Archive for November, 2007

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.


 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.


 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.


 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.


(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.

Read Full Post »

Faster Than the Speed of Luggage


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.


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.

Read Full Post »

Funny sign alert #3


Needless to say, the possums are different in New Zealand.

Read Full Post »


The first of five articles I wrote about iron fertilization of the oceans for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Oceanus magazine is online. It’s an overview of the issue from scientific, environmental, economic, and regulatory angles. The other four articles look into each of those angles in a bit more detail and should be online soon.

Iron fertilization of the oceans is a form of geoengineering, a controversial idea that humans can intentionally alter the Earth to make it more hospitable. Critics assail geoengineering as unethical, arrogant, and just begging for tragic side-effects. Proponents counter that the human race has been unintentionally altering the Earth for centuries, so we might as well use some forethought for a change. It’s the stuff of epic arguments, but the fact that it’s even under discussion points at the bigger issue. Climate change has us in a deep hole, and we are furiously digging:

  • Every time you burn through a 15-gallon tank of gas, you put about 300 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air.
  • The world currently emits more than 7 billion tons of carbon every year.
  • That’s about 25 billion tons of carbon dioxide, or enough to raise atmospheric CO2 by nearly two parts per million every year (roughly speaking, and that’s after accounting for the tendency of ocean and land to take up about half of what we emit).
  • Before the Industrial Revolution, atmospheric CO2 was about 280 p.p.m. Now it’s around 380. The most optimistic long-term scenarios talk about stabilizing levels at 560 p.p.m. (double the pre-industrial levels).
  • The remarkably successful E.U. Emissions Trading Scheme last year traded about 430 million tons of carbon emissions equivalents, or one-fourteenth of the problem, assuming all the accounting and regulation was done correctly, which is kind of a big assumption.
  • Emissions reductions are still emissions, and they will continue to accumulate in the atmosphere as long as they are above zero.
  • Early climate models were criticized for including unrealistic emissions scenarios that environmentalists had trumped up to make the predictions more scary. Looking back, our actual emissions have pegged at the highest of those estimates, according to David Keith of the University of Calgary.
  • Even if the U.S. gets its act together and joins Europe to cut emissions, there are roughly two billion Indians and Chinese getting ready to go car shopping. If those people were to match current American levels of car ownership (more than one car per American), global oil demand would more than triple, Elizabeth Kolbert recently reported in the New Yorker.
  • And though we’re not making a ton of progress on alternative fuels, we keep finding more petroleum to burn. Kolbert also recently described the oil sand boom in Alberta, Canada. It has the potential to supply 1.7 trillion barrels of “synthetic crude” oil (yippee!). Worse, the procedure is energy intensive, putting each barrel’s total emissions tab at up to 140 percent that of straight-from-the-well oil.

So while changing light bulbs and carrying groceries in canvas tote bags and driving something smaller than a rhinoceros are great starts, they’re not really getting us anywhere near a solution. That’s why people are talking about iron fertilization and putting sulfur particles into the atmosphere. But just like in Carlos Moffat‘s favorite Seinfeld episode, anytime you find yourself doing something so crazy that it requires a helmet, it may be time to rethink.

Enter the carbon tax: What a concept: paying for producing an undesirable waste product. I mean, we pay to have our trash picked up. Every time we replace car tires we pay to have the old ones disposed of. Every homeowner pays a sewage bill.

Opponents cite the strain such a pervasive tax would place on the economy. Everything we buy that uses petroleum as a material or during shipping would get more expensive. The costs would multiply and suddenly everyday Americans wouldn’t be able to afford their (seemingly) modest lifestyles. We would find ourselves having to make dramatic changes in the way we live, eat, shop.

But then again, isn’t that the point? As long as riding a bike to work seems like a noble deed, many of us are happy to stop there and feel good about ourselves. But if we finally make burning carbon cost something, people and industries will start to make changes on their own, simply out of service to their bottom line. No idealism required.

(Image: New York Times)

Read Full Post »


Against my better judgment, I continue with the cute baby pictures.

This is a Leptasterias pusilla, or six-rayed star, from Greyhound Rock about 15 miles north of Santa Cruz. Pusilla is Latin for eentsy-weentsy. Apparently, they can get to be a few inches across, but that’s about it. This one was nosing around the sea lettuce in the minus-tide tidepools brought on by the new moon.

Read Full Post »

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?

Read Full Post »

badge.jpgWell, it’s a new month, and those dedicated bloggers at the Carnival of the Blue have racked up a whole bunch of new posts for you to check out in case surf.bird.scribble hasn’t been exactly pumping out the content lately.


This month’s host is the adorable cephalopodcast.com, a dynamite production that you can either read at work or take with you on your commute.


You can choose from some purplish prose about late-night mangrove-walking or learn about mole crabs (note: they’re over here in the Pacific, too).  Someone points out the sad fact that the most sea stars you’ve ever seen have probably been in bathrooms. There’s a post about that ancient quahog crab that researchers recently killed. (C.A.H. was all over that story already in our own comments section.) Also in local news is a post on the loggerhead turtle bycatch story that UC Santa Cruz broke a couple weeks ago. The Scribbler took secret delight in being linked just above Carl Safina (actual page-hit comparisons notwithstanding), and Miriam Gardner got snarky on iron fertilization, but had the lit. cited to back herself up.


And in case your eyes glazed over in that last paragraph, there’s always the video of the manatee’s heart exploding across a necropsy lab. Happy reading.

Read Full Post »

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)

Read Full Post »

halloween.jpg One great thing about Santa Cruz is that they take Halloween seriously. This is the place where, in case you don’t remember, adolescent vampires ripped apart that boardwalk security guard in the opening minutes of the Lost Boys. (The boardwalk and roller coasters are still here, though they’ve had to find another security guard.)

Now there’s proof, though admittedly grainy, from a picture I had the presence of mind to take last night while being carried off into the mist by bloodthirsty harpies. That’s downtown, where they close the streets and the whole county floods down Pacific avenue and at least 90 percent of the people are in costumes.

Okay, some are your run of the mill cavemen, cheerleaders, and ghouls, plus a large number of sexy nurses, angels, devils, kittens, maids, nuns, firefighters, construction workers, and sorority girls who appear to be wearing their underwear. But there’s much more imaginative stuff, too, including several sorority girls in their underwear on stilts.

There were two Mongomery Burnses, two V for Vendettas, at least three “Gift in a Box”es (two at the same party, awkward), and at least two Dudes armed with bathrobe and white russian. There was a whole moving crew “Oopsmybad, Inc.” complete with furniture, lamps, and carpet; a Dance Dance Revolution machine; and several detail-oriented Hogwarts members, including a Luna Lovegood with real radish earrings and the latest copy of The Quibbler. (Here’s Luna herself, along with an authentically towel-caped Superman and a Mysterious Yakuza Assassin.)

ll_mya_sup.jpg I didn’t see any ominous all-devouring Blobs, and for that we can be thankful, since a recent post by a Cornell mycologist has concluded that they do actually exist. This is a great read accompanied by stills from the various Blob movies and a clip of an actual slime mold actually devouring the entire contents of a Petri dish (before moving on to Manhattan, presumably).

The writer sets about debunking the notion, advanced in the 1988 Blob movie, that the gelatinous monster is the result of a government-financed cross of a bacteria and a virus in space. That’s just silly, he says. Slime molds, on the other hand, are gummy and blurb around enveloping and then digesting things.

Is this any different from The Blob absorbing an entire phone booth to eat the waitress inside? Of course, The Blob has evolved to eat people (and kittens)—not just bacteria, but this appears to be a common mutation acquired in space.

Read the rest of it here… if you dare. (Thanks, charles!)

Read Full Post »