.

So I did what I could: toured the Christchurch botanical gardens and paid homage to the statue of Scott (seen above next to Chris Linder, leader and chief photographer of the present expedition).

English birds are everywhere here – more numerous than they were in England last time I was there. It’s spring, and blackbirds sing at dusk, seemingly from every tree. Song thrushes hop about on the lawns and chaffinches make sorties after dropped crumbs at outdoor restaurants. Greenfinches jeer from the treetops and European goldfinches peck about on the ground almost like starlings. (Of course, there are plenty of starlings and house sparrows, too.)

Then there are the weird birds. A totally non-magpie-ish white-backed magpie and a mod black-and-brown scaup that’s endemic. A tiny gull with red legs, red bill, and red ring around the eye (appropriately named the red-billed gull). Shags (cormorants) in city parks.

This afternoon we were issued our standard Antarctica clothing. I now have a bright-red parka with my name written on a velcro nametag. We were given a bewildering assortment of insulated, leather, wool, suede, and polypro gloves and mittens to choose from, but only one kind of socks, of gray fleece about 1/2 inch thick. Trying the gear on made it a bit easier to grasp that it’s going to be cold out there.

Oh – and just like a miracle, my bags appeared off an Air New Zealand flight this afternoon. The sharp folks at my hotel had them delivered straight to my changing room at the U.S. Antarctic Program. Apparently the bags have been to Melbourne since the last time I saw them. But here they are now, festooned with tags and “RUSH” stickers meant to get them here just in time, so all is right.

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Christchurch in November has been sunny and hot; walking around town has had me sweating in my one set of clothes. But it’s snowing right now in McMurdo and there’s some doubt about whether we’ll make it down tomorrow. If we do, then tonight will be the last natural darkness for five weeks.

But let’s not count any chickens before they hatch.

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phytoplankton off norway

The controversial “ocean restoration” firm Planktos has set sail from Miami with a hundred tons of hematite, vowing to dump it off the Galapagos to set off a huge plankton bloom. They’re making so much noise about it that bloggers everywhere and even the New York Times is paying attention. It’s exactly what we don’t need.

As it happens, I just spent all of October writing about this idea, called ocean iron fertilization, for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (articles due out soon). The work was prompted by a 2-day meeting of 80-odd scientists, economists, lawyers, and environmentalists who all met to discuss the issue.

In all the news, Planktos is a polarizing figure – but in making themselves look bad they encourage reporters and bloggers to weigh in with hasty fact-gathering and snide rhetoric that obscures the larger issue: that many intelligent, scrupulous people are thinking very carefully and very clearly about iron fertilization’s prospects.

A few clarifications, then:

  • This isn’t a hastily devised and implemented scheme: the idea is 20 years old, and the first ocean tests were conducted 14 years ago. Since then, there have been a total of 12 ocean experiments on the scale of one ton of iron and 100 square kilometers. Planktos wants to do 100 times that.
  • Iron doesn’t cause plankton blooms everywhere; in fact the only place it’s likely to work on a large scale is the Southern Ocean.
  • The idea is for plankton blooms to draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and then sink that carbon so it doesn’t re-enter the atmosphere.
  • Very little carbon will reach the seafloor, but 20% to 50% may escape the top 200 meters or so, where it will drift in currents that may not return to the surface for a few decades to centuries. In that respect, iron fertilization is not all that different from growing a forest, with the bonus that it won’t all leap back into the air at once, the way a forest is susceptible to a forest fire.
  • Even Planktos’s 100-ton experiment is still small on the scale of the oceans. It’s a pity they appear to be doing it without proper scientific support or a published monitoring methodology – it means they’ll likely gain very little useful information from their work. But since it’s relatively small, it’s also unlikely to cause great repercussions in the ocean ecosystem (as Ken Caldeira noted in comments to the NYT piece linked above).
  • But are they going to get rich selling this “global warming snake oil”? Probably not. Despite their stated intent to sell carbon credits in regulatory markets, those markets make absolutely no allowances at present for selling carbon from iron fertilization. That leaves the much smaller voluntary markets, where people buy credits to make themselves feel better about their consumptive lifestyles. In those markets, perceived quality is key, and credits hawked by a salesman in a rusty tanker may have trouble competing.

But bear in mind why people are taking iron fertilization seriously at all: We face a carbon emissions problem at a scale that almost no one comprehends gravely enough. We need to keep 7 billion tons of carbon out of the atmosphere every single year – not counting what’s about to happen in India and China (more on this in a coming post about why you should support a carbon tax). Subtract  from that number whatever progress we make this year, then, come January, add another 7 billion tons. The result is going to be pretty close to 14 billion tons. What about the year after that?

Unfortunately, the visible figurehead of this movement is a shifty businessman with terrible taste in slogans (I mean, “Voyage of Recovery”??). But don’t dismiss the whole field because of one person with a used research ship and a bad business model.

After we’ve changed out all our light bulbs, hiked the price of air travel, switched to biodiesel, planted trees on all the remaining land, and persuaded Congress to begin talking about the possibility of enacting legislation to encourage further changes, we’ll still be facing a hefty carbon liability. What then?

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wedge-tailed shearwater News flash: the hardworking staff of surf.bird.scribble is taking the science- can- be- fun- to- read- especially- if- occasionally- combined- with- surf- clips gospel to the world. Check out twice-weekly posts at the Gist on Smithsonian.com, along with other talented bloggers like Virginia Hughes.

Stay tuned to s.b.s. for stories too quirky to tell anywhere else… and by all means send me your links and ideas! (aphriza <in the vicinity of> gmail <small black spot> com)

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