COLUMN ONE : Struggling to Protect ‘The Ice’ : Tourism and even scientific research are threatening Antarctica’s pristine beauty. But the push is on to preserve this last untainted laboratory.
The upturned hull of a sunken Argentine tourist ship has nearly slipped from sight, barely breaking the surface now like one of the playful whales that swim these frigid but plentiful waters.
Yet the somber memories of the wreck last year, and the oil it spilled within sight of a premier U.S. research station, endure as forceful symbols of the hazards posed by the growing human presence in Antarctica.
Although the 315 tourists and crew of the Bahia Paraiso survived and the spill was minor by most standards, the accident gave new impetus to a movement to respect this continent not only as a place of forbidding beauty but also as a fragile reservoir ensuring the Earth’s health.
That has meant, in part, cleaning up the unsightly mess that developed in recent decades from Antarctic exploration itself. But more broadly, it has encouraged a changing mentality toward tourism, research methods and exploitation. The broken hulk also has reminded the world of the need to preserve Antarctica as a uniquely shared and still-untainted laboratory for understanding the planet’s seas and skies.
The 25 nations that make up the Antarctic Treaty organization are working with renewed energy on tougher rules to govern activities in the region. And some countries are rebelling against an already strict 1988 agreement to govern oil drilling and mineral mining, arguing instead for an outright ban.
The National Science Foundation, which runs the U.S. Antarctic program, is removing the junk heaps that scar its three permanent bases and is hauling shiploads of rubble back north. Even before the Bahia Paraiso sank, an additional $8.3 million was budgeted for environmental and safety projects this year. Cleaner sewer systems are being installed, environmental impact programs are under review and emergency plans for oil spills are being drafted.
“For years, Antarctica was approached in an expeditionary way,” said Gary Staffo, recently named as the National Science Foundation’s polar safety and environmental officer. “It was seen as a one-time shot: ‘We’ll go do the mission and get the people back and leave the trash behind.’ Certainly that is no longer acceptable--and that is progress. There are greater expectations now.”
Bahia Paraiso means Paradise Bay in Spanish, and that would have been an apt name for the place where the ship foundered on rocks on Jan. 28, 1989, spilling about 150,000 gallons of diesel fuel into the sea.
Elephant seals nuzzle noisily on a rocky island beach, adelie and chinstrap penguins totter about, tiny limpets browse in the tidal basins and swarms of shrimp-like krill bloom in springtime, hearty meals for the whales.
Across the bay, blue-white glacial ice cliffs rise hundreds of feet out of the sea. The silence gives way to explosions as vast slabs break away and slide into the water--the “calving” of icebergs from the ice shelf that covers 98% of the continent and is up to three miles thick near the South Pole.
Above all, Antarctica is a place for science. In recent years, the research has taken on urgency as knowledge emerges of the environmental damage caused by industrial-era pollution and its potential impact on the whole planet.
Other projects take advantage of the still-unspoiled seas and skies, with constant winter nights and crystal summer days, to pursue cutting-edge studies of phenomena such as cosmic rays and radiation belts.
And some scientists are finding a world startlingly abloom in what seems at first such a bleak and lifeless place, fresh proof of the continent’s crucial role in the world’s ecology.
Researchers David Karl of the University of Hawaii and Mark Huntley of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, for example, are charting a phenomenal mass of life in the Gerlache Strait along the Antarctic Peninsula.
From the pitching deck of the primary U.S. research ship the Polar Duke, Karl sends an electronic pulse into the water, setting off a small explosion. That frees a titanium frame holding a ring of 13 plastic bottles, and the device floats up hundreds of feet to the surface.
All hands scan the choppy waters until Robert H. Rutford, president of the University of Texas at Dallas and a veteran polar hand, spies the yellow buoys astern. The ship’s winch painstakingly recovers the experiment. Karl helps pull aboard the frame and its harvest: five months’ worth of organic sediment, much of it excrement from luxuriant swarms of krill shellfish.
The “catch” is neatly divided into 11-day samples captured by the computer-driven ring of revolving bottles attached to the bottom of a plastic funnel. Some are near empty, but a couple, recording the height of the “bloom,” are nearly full.
The six-year project, costing $600,000 this year, recorded a rise in the strait’s biomass this summer “to a higher level than ever found before in any ocean,” said Karl, who has visited Antarctica seven times since 1976. “In the winter, this water is essentially a biological desert. But in the spring, we are finding that it blooms into a biological garden.”
The study also will help analyze aspects of the “greenhouse effect” of global warming, thought to be caused by a steady increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As the plant biomass of the Gerlache Strait grows and absorbs carbon dioxide, that may allow the ocean to absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and, in effect, serve as “a self-regulating mechanism that helps keep us from totally ruining the environment,” Karl said.
Huntley, a partner in the program known as RACER (Research on Antarctic Coastal Ecosystem Rates), said the project has shown the strait to be 10 times richer than the nutrient-filled fishing grounds off Peru.
Antarctica, known simply as “The Ice” by old hands, contains 70% of the world’s fresh water, and the cold currents welling from its shores are apparently an engine for the world’s seas.
“What you’ve got here is a biological pump,” Huntley said. “The Gerlache is seething with life. And if you’ve got a rich resource like this that depends on a small locale, then you’d better be careful with it. It could be an incredibly important nursing ground.”
In a climate with winter temperatures as low as 128.6 degrees below zero Fahrenheit and where psychological tests are required for those who plan to “winter over,” Ph.D. degrees don’t suffice; scientists need ingenuity, teamwork, stamina and imagination.
When he sent the frame back to the bottom for another eight-month sampling, Karl resorted to an unlikely anchor: an old boiler taken from the junk heap at Palmer Station.
Antarctica is so harsh an environment that it defies the ambitions of any single nation, and nowhere in the world has international cooperation been so extensive. The RACER program’s 23 scientists come from seven nations.
“With colleagues from India to Germany, you get a whole different conceptual perspective,” Huntley said. “One has the sense of constantly being fertilized. . . . A lot of the geopolitical nonsense falls away, and the human aspects prevail. The common denominator is scientific research.”
That fits the treaty’s declaration: “It is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord.”
The mean annual temperature in the interior of the continent is 70 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. But along the Antarctic Peninsula jutting up toward the tip of South America, the summer temperatures rise above freezing. That gives rise to names like the “Banana Belt” and the “Antarctic Riviera” in a region of majestic fiords and, between the outsized glaciers, much of the 2% of open ground not covered by ice on the continent.
The peninsula is just two days by sea across the fearsome Drake Passage or a two-hour flight aboard a C-130 Hercules to the Chilean airstrip at Teniente Marsh Base on King George Island, making it accessible to scientists and a steadily growing number of tourists alike.
The island is home to eight permanent research bases and also to the only hotel in Antarctica, run by the Chilean military. Calling it Spartan is generous; the hotel looks and feels like an elongated shipping container raised off the barren ground beside the gravel landing strip, with a few cubicles off the narrow hallway for people boarding ships in the bay for tours or transiting to bases farther south.
The Bahia Paraiso was among several ships that call at Palmer Station, on Anvers Island halfway down the peninsula. About 2,500 tourists made the trip this season, up from 822 in 1983. A couple of tour ships plan to visit McMurdo Station next year, the largest U.S. base, located on the opposite side of the continent on the much colder Ross Sea.
Cross-country skiers, an airborne tour group and a cross-continent dog sled expedition have also called at the third U.S. base, Amundsen-Scott at the South Pole, during the last two summers.
Groups like the Environmental Defense Fund cite the Bahia Paraiso sinking in demanding far stricter rules for tourism, including a ban on helicopter flights and boat landings within 1,500 meters (about one mile) of wildlife sites and an outright ban of any ship waste disposal in the Antarctic.
The National Science Foundation, which runs the U.S. Antarctic program, openly discourages tourism and last year enacted regulations to control tourist conduct.
Carol A. Roberts, deputy director of the National Science Foundation’s division of polar programs, cited three concerns: the impact of tourists on scientific work, especially during disruptive visits to the stations; the tourists’ impact on the environment, underscored by the Argentine shipwreck, and the cost of search and rescue. Palmer Station sacrificed most of its research season last year to care for the Bahia Paraiso survivors and coordinate the cleanup and analysis of the spill.
Nascent adventure tourism on the dangerous mainland, she said, threatens to cause even greater problems in the future.
Roberts, who handles logistics for Antarctica, noted that the budget for getting to and working in the region is greater than the science budget itself.
“It’s the last place on Earth; it’s almost like going to the moon in a logistical sense,” she said.
The hazards were apparent on a recent trip by scientists setting out on a range of expeditions, accompanied by NSF staffers evaluating environment and safety problems.
The C-130 flight from Chile descended through clouds toward the airstrip in 35-knot crosswinds, just below the landing limit of 37 knots. The New York Air National Guard pilot fought to keep the wallowing, yawing plane on course and slammed it down on the airstrip. Parked, the plane shuddered in the wind.
A choppy, wet ride aboard rubber Zodiac rafts with outboard motors brought the group to the Polar Duke, the workhorse U.S. Antarctic research ship. The 219-foot, ice-strengthened vessel serves as both transport to Palmer Station and platform for some of the complex oceanographic studies that form the heart of the NSF’s $151-million annual Antarctic research program.
The new Norwegian captain, Tor-Arne Jakobsen, brought the ship into Palmer two days later on a stormy night in a punishing 45-knot wind, down from the 66-knot, hurricane-force winds the previous day at the base.
Like many of the approximately 4,000 people who work each year in Antarctica, Jakobsen had long sought the chance to be there. His father was captain of an expedition there in 1950, and Jakobsen himself had sailed seven times to the Arctic.
The charts Jakobsen used clearly showed the rocks struck by the Bahia Paraiso. The Argentine charts apparently did not. Treaty countries are working now to bring all charts used in the area up to date.
Staffo, the environmental officer who previously worked for NASA, cited a number of other new safety measures. The NSF is testing devices to be carried on expeditions that could be tracked by satellite, instantly pinpointing a group’s location.
But the U.S. focus is on the environment, especially waste disposal. Macerators, which grind up sewage, were installed at Palmer and McMurdo stations this year; the “gray water” is still pumped into the bays. Palmer, a small station with just 40 residents in the summer, no longer burns its waste but rather “retrogrades” it, jargon for shipping it back north. McMurdo, a much larger center of more than 1,000 in summer, still burns waste every other Sunday morning, a sore point for Greenpeace and other activist groups.
Peter Jorgensen, Palmer’s contract manager, said 10 containers of refuse had been shipped back this year, and a chartered ship had hauled away tons of junk from the abandoned Old Palmer Station, across Arthur Harbor. Several years’ worth of old low-grade radioactive and dangerous waste was also sent back.
A priority, Staffo said, is to get suppliers to remove all plastics and excess packing material before the goods are shipped. “It’s much easier to deal with it in the States than once it gets out on the ice,” he said.
The U.S. program suffered its own fuel spill this season when 10,000 to 12,000 gallons of oil spilled from old rubber fuel bladders at the airfield near McMurdo, Staffo said. Since then, those bladders have been replaced with steel tanks.
Scientists at Palmer last year could do little more than watch as the Bahia Paraiso oil slick spread into nearby tidal coves and beyond. It took six days for emergency crews to arrive with oil booms and other gear.
An estimated 60,000 gallons of fuel is still aboard the overturned vessel, but NSF projects the cost at $60 million to remove the wreck. So it will remain in its grave on a reef off DeLaca Island. American scientist Ted DeLaca was working at Palmer at the time and watched the ship founder on the island named for him.
Mahlon C. Kennicutt II, a scientist from Texas A&M; University, was returning to Palmer for a year-later analysis of the spill’s impact. An emergency team analysis conducted after the spill, whose results are to be published in the May edition of Environmental Science and Technology magazine, basically found that the bay made a quick recovery after the initial kill-off of thousands of limpets and other invertebrates and about 300 birds.
The pounding of the surf and winds apparently helped cleanse the area within a few weeks, Kennicutt said, but he now wants to see whether oil sediment that penetrated the shoreline has caused longer-term damage.
He said the group found a very low population of microbes, “proof of how pristine the area is, since microbes thrive with pollution.” He will study whether the microbes, which degrade hydrocarbons, have increased as a result.
“The spill showed up the potential problem of tourism as the number of people in the area increases. It’s unfortunate, but it gave us a laboratory framework to test the magnitude of a spill in such an area,” he said. “But for other scientists who have been assessing the natural processes, to have this man-made event introduced throws all the years of data into doubt.”