Life Pulse

I’m going to be posting a bit less frequently for the next couple of weeks until September 1 – not going away, just not here quite as often. Champagnewhisky is putting its feet up for summer.

Here are some images of our planet’s life pulse, the advance and retreat of the seasons across the hemispheres. John Nelson downloaded 12 cloud-free Earth images for 2004, one for each month, from the Nasa Visible Earth, stitched them together, and created moving mosaics of the Earth’s cycles. It’s worth heading over to Nelson’s own description of how and why he made this project – funny, insightful and well-written, with lots of cool links.

Breathing Earth from above Source: John Nelson / NASA Visible Earth

Breathing Earth from above
Source: John Nelson / NASA Visible Earth

The movement of ice and the annual ebb and flow of vegetation is hypnotic, and now I want more. I want to see various years placed next to one another, to compare and contrast. I want animated ocean images of hurricane seasons and calm doldrums. I want a moveable feast of the ocean’s great currents, laid out in front of me.

Breathing Earth - Various views Source: John Nelson / NASA Visible Earth

Breathing Earth – Various views
Source: John Nelson / NASA Visible Earth

Nelson says the images look to him like the Earth is breathing – for me it looks like a tidal flow, but the essence is the same: The Earth has life cycles, just like the rest of us.



What we talk about when we talk about war (II)

Ilex squidVia: SASSI, South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative

Ilex squid
Via: SASSI, South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative

Some time ago, I posted some thoughts on the impact of war on the environment and creatures besides humans. Those comments focused primarily on the immediate effects of war waged on land.

Today, a news piece brought to my attention another environmental impact of war: The lack of cooperation on transboundary environmental protection issues between countries in dispute. In this case, the countries are Britain and Argentina, the region is the South Atlantic Ocean, and the issue is illegal fishing.

Argentina’s coast guard caught two Chinese trawlers illegally fishing Argentine waters for ilex squid (I’m not certain, but I believe this to be primarily Argentine  shortfin squid, Illex argentinus) before the ships could escape out into international waters. But this was a rare victory against an illegal fishing fleet, mostly out of China, which hauls an estimated 300,000 tons of ilex squid out of the South Atlantic every year.

From the Associated Press article today:

“The species, which roams across the maritime boundary between Argentina and the Falkland Islands, is key to a food chain that sustains penguins, seals, birds and whales. Managed well, it could sustain a vigorous fishing industry and steady revenues for both governments.

But the two sides aren’t even talking.

The Falklands are defended by British warships, planes and submarines, giving the fisheries agency considerable muscle to enforce licenses in its waters. But Argentina’s navy has never recovered from its 1982 war against Britain for the islands, and its coast guard has just eight ships to cover more than 1 million square miles (2,800,000 square kilometers) of ocean, said its chief of maritime traffic, Mario Farinon.

(The) problem is so big that it can be seen from space: Images of the Earth at night, taken by a NASA satellite last year, show darkness at sea the world over, except for this spot in the South Atlantic. There, 200 miles from the nearest coasts, the lights of this renegade fleet shine as brilliantly as a city.

The industrial ships transfer tons of squid to huge refrigerator ships and get refueled and resupplied at sea so that they can fish without pause.

Argentina ended 15 years of joint fisheries management in 2005 because it didn’t want any government relationship suggesting a recognition of the islanders’ claim to the British-held islands.

And so each government goes its own way, licensing boats and trying to enforce its stretch of the sea, while refusing to cooperate against the much larger fleet that’s just beyond their individual reach.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provides countries with tools that Argentina could use right now to combat overfishing.

One is the “hot pursuit” article, which enables enforcers to pursue boats fishing illegally within their territory into international waters. Another is the “straddling species” clause, which allows governments to protect wandering species like the ilex squid, by applying the same rules on both sides of their maritime border. Countries that jointly manage their seas often grant each other reciprocal permission to arrest rule breakers, and any two countries can make bilateral agreements to regulate their fleets as they see fit, Greenpeace attorney Daniel Simons said.

The territorial dispute makes that impossible here.

“Argentina should enforce the same rules and impose its sovereignty beyond the 200-mile limit,” said de los Santos of the fishing chamber. “But it would have to have a fleet 10 times bigger.””


As anyone who watches detective movies knows, a territorial line of jurisdiction is only of use if the perpetrator of a crime does law enforcers the favor of remaining within their jurisdiction. In this case, the territorial lines between Britain and Argentina are crossed not only by the illegal trawlers, but by the squid themselves, as well as the entire feeding chain which depends upon them. Not to mention the companies supporting the ships from half a globe away.

Illegal fishing and overfishing in the South Atlantic is a matter of conflict even without the ongoing dispute between two countries that are in a position to actually do something about it.

Photo: Alamy

Photo: Alamy


Full AP article

Study of biological squid patterns off the coast of Brazil

Special topic paper, Fisheries and Aquaculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) – World Squid Resources

Article on previous disputes between Argentina and the Falkland Islands over squid fishing

Something Rich and Strange

Antarctic southern Minke whale fallPhoto: Natural Environment Research Council

Antarctic southern Minke whale fall
Photo: Natural Environment Research Council

Scientists exploring an undersea crater near the South Sandwich Islands have come across a whale skeleton, that of a southern Minke whale, a mile beneath the ocean’s surface near Antarctica. Finding a ‘whale fall’ is a rare enough occurrence, since whales sink to the ocean floor when they die (beached whales account for only an estimated 3% of whale deaths). For humans, finding a whale fall requires a large amount of undersea equipment and even more serendipity.

Whale carcasses provide a bounteous feast for other sea creatures wherever they land. From the quick and lithe scavengers, like sharks and hagfish, to the meticulous crabs,  to slower mollusks and crustaceans, to the thorough bacteria and bivalves, a whale can provide nutrition for up to a century. There are up to 30 species that are exclusive to whale falls. The newly-found Antarctic whale fall alone has revealed at least nine new species of tiny deep-sea creatures.

Where have humans found one of the largest whale falls? In Chile’s Atacama Desert, during the course of a 2011 highway expansion project. More than a kilometer from the ocean, road workers came across a mass graveyard with more than 75 fossilized whales and other creatures, including a tusked dolphin and an aquatic sloth. The site has been dated at between 2-7 million years old. Included among the many intact whale skeletons that were located directly next to one another was a single family group resting together, a sort of aquatic Pompeii scene.

It might be that sea scavengers are so plentiful that a body is quickly discovered, or that the detecting organs of whale fall species are extremely sensitive. Still, I found myself wondering why, if whale fall scavengers seem to be able to locate a feast, we have to simply stumble across them, either by sea or by land. There’s a fascination with what happens to the world’s largest animals when they die. Their fate after death remains almost as mysterious as their movements during life.

Atacama desert site Photo: Danielle Pereira/Flickr

Atacama desert  Photo: Danielle Pereira/Flickr


Original study published in Deep Sea Research Part IITopical Studies in Oceanography on The discovery of a natural whale fall in the Antarctic deep sea, by

  • D.J. Amon,
  • A.G. Glover,
  • H.Wiklund,
  • L. Marsh,
  • K. Linse,
  • A.D. Rogers,
  • J.T. Copley

Mother Nature Network article: Mysterious mass whale graveyard unearthed in the Chilean desert

Remote Pod Life

Halley VI Photo: BAS/Anthony Dubber

Halley VI – A modular, mobile Antarctic research base
Photo: BAS/Anthony Dubber

I was going to post about something different today, but nanoparticles will just have to wait. Because this week saw the introduction of habitation and science pods worthy of my best childhood space travel dreams. Not only that, the pods are opening for service on a thoroughly inhospitable surface right here on our own planet: Antarctica. A team of researchers and conservationists recently returned a bottle of whisky to an Antarctic base abandoned almost a century ago – the original team had left provisions behind in their attempts to complete their mission alive. Anything built for human shelter in the Antarctic tends to get covered by snow. Also, if the ice upon which the structure is built is moving, the structure will move along with the ice – not necessarily in one piece. Also, much like our space junk left on the lunar surface, whatever gets left behind in Antarctic won’t decompose in the same manner it might elsewhere on the planet. Ideally, whatever gets taken in should be taken back out.

The newest British Antarctic Survey (BAS) station is designed to try and meet some of these challenges in a more long-lasting manner than many older bases. The Halley VI was opened this week. A modular construction, it is perched on legs to protect it against snow, but more importantly, it is built to move. Ski constructions at the end of the legs mean the entire base can be towed from location to location as necessary, or driven out of deepening snow. For comparison, here’s one old base, Halley III, in its current location:

Halley IIIBuilt in the 1970s, it was abandoned to the elements in the 1980s.Image: BAS

Halley III
Built in the 1970s, it was abandoned to the elements in the 1980s.
Image: BAS

As I said recently, research being carried out at the South Pole is of a basic nature, i.e. it’s not for commercial purposes but rather to explore the fundamentals of how the world works for the betterment of human knowledge. That’s not to say that the line of inquiry can’t result in projects, discoveries and advances which can be utilized for other purposes. Sometimes it’s not just the research results themselves, but the needs-driven innovations that underpin the ability of the scientists to do their work.

So, in confronting the challenges of housing a research team in the Antarctic, the design team at Hugh Broughton Architects might have provided us with new insights into building a greener shelter as well – one that is a “visitor, not a resident” on the land, according to the architect, and certainly one with excellent insulation.

At any rate, when I next picture myself lounging on a far flung moon, or maybe just lounging on a newly formed but remote shore on Earth as a retiree, it might just  look like this:

© Hugh Broughton Architects

© Hugh Broughton Architects


British Antarctic Survey – Halley VI

Hugh Broughton Architects – Halley VI

Ice Stakes

Antarctic territorial claims and research stations, 2009Source: CIA Factbook via Wikipedia

Antarctic territorial claims and research stations, 2009
Source: CIA Factbook via Wikipedia

The recent successes and failures of research teams in the exploration of subglacial lakes on the Antarctic continent have been fascinating for a number of reasons. There are three different teams currently in the news, all identified by their nationalities – US, British and Russian. Their respective teams are working on three lake sites: Lake Vostok (Russia), Lake Whillans (US), and Lake Ellsworth (UK). The goal is to explore what, if any, life might exist under the Antarctic’s subglacial extreme and isolated conditions.

This is basic research, i.e. research initially carried out for non-commercial purposes for the sake of fundamental knowledge itself. Information gained from these expeditions could shed light on how life developed on earth, how it might develop elsewhere (those potential lakes on Jupiter’s moons?), how the climate has changed and might change, and so on.

Media coverage likes to portray the national research teams as racing against one another, and I am sure they are in a competition for glory, but also for the funding that comes with recognition and being first.  The three teams are doing lake research during the same Antarctic summer on a continent that has an entirely non-native human population of 1000-5000 people. Most if not all of these researchers surely cross paths from time to time on the cold continent as well as at various conferences. They must share their findings and innovations on a regular basis.

I would love to see media reports of how, on the one continent that has no official government, and which is administered under an international treaty that bars any military activity or mining, nationalities also fade into the background and scientific collaboration is at the forefront. It might be a more accurate reflection of how we truly gain knowledge through research and discussion.

But then, that would mean laying aside the thinking that promotes the kind of claims staked on the map above. Staking territory is what we do, I suppose, whether it’s built on ice, or earth, or knowledge.

UK: British Antarctic Survey (BAS) 

Russia: Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI)

US: United States Antarctic Program (USAP)


Science Daily

National Geographic

Whisky on Antarctic Ice

Photo: Antarctic Heritage Trust/Associated Press


I’m not sure how often I will have the chance to post on a meeting of two such seemingly disparate subjects, both of which I talk about on a regular basis. Whisky, obviously. And the Antarctic. So I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have a look at how the two are connected.

Ernest Shackleton, one of the great explorers of the South Pole, is known as much for his survival and leadership skills during disastrous expeditions as for being bested in his exploratory feats by  Roald Amundsen, who reached the South Pole ahead of Shackleton. Shackleton visited the Antarctic several times, mapped some very important points, and managed to bring home his crew alive every time, even in the face of daunting obstacles.

He also appears to have taken a good amount of whisky along on at least one of his visits, 15-year-old Mackinley that had been bottled in 1898. The whisky was abandoned in a base hut, and discovered by conservationists in 2010. The crates were frozen solid into the ice, but the researchers could hear the whisky sloshing in the bottles. Although the freezing point for 80 proof whisky is around -26 degrees Celsius (-15 Fahrenheit) and the air temperature in the Antarctic easily reaches those levels, the whisky was frozen in ice and thus stayed closer to 0 C (32 F).

The whisky was removed for examination along with other artifacts, but the original bottles now have been returned to the base hut. Shackleton himself never got back to the whisky, and died of a heart attack on his way to another expedition in 1922. He was 47. We forget sometimes the hardships and sacrifices, the glory and lack thereof, that go along with scientific exploration.

Distiller Whyte & Mackay, which bought the Mackinlay brand (Whyte & Mackay itself has been owned by an Indian conglomerate, United Breweries Group, since 2007) had a small amount of the original brew extracted via syringe to recreate the recipe. The whisky has been reissued in a limited edition of 50,000 bottles under the name Mackinlay’s Shackleton Rare Old Highland Malt and sells for around $160 dollars a bottle. Does it taste like the original? We don’t know, since conservationists decided that if Shackleton couldn’t have any, neither could anyone else. In any case, a portion of the profits will go toward the Antarctic Heritage Trust.

Photo: Michael Wal

Statue of Ernest Shackleton outside the Royal Geographic Society
Photo: Michael Wal

Thank you, flying shell creatures

Limacina helicina Photo: Alexander Semenov

The pteropod Limacina helicina, a tiny sea animal that is usually under 1 cm in length, swims through the open ocean. They are a food source for birds, whales, fish, and other sea animals only slightly larger than themselves. They feed on plankton and float in large colonies, flapping their wing-like lobes. They have fragile, almost transparent shells that are present during the entire life cycle of many sea butterfly species. It is these shells which are the object of interest today.

Clione limacina: Sea butterflies are the primary food source for the sea angel (Gymnosomata), a shell-less sea slug.

According to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), while carrying out research in the Southern Ocean together with other institutions, discovered severe dissolution of the shells of living sea butterflies, i.e. the shells are being dissolved by the raised acidity of oceans due to increased levels of atmospheric CO2 being absorbed by oceanic systems . Why is this important?

On one level, it’s bad for the sea butterflies themselves, even if they don’t die from their shells being dissolved. They are more vulnerable to disease and predators. According to Dr. Geraint Tarling, co-author of the study, “As one of only a few oceanic creatures that build their shells out of aragonite in the polar regions, pteropods are an important food source for fish and birds as well as a good indicator of ecosystem health.”

But there are enough indifferent climate observers who aren’t really interested enough in a specific ecosystem, even if it might impact the amount of fresh seafood on the dinner plate, to make the sea butterfly’s plight a point of concern, much less action.

So, aside from the biological relevance of the sea butterfly, their shells form an important component in the global carbonate cycle, part of which is the deep-sea calcium carbonate sediment formed by the remains of creatures like the sea butterfly. This sedimentary sink of CaCO3, which gathers like deep-sea snow in the form of discarded shells from the sea butterfly and many other animals, forms a buffering process between ocean chemistry and atmospheric CO2 by neutralizing the acidic influence of the carbon dioxide.

Prior to the evolution of creatures with calcium carbonate shells in the ocean, the global atmosphere is thought to have been far more volatile – these shells helped mitigate the carbon cycle at shallower ocean levels and lead to an extended period of the more stable atmosphere which we humans need to thrive.

The tiny sea butterfly is thought to comprise up to 12% of the global ‘carbonate flux’. For their miniscule size, they are heavy hitters in the atmospheric game. Their shells are the thinnest and most fragile. They are, not to belabor an overused metaphor, the little canaries in our atmospheric coal mine.

So, the next time we read about the relief felt over the discovery of a new fossil fuel source or promising new extraction technology, spare a thought for the sea butterfly, and keep your fingers crossed that our skin is thicker than their shells.


* Press release: First evidence of ocean acidification affecting live marine creatures in the Southern Ocean (BAS)

* Paper: The role of the global carbonate cycle in the regulation and evolution of the Earth sytem, Ridgewell/Zeebe

Wishful Thinking: The Magic Wand of South Pole Winds

I’ve been reading a lot about how this year’s ice melt in the Arctic is the most severe since 1979, with record amounts of Arctic land and sea left ice-free. Ice formation is increasingly rapid as well, but the overall net loss outweighs any growth. Probably the only people pleased with this development are those hoping to exploit the region’s rich mineral deposits.

At the same time, I read that large amounts of sea ice are forming around the Antarctic, driven by wind patterns that are starting to be understood by scientists. And in spite of my background working in the environmental and energy sectors, I always feel a hopeful moment of relief – maybe some unknown climate pattern will be set into motion that will mean we don’t have to worry about global warming, climate change, rising seas and all the environmental and social challenges that ride on the coattails of major change and upheaval.

Of course, I know better. The amount of sea ice forming around the Antarctic continent (at a winter rate of 22 sq. miles per minute, according to the article in Nature Geoscience) doesn’t offset the amount of ice lost at the other pole. In any case, the poles have entirely different patterns. The ice formation and build-up around the southern pole, which is surrounded entirely by sea, is an annual cycle among the most important on the planet. The ice retention and melt on the Arctic end is influenced by the fact that it occurs in a sea almost entirely surrounded by land – a literal opposite to Antarctica.

And while the ice around the southern pole has been modestly increasing over the past thirty years, it’s still outbalanced by ice loss to the north.

So, why am I musing on this?

It’s because I realized that if I, a person with  long history of trusting the science behind climate change, could feel sudden (if only brief) relief at the news that sea ice around the Antarctic was increasing, then people with less trust in the same science might use that fact to tell themselves and others that drastic changes will be averted by the heretofore unknown magic wand of South Pole winds. That the message they hear is no longer negative, and that action isn’t required on a societal level. And that, if I am confronted with those erroneous arguments, I need a solid comeback as to why we need to keep working toward global climate solutions.

More at

Minimum and maximum sea ice cover for the Arctic and Antarctic. Winter in the Southern Hemisphere is opposite that of the Northern Hemisphere, which explains why Antarctica has less sea ice during February. The black circles in the center of the Northern Hemisphere images are areas lacking data due to limitations in satellite coverage at the North Pole.
—Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado.