Ice Stories: Dispatches From Polar Scientists » Cassandra Brooks Mon, 15 Nov 2010 20:40:36 +0000 en hourly 1 Gentoo Penguins on King George Island Tue, 01 Sep 2009 22:28:55 +0000 Cassandra Brooks AMLR field season in January 2010, I put together a slide show of a Gentoo penguin colony. The colony resides at the Copacabana field camp on King George Island...]]> BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS– In anticipation of the next upcoming AMLR field season in January 2010, I put together a slide show of a Gentoo penguin colony. The colony resides at the Copacabana field camp on King George Island, which is part of the South Shetland Islands just off the Antarctic Peninsula.

As part of the AMLR cruise, we visit the field camp, ferrying both researchers to and from the island and also bringing them supplies like fresh fruits and vegetables which they otherwise would have no access to. The research team lives at Copacabana from October to March studying Gentoo penguins, as well as Chinstraps and Adelie penguins, Giant Petrels, Skuas, Fur Seal and Elephant Seals. Here I share a bit about the gentoos specifically and their amazing life cycle.

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Fishing in Antarctic Waters? Mon, 03 Nov 2008 19:07:40 +0000 Cassandra Brooks MOSS LANDING, CALIFORNIA– In early July, 2008, I traveled to Saint Petersburg, Russia, to join thousands of other polar scientists for the SCAR (Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research) Open Science Conference. SCAR is an inter-disciplinary committee responsible for initiating, developing and coordinating international scientific research in the Antarctic region and understanding its effect on the greater Earth system. This is the last in a series of dispatches in which I share the latest polar science I learned from SCAR.

The morning of July 11th was the culmination of the conference: I finally presented my Antarctic toothfish work. Presenting at a conference is not about being the star of the show; it’s about our responsibility as scientists to communicate our work to our colleagues, the public, and in my case, to resource managers.

Presenting my Antarctic toothfish work at SCAR.

I came upon Antarctic toothfish four years ago when I started graduate school. I had been interested in fisheries management for years and was looking for a way I could contribute to this global problem. Antarctic toothfish erupted onto the fishery scene in the last ten years because of declines in its cousin fish, Patagonian toothfish. Both species are more commonly known on the market as the popular and expensive Chilean Sea Bass.

Prior to my work, I didn’t know much about Antarctic fisheries. Like most people, I couldn’t imagine why fishermen would travel so far for fish. But world fishery trends hold the answer. Recent Food and Agricultural Organization statistics state that 97 percent of our world fisheries are fully exploited, overfished or collapsed, leaving a mere 3 percent unexplored, pushing fishermen into remote places like Antarctica.

A Russian fishing vessel.

You can imagine how hard it is to manage fisheries in a place like Antarctica, but in 1982 an international group came together to do just this. They formed the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources and have been managing Antarctic wildlife every since. My study met a request by CCAMLR for more life history information about Antarctic toothfish, with the hopes of sustainable management for the growing fishery.

Holding an Antarctic toothfish.

I stood before my colleagues at SCAR and presented what I had learned about Antarctic toothfish, including how they grow slowly and live a long time — close to 40 years. Many fish that share these characteristics have been overharvested quickly because they can’t grow and reproduce fast enough to keep up with demands of the fishery. I discussed past trends and future concerns.

To my delight, some of the folks from CCAMLR were there in the audience. After the talk, we continued to discuss toothfish management. Is it even possible to have a sustainable toothfish fishery? And if so, what would it take? The first step is to apply the research to management. With their help, this toothfish work is now being presented at the yearly CCAMLR management meeting in Hobart, Australia, and all my years of toiling will not go to waste.

Presenting my Antarctic toothfish work at SCAR.

The conference ended on a high note. I had an amazing experience partaking in this international collaboration of scientists, all of us working together to find solutions to global problems and dedicated to learning more about our poles. Thanks for joining me and keep up with Ice Stories as we collectively share our work with you in the second half of International Polar Year.

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Indigenous Knowledge in Modern Polar Science Wed, 29 Oct 2008 16:52:50 +0000 Cassandra Brooks MOSS LANDING, CALIFORNIA– In conjunction with the surge of social science projects in this year’s IPY, SCAR hosted a novel session on “The Role of Indigenous Knowledge in Modern Polar Science.” The presenters stressed giving traditional knowledge and indigenous people a voice in managing their own land, resources and fate in the future of climate change.

One IPY-sponsored project that is especially exciting for bringing indigenous knowledge into polar science is Sea Ice Knowledge and Use (SIKU) project: The ice we want our children to know.

A hunter leading the way onto uiguaq (newly formed ice lip extending out from the floe-edge) and testing the ice. Photo courtesy of G. J. Laidler.

The SIKU project is one of several IPY projects aimed at documenting indigenous observations of environmental changes in the polar areas. This initiative brings together anthropologists, human geographers, sea ice and climate scientists, marine and ecosystem biologists from the U.S., Canada, Russia, Greenland, and France in partnership with almost two dozen indigenous communities in Alaska, Arctic Canada, the Russian Chukchi Peninsula, and Greenland in a concentrated effort to document use and knowledge of sea ice in the Arctic.

Qanngut (crystallized frost formations that form on thin ice) up close. Photo courtesy of G. J. Laidler.

Claudio Aporta, Assistant Professor at Carlton University and a researcher on the project, described how Arctic people depend on sea-ice for their persistence. “People are born on the sea ice, they build summer camps to live on the sea ice, they hunt on the sea ice, even kids play on the sea ice,” he said. People regularly cross the sea-ice and recreate trails year after year. It is these pathways, and people’s knowledge of their ice environment, that Aporta and his team are working on documenting. They use this knowledge in creating an atlas and database that Aporta described as “a new conception of map showing all dynamic features.”

Hunters wait at the edge of a polynya (an area of open water surrounded by sea ice) near Cape Dorset, Nunavut, discussing a seal hunt. Current strength and direction is an important consideration, since seal retrieval is made with small boat launched off the ice edge. Photo courtesy of G. J. Laidler.

Local residents, elders, and community experts work together in the SIKU research. Collectively, they record daily sea ice and weather observations, collect local terms for sea ice and weather phenomena, document traditional ecological knowledge related to sea ice and sea ice use from local elders and experienced hunters, and search for historical records of sea ice conditions. Documenting these factors allows the researchers to interpret shifts in ice use patterns that may be caused by social and climate change. Most importantly, “Local people are taking a very active role in documenting their own use of the sea ice,” Aporta said, “ and securing knowledge for future generations.”

Hunters in a retrieval boat launched from the ice edge. Photo courtesy of G. J. Laidler.
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Antarctic Fish and Climate Change Mon, 13 Oct 2008 21:04:09 +0000 Cassandra Brooks MOSS LANDING, CALIFORNIA– All Antarctic organisms have unique adaptations that allow them to survive the extreme freezing Antarctic environment. Antarctic fish, for example, have antifreeze proteins that keep their blood from freezing and some lack hemoglobin (red blood cells), instead absorbing oxygen through their skin. Because of their unique polar adaptations, Antarctic fish have generally been considered stenotherms, a term which refers to organisms that are capable of surviving over only a narrow range of temperatures. For this reason, they were thought of as particularly vulnerable to climate change.

Cassandra and an Antarctic toothfish on 2006 AMLR fish cruise off the Antarctic Peninsula.

Yet over evolutionary time scales, spanning thousands to millions of years, Antarctic fish species have adapted to changes in their environment with success. During the second day of the SCAR conference, Karel Janko from the Czech Academy of Sciences and others demonstrated this fact during their talk entitled “Does the life history affect the ability of Antarctic fish to cope with climatic changes?” The team used population genetics to see the effect of past major climate shifts on fish populations and tried to predict what may happen in the future as we are in the midst of another major shift.

Over the past millennia, the ice sheets of Antarctica have advanced and retreated multiple times, each time drastically changing the available habitat for fish. Massive ice sheets originally form on the continent of Antarctica and grow outward toward and into the ocean. In times when the ice is expanding, it grows out over the continental shelf and due to its massive weight, it becomes grounded into the shelf. When this happens, all the benthic organisms that live on the continental shelf get pushed out and cease to thrive.

As Janko described, during glacial times when the ice shelf advances, benthic ecosystems, including fishes, are depleted whereas pelagic fishes, that don’t depend on the benthos, flourish. In contrast, during interglacial times, when there is little ice, the continental shelf is exposed and benthic ecosystems flourish, with little affect on the pelagic species. Since in the present, the ice has been retreating, we are currently in a time of benthic species expansion.

An Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni)

Of course, this is all on an evolutionary time scale, meaning that Antarctic fish will not likely disappear altogether. They will instead continue to evolve and adapt with some species flourishing and others dying out completely. Based on the work of Janko and others, we can guess that benthic species will have more available habitat as the ice continues to retreat, but we still don’t know the physiological effect of warming on their bodies which are adapted specifically for cold environments. Other IPY studies are looking at this and will reveal more information with regards to the future of Antarctic fish. For more information, visit and click on OCEANS.

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Is There Hope for Polar Bears? Fri, 10 Oct 2008 18:25:36 +0000 Cassandra Brooks MOSS LANDING, CALIFORNIA– Many talks at the SCAR conference focused on how climate change might affect polar organisms, especially in relation to changes in available habitat. On the second day of the conference, the two talks in particular that caught my attention focused on Polar Bears and Antarctic fish respectively. Both depend on habitat for their survival and will face challenges in a changing environment. Will these polar animals be able to adapt to these changes? Read on to find out.

Is there hope for Polar Bears? Just ask the experts.

Polar bears have become the icon of climate change, stirring people’s emotions and bringing awareness to the issue in an unprecedented manner. And yet, both in the scientific research community and the media there is disagreement and discrepancies over what the real impacts of climate change on polar bears are. As of yet, there are no studies that span the entire Arctic region and all polar bear populations. Also, there are no models that fully look at the relationship between polar bear dynamics and climate.

What does the future hold for polar bears?

S.J. O’Neill from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, UK, and others proposed a unique solution to finding out how polar bears are doing Arctic wide. They gathered polar bear experts worldwide and gave them an anonymous survey that asked detailed questions regarding polar bear populations and modeled sea-ice data. Their goal was to tease out where the discrepancies lay between experts and what experts really thought the future held for these amazing animals.

As it turns out, the discrepancies are few and the dramatic pictures of polar bears in an ice-free sea reveal some truth. Ninety percent of experts agree there will be a substantial decline in polar bear habitat and their populations across the entire Arctic. Sadly, even if significant conservation measure were put in place, experts agreed there is little prospect of preventing significant population declines. The populations in the Barents Sea, Chukchi Sea, and Hudson Bay were considered the highest risk.

A polar bear coming out of water onto ice floe.

The primary danger posed by global warming is malnutrition and starvation due to sea-ice habitat loss. Polar bears travel far from shore hunting for seals and other marine mammals. They spend much of their life on the sea-ice using it as both a platform for resting and their hunting grounds. The reduction in sea-ice forces bears to swim farther and farther distances, depleting their energy and occasionally leading to drowning. Also, due to rising temperatures, sea-ice now melts earlier in the year, driving the bears back to shore before they have had sufficient to build fat stores. The result is polar bear populations that are undernourished, have low reproductive rates, and lower survival rates. Let’s hope those polar bear experts get together and find some solutions, and fast.

A polar bear mother and cub.
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People on the move Wed, 08 Oct 2008 18:17:40 +0000 Cassandra Brooks MOSS LANDING, CALIFORNIA– In early July 2008, I traveled to Saint Petersburg, Russia, to join thousands of other polar scientists for the SCAR (Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research) Open Science Conference. SCAR is an inter-disciplinary committee responsible for initiating, developing and coordinating international scientific research in the Antarctic region and understanding its effect on the greater Earth system. This dispatch is part of on ongoing series in which I share the latest polar science I learned from SCAR.

People on the move

Yvon Csonka, a professor at the University of Greenland and president of the International Arctic Social Sciences Association (IASSA), gave one of the Plenary Keynote talks on “Polar Societies and Cultures in a Changing World.” Among the variety of challenges facing polar societies mentioned by Csonka, is the melting permafrost and its effect on people who have been surviving in the Arctic for millennia. Csonka described small communities that have already been forced to leave their villages due to erosion caused by melting permafrost and because of a lack of sea-ice in summer. Csonka said currently these moves “Are not common, but will happen more and more in the future.”

Later, I pulled Csonka aside for a few minutes, and he elaborated on how climate change will affect people’s access to resources, especially animals like seals and caribou, which local people depend on for sustenance. Reductions in sea-ice have been devastating to seal populations since they require the ice for both birthing and weaning. When mother seals can’t find sea-ice, they are forced to give birth in the water and the pups drown. Even if they find ice to birth on, the sea-ice has been breaking up too fast and the pups don’t have time to wean before they are subjected to the freezing waters.

A young spotted seal.

The changing climate has caused serious problems for Caribou populations who require specific snow thickness and type of snow. “When the snow layer is thin and dry, Caribou can scrape at the snow to get to the lichen underneath,” Csonka said. “But, with increased precipitation-from climate change-there is an increase in snow and its wetter creating deadly conditions for caribou since the upper crust becomes too thick for the caribou to break through.” Despite these drastic problems, Csonka is hopeful that Arctic communities will successfully adapt to climate change, since they have been doing so for millennia.

Caribou on the tundra.

Stay tuned in the next few days to learn in more detail just how people, animals and the environment will cope and adapt in a changing polar environment.

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Permafrost gone soft Mon, 06 Oct 2008 18:55:42 +0000 Cassandra Brooks MOSS LANDING, CALIFORNIA– In early July, 2008, I traveled to Saint Petersburg, Russia, to join thousands of other polar scientists for the SCAR (Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research) Open Science Conference. SCAR is an inter-disciplinary committee responsible for initiating, developing and coordinating international scientific research in the Antarctic region and understanding its effect on the greater Earth system. In this and my next several dispatches, I am going to share the latest polar science I learned from SCAR.

Permafrost gone soft

“Not only has climate change begun, but we are seeing a significant impact,” said Wayne Pollard from McGill University in Montreal, Canada in his plenary talk on “The effects of climate change on polar landscapes.” His talked focused on the Arctic permafrost, which refers to ground that has remained frozen for a minimum of 2 years and as many as several thousands of years. More than 25% of the Earth’s land surface is considered permafrost, comprising 50% of Canada, 80% of Alaska, and 60% of Russia. Pollard reported that permafrost regions are one of the most sensitive and severely affected by climate change. He further stated, “40-60% of the permafrost could disappear in the next 100 years.”

Melting permafrost from above.

The melting permafrost causes a host of problems for local Arctic populations and the environment. As a solid landmass, permafrost provides stability to Arctic slopes. In contrast, “when the permafrost melts, it turns into a slurry of liquefied mud, referred to as a thermokarst. The result is thaw lakes and tundra ponds and frozen peat turning into vast wetlands,” says Pollard. Thawing permafrost combined with reduced sea-ice and increased storm activity will collectively increase the erosion of Arctic coastlines, directly impacting coastal communities, culturally important sites and industrial facilities.

In Shishmaref, Alaska, melting permafrost has contributed to major erosion, forcing residents to consider moving the entire village to a new location.

Most alarming is the global effects of melting permafrost. Scientists have reported that Arctic soils hold 30 percent or more of all the carbon stored in soils worldwide. When it is frozen, the permafrost acts as a sink for carbon dioxide and methane, two of the major greenhouse gases. Pollard explained that now as it melts, it will become a source. Since the conference, even more alarming results have been reported. Edward A.G. Schuur of the University of Florida and an international group of coauthors has shown that the melting permafrost is a far larger source for greenhouse gases than previously believed and will indeed further contribute to global warming. See the September, 2008 press release at

The summer tundra.
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Polar ecosystems in a changing world Thu, 25 Sep 2008 18:49:18 +0000 Cassandra Brooks SCAR conference it became clear that climate change from global warming is very real...]]> MOSS LANDING, CALIFORNIA– From the presentations on the first day of the SCAR conference it became clear that climate change from global warming is very real. Most of the opening talks, referred to as “Plenary Keynotes,” focused on broad aspects of climate change in the Arctic and Antarctic and the keynote lecturers came from all over the world to share their latest research. In the next few dispatches, I share a few of them with you.

A North Pole without ice?

“Arctic climate is more sensitive than models suggest,” said J.C. Gascard of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, University Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris, France, in his plenary lecture on “The changing arctic ocean-ocean warming and sea ice extent.” Sea ice is seasonal ice that forms on the surface of the ocean in freezing environments and extends out from the more permanent polar ice-caps and frozen landmasses.

Aerial view of Arctic sea ice.

Gascard reported that in 2005 and 2007, the minimum sea-ice extent (which occurs during the summer season when temperatures are warmer) in the Arctic was far lower than had ever been recorded. Moreover, both were far lower than the Intergovernmenal Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) models had predicted. The IPCC is a scientific intergovernmental body established to provide decision-makers with an objective source of information about climate change.

Arctic sea ice at its 2008 minimum extent, on September 10.

Gascard stressed that the dramatic reduction in the summer extent of Arctic sea ice in 2005 and 2007 were not isolated cases, but part of an evolving trend. Gascard and his colleagues have observed a gradual long-term warming, including a longer melting season, over the last 20 years. During this time, the mean sea ice thickness has decreased by 1.3 meters in most of the Arctic Ocean. Gascard warned that Arctic ice is likely to continuing retreating and that “it will disappear during the Arctic summer in this century.” So why does it matter that sea-ice is retreating? The most sensationalized result is loss of polar bear habitat, but they are certainly not alone in their suffering since many polar organisms depend on the sea ice for their survival. Furthermore, if the sea ice continues to melt, the permafrost on land will also melt, changing the entire Arctic ecosystem with global implications. Stay tuned to learn more about the Arctic permafrost.

Arctic sea ice.
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Welcome to the SCAR/IASC IPY Open Science Conference Mon, 22 Sep 2008 17:17:55 +0000 Cassandra Brooks MOSS LANDING, CALIFORNIA– In early July, 2008 I traveled to Saint Petersburg, Russia, to join thousands of other polar scientists for the SCAR (Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research) Open Science Conference. SCAR is an inter-disciplinary committee responsible for initiating, developing and coordinating international scientific research in the Antarctic region and understanding its effect on the greater Earth system. SCAR holds a delegates meeting every two years to address administrative and policy issues. Prior to this delegates meeting, SCAR hosts a major Open Science Conference to bring awareness to Antarctic issues and provide collaboration between Antarctic scientists. I was thrilled to attend this year’s SCAR meeting to present my graduate work on Antarctic toothfish, hear about the latest Antarctic research and meet other polar scientists.

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood and canal in Saint Petersburg, Russia, host of the 2008 SCAR conference.

This year’s meeting was co-sponsored by IASC (the International Arctic Science Committee) in honor of the 2007-2008 International Polar Year (IPY). The 4-day meeting comprised 29 sessions with over 1400 attendees, 550 oral presentations, and 670 posters. The biggest challenge for me was deciding which of the hundreds of presentations to go to!

The theme of this year’s conference was “Polar Research – Arctic and Antarctic perspectives in the International Polar Year.” The designated 2007-2008 IPY is the largest internationally coordinated scientific research program of the last 50 years and has resulted in a surge of interdisciplinary science focused on the Arctic and the Antarctic, where climate change is occurring faster than anywhere else on Earth. Four hundred million dollars have been poured into the IPY projects, above and over the normal research funding, to capture more information on how the Polar Regions work and providing the scientific basis for refining forecast of future change. These IPY projects explore the impacts of climate change on societies, economies and ecosystems and brainstorm regional and global solutions.

There were also many scientists at the SCAR meeting who were independent of IPY projects, encompassing a broad range of topics from biological studies like resource use, to climatology, oceanography, and even social sciences but all revolving around the Artic and/or Antarctic. During the four days of the conference I would hear again and again the effects of climate change on the poles, on the land, the wildlife there, and the people. Any skeptic of climate change would leave well informed and thoroughly assured there really is no debate on whether climate change is real. Stay tuned as I share the latest polar science I learned from SCAR with you.

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The End of Our Cruise & International Waters Sat, 05 Apr 2008 13:25:48 +0000 Cassandra Brooks One Gorgeous Day

We finally finished our zooplankton survey and since we had two days to spare, we steamed down into the Gerlache Straight, off the Antarctic Peninsula for a fun day off. The Gerlache Straight is famous for its scenery, but when I awoke it was snowing and it continued to snow all day. At first we were all slightly disappointed; the snow blocked our view of the landscape. But as the day carried on, the gently falling snow covered the boat, cultivating a surreal landscape. The water was calm and covered in a thick layer of snow which began to clump, forming what’s known as ‘pancake ice.’ There were icebergs and bergy bits everywhere, all covered in a fresh layer of white.

Our weather in the Gerlache Straight.
A close-up of the pancake ice forming on the water.
The falling snow covering the boat.

Seabirds of all kinds and fur seals were taking refuge on the small bergs. We couldn’t see the mountains but once the whales came by we hardly noticed.

We had come upon a feeding ground and there were whales everywhere, rolling, fluking, and flipper slapping in front of the boat and on both sides.

Humpbacks rolling, flipper slapping, and putting on a show by the side of the boat last year.
Photo by Kim Dietrich

The captain cut the engine so we could stop and watch. The water was so still, that in the ice free areas I could make out the white and blue silhouette of the whale just below the surface. It was incredible that this ice filled, snowy, cold environment was just teeming with life.

Gathering on the bow to watch the whales.

Most of the scientific crew as well as the field camp personnel and the Russian crew were out on the bow of the boat taking in the scene, furiously snapping photographs, and throwing the occasional snowball of course. No matter how many times some of us have been down here, no matter how much snow and ice we’ve seen, it’s still awe-inspiring for us all.

Nearly the entire crew came out on deck to see the scene.

International Responsibility

In 1961, with the initiation of the Antarctic Treaty, Antarctica was officially deemed international territory. Over forty nations are involved, nine of which are represented by this year’s AMLR crew. The Antarctic treaty established Antarctica as a place dedicated to science, and though many countries conduct research throughout the continent and surrounding waters, no one can claim sovereignty here.

These flags at the South Pole represent the twelve original signatory nations of the Antarctic Treaty.
Photo by Liesl Schernthanner, National Science Foundation

We all have a responsibility to manage Antarctica for the international good, to do our best to learn as much as possible about this polar environment. That includes how humans are affecting it via climate change, which will affect everyone.

We have a responsibility to protect its resources and ecosystem, to make the best choices about how we fish Antarctic waters and how we manage Antarctic resources, and to educate each other, as I have tried to do through these dispatches.

I thank you for sharing the adventure with me.

Thanks for coming along on our journey.
Photo by Lara Asato

Nations represented in this year’s AMLR cruise: Poland, Turkey, Russia, USA, Canada, Columbia, Chile, Australia and South Africa.

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