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Living With Climate Change In Antarctica

Oct 10, 12 Living With Climate Change In Antarctica

Courtesy of Pat Byington, The Green Register Editor

Last year, I wrote a commentary about James McClintock, a renowned Antarctica scientist and writer who published last month the book Lost Antarctica – Adventures in a Disappearing Land. His ground-breaking book provides details how climate change is causing rapid changes in the polar ecosystem and all ecosystem levels, including society. His book is a “must read’ and can be found at amazon.com.

This column first appeared in the Birmingham News on June 19, 2011.

Renowned UAB marine biologist James McClintock, who has conducted research in Antarctica for more than 25 years, told me the following story:

“You work in a scientific lab in the quietest place on Earth — Antarctica.

“There’s a crack! Boom!

“You rush to the window of your remote lab with a number of your fellow scientists, and you witness a glacier ‘calving’ a chunk of ice the size of a house into the water. Adrenaline permeates the room.

“Ten years ago, that exciting and incredible sight would happen about once a week. It was an event. Something rare.

“Today, at that same lab in Antarctica, the calving glacial ice, the explosive sounds, are a daily occurrence.

“The scientists are almost ‘ho-hum’ about it, barely lifting their heads to recognize the melting ice.”

Such is life in a warming world.

McClintock has spent most of his life searching literally to the ends of the Earth for a cure for cancer and other human diseases. In fact, his research team has discovered marine species in the Antarctic that produce compounds active against skin cancer and influenza.

McClintock is not an alarmist. He does not have a political agenda. But he knows firsthand the Earth is warming, and he understands some of the consequences. Midwinter temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula where he works are 10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than they were 60 years ago. That may not seem like a big difference to us nonscientists, but it is devastating to a delicate polar ecosystem (and other ecosystems).

In fact, this spring, McClintock and his research associates documented an invasion of king crabs that are likely to endanger fragile Antarctic clams, snails and brittlestars, or perhaps even the sea squirts that he and his colleagues study that could unlock a cure for skin cancer. This new predator, with its crushing claws, is moving in because of the rapidly warming seas. Once they make their way up on to the Antarctic shelf, an archaic marine ecosystem that has been without crushing predators for millennia will find itself largely defenseless. King crabs could very well destroy McClintock’s living lab. For McClintock, it’s like discovering someone is about to burn down your home and your life’s work and possessions.

I have always believed the National Academies of Science and the National Research Council’s motto — “Where the nation turns for independent and expert advice” — accurately portrays that most venerable institution. As a nation, we have been seeking their advice since President Abraham Lincoln established this scientific body in 1863. Last month, without much fanfare, and little to no attention from the national media, the National Academies released their latest  report, requested by Congress, on climate change.

The report, “America’s Choices,” does not pull any punches. It reaffirms that climate change is occurring now and that the most effective strategy to combat it would be to begin cutting greenhouse gas emissions immediately.

What makes this report more shocking is the fact that it is not new. As far back as 2005, the National Academies of the United States, France, Canada, the United Kingdom, India, Italy, Japan, Germany, Brazil and China have jointly called on policymakers throughout the world to address climate change. The message from the National Academies six years ago was virtually identical to the one in 2011. Climate change is real. We need to drastically reduce greenhouse emissions. We need to aggressively seek technological and scientific solutions. Delaying will only make matters worse.

And now more than ever, the signs of climate change are becoming more and more stark. The extreme weather and floods in the Midwest and South this spring, historical droughts and fires in Texas and Arizona, permafrost disappearing in Russia/Siberia, floods in Pakistan, massive drought followed by flooding in Australia and whole villages in Alaska disappearing because of sea level rise are just a few recent examples.

The climate is changing so rapidly that the Arbor Day Foundation has changed its recommendations for when and where you should plant your trees.

Are we going to follow the National Academy of Sciences and countless scientists’ advice on climate change? Are we going to listen to McClintock and try to save a place that can lead to cures for cancer? Or are we going to barely lift our heads and refuse to recognize the climate changing around us?

The National Academy’s 2005 climate change statement can be found here.

Image Credit: Mogens Trolle / Shutterstock

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