Friday, July 18, 2014

Setting the Record Straight on Penguins

The way climate change research is reported in the media can be confusing, even if it’s part of your job to keep up with the latest findings. As many, many commentators, scientists, and fake news anchors have noted, this unfortunately means that people think that climate change, if it exists, is some sort of scam cooked up by environmentalists who want to stop doing fun things like removing mountaintops and dumping them into streams so we can get more coal to burn. The truth is that climate change is a complex phenomenon. If you don’t understand this, you are likely to run into trouble when you read news stories about scientific research, sometimes even when those stories are really not about proving or disproving climate change. Take this post, for example. The writer completely misrepresents the results of a recent global Adélie survey by Lynch and LaRue and fans the flames of climate denialism.

The post suggests that this research and other studies indicate that penguins are doing super great under climate change, so why can’t we all stop worrying? In fact, these studies don’t say that at all. We know this because we actually talked to the researchers involved. To clarify a few technical points, the survey by Lynch and LaRue demonstrates that the known breeding population of Adélie penguins is 53% larger than was previously estimated in 1993. As the paper points out, this increase in known breeding population is roughly divided between growth at known populations and the discovery of several new populations, the latter of which include some populations that were so remote that they may have simply been missed in previous surveys. Nevertheless, the survey results do suggest that the populations of breeding Adélie penguins in East Antarctica and in the Ross Sea have grown over the last several decades, and these increases in abundance have more than offset the losses previously reported on the Antarctic Peninsula (and confirmed by this recent study).

These kinds of results are not particularly surprising to people who follow Antarctic scientific research closely. Antarctica is a big place, and climate change affects different regions of the continent differently. The Antarctic Peninsula is warming more rapidly than other Antarctic areas, and more rapidly than the rest of the world, save, perhaps, for the Arctic. So although the total number of Adélie penguins has not declined, climate change is still having a measurable impact on Antarctica. This may be good for penguins in some areas like East Antarctica and the Ross Sea, but it doesn’t mean that warmer temperatures are necessarily a Good Thing for Adélies, the continent as a whole, or the planet.  

In fact, the authors note that one climate-related explanation for increasing populations may be glacial retreat (not happy news if you live in a coastal city), which opens up new habitat for Adélie penguin breeding. Study author Heather Lynch also notes, “That climate change may cause both increases and decreases in Adélie penguin populations is a tribute to its utility as a biomonitor, and highlights the Adélie’s important role as an early warning system for ecological change. Adélie penguin increases have previously been linked to a growing toothfish fishery, which itself presents concerns over the influence of Southern Ocean fisheries on the Antarctic food web.” Therefore, what’s important about this study is that it establishes a “baseline for understanding future changes in abundance and distribution”, not that it proves that all is well with penguins now and forever. 
Another penguin researcher (not connected with the global Adélie survey study) who was also quoted in the National Review’s blog post, Ron Naveen, told me that “To suggest that Adélies are booming or that all penguins globally are booming is bad reporting. The only way to really know that, of course, would be to compare the latest numbers with a previous survey using the same technology — and that's not possible. Rather, the big story is that we humans know more than we did because we now have more sophisticated tools in our kit. And, as a result, we have much improved baselines for detecting and assessing change.” 

Species-threatening decreases in abundance, such as those projected to occur for emperor penguins within the next century (see Jenouvrier et al.'s recent paper in Nature Climate Change, link:, remain a grave concern. Other rapid changes in abundance and distribution, including the increasing abundance reported by Lynch and LaRue, provide a reminder that both climate change and resource extraction can upset the natural ecological balance of the Southern Ocean. While the warning signs in this case represent good news for the Adélie penguin as a species, they nevertheless reflect major changes in Southern Ocean ecosystems that will have enormous consequences. Thus the Adélie penguin can be both be helped and hurt by climate change. It’s not the kind of simple message the media likes, but it’s a scientific reality. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Tourist Meets Whale
Duke University Student Studies Impact of Antarctic Tourism on Cetaceans

We are in the midst of commencement season and Allison Fox just received her Master of Environmental Management degree from Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment this month. For her studies focused on Coastal Environmental Management she completed a research project and despite her proximity to the Atlantic coast, she chose to research inhabitants of a place far more remote – whales in Antarctica. 

When I was choosing a Master’s Project topic, I knew that I wanted to study anthropogenic impacts on cetaceans, but I was having trouble narrowing the project down further. I talked to my adviser about potential ideas, and he mentioned that whales and Antarctic tourism would be a timely project,” the 24-year-old recent graduate explains. Her adviser Dr. Andy Read is among several professors at Duke studying Antarctic whales, their diving and foraging behaviors.
Fox was taking a class on ecotourism at the time and the interactions between the tourists and whales sparked her interest immediately. “The project was fascinating to me because I personally love travelling and whales—and because I hadn’t known there was an Antarctic tourism industry at all until that semester!” Although Fox did not travel to the icy continent herself, she enjoyed researching a topic that has not been investigated by many researchers before.
She collected data via a survey asking tourists, scientists, and a tour operator about their perception of the impact that tourism could have on whales.

Participants were asked, “The following list contains aspects of Antarctic tourism that potentially  
benefit Antarctic whales. Please choose up to 3 benefits that you feel are most valuable.”
Potential benefits chosen by the tour operator were tourists participating in research, resulting donations for conservation and that scientists can travel on tourist vessels. Scientists agreed with the latter and a high percentage of them also chose travelers advocating for conservation and having an increased appreciation for whales as benefits. Tourists felt that them advocating for conservation, making donations, appreciating whales more and learning about the animals were positive effects.

Participants were asked, “The following list contains aspects of Antarctic tourism that potentially
Antarctic whales. Please choose up to 3 threats that you feel are most detrimental.”
The tour operator only saw vessel collision as a potential threat to the whales. Scientists agreed with this answer but were also concerned about the stress induced in the whales. One scientist stated that the biggest impact on whales results from ship traffic and boats approaching whales too closely. Some tourists were also concerned about the stress to the animals, but most chose noise and other pollution including oil and carbon emissions.
Although Fox would like to stress that her research was limited and does not allow to extrapolate beyond the survey participants, she thinks that “the most interesting result is that […] none of the respondents ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly disagreed’ that the overall impact of tourism was negative, but 78.6% ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ that the overall impact was positive.”
As is often the case after a research project, Fox already sees possibilities for improvement and future studies. She would have liked to be able to send out an improved survey to a larger sample size after learning much about survey design with this project. She also recognizes that her project is based on current levels of Antarctic tourism and that it is important to consider predictions about increases in tourists in the future. 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

World Penguin Day

A message from ASOC's executive director, Mark Epstein, on World Penguin Day

On the eve of a major global celebration by civil society of World Penguin Day and the start of the 37th annual Antarctic Treaty Commission Meeting, I am reminded of a personal experience from long ago. In January 1989, a colleague and I led a group of Environmental Defense Fund supporters on what was to be an exciting three-week exploration of the Antarctic Peninsula, as well as sub-Antarctic islands. The week began uneventfully (other than the challenge of crossing Drake Passage, among the roughest seas in the world).

The first week, while enjoying a beautiful Antarctic summer with temperatures typically over 35 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, we visited rookeries of Magellanic, Gentoo and Adelie penguins, swam in the thin band of acceptable waters by Deception Island (where freezing Antarctic seas met the simmering waters of the post-volcanic island and encountered orcas, leopard seals and sea lions as we steamed to the farthest passable waters of Lemaire Channel.

On January 28, 1989, the calm was broken by the loud, chaotic sounds of a mayday call.  The Argentine polar supply ship, the Bahia Paraiso, was sinking after hitting ice pinnacles. This occurred less than a mile away from Torgersen Island, home to approximately 9,000 pairs of Adelie penguins. The disaster occurred after the vessel had brought provisions to Palmer Station, a US research station on Anvers Island near the Antarctic Peninsula.

The pictures below, though blurry, provide a sense of the proximity of Torgersen Island and the clear threat to the Adelie penguins who were in the middle of nesting season, swimming through badly polluted waters to feed their hungry chicks. The other shot provides an unsettling view of the growing oil slick and an abandoned barrel of oil (there were many) freely floating in the Southern Ocean.

The weather was beautiful so there was no risk to human life. However, our hearts were broken as oil spread towards the penguins, a pod of whales swimming nearby unknowingly and many other creatures living in what had been an almost pristine area. As environmentalists, we also understood that this was just the beginning as the Bahia Paraiso continued to sink. The vessel has remained in the Southern Ocean to this day, leaking oil and posing threats still being researched by scientists.  My videotape of the events of the day was brought to the world by CNN two weeks later (remember no smart phones or easy satellite uplinks then).

I also have video (that has not been released) includes a the chief scientist at Palmers Station bitterly complaining about the Bahia Paraiso’s crew, their lack of planning and willingness to ignore clear maps marking the seas they entered as dangerous. The photos below, and more strikingly the video I hope to share later this year, shows just how threatened thousands of baby Adelie chicks were and the almost complete lack of preparation on the part of the Bahia Paraiso for an incident that should have been prevented, but also an accident that should have been prepared for by any vessel in the pristine waters of the Southern Ocean.

As the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition works with members across the world to celebrate World Penguin Day, I also hope this will activate readers to sign the AOA petition (accessible through our homepage or at and get activated in the coming months as we work to protect penguins and thousands of other Antarctic species through the creation of new marine protected areas (MPAs) in East Antarctica and the Ross Sea, and finalize a Polar Code that should ensure vessels like the Bahia Paraiso are NEVER AGAIN allowed into the Southern Ocean without adequate structures and planning. The importance of penguins and fragility of the pristine wilderness of Antarctic and the Southern Ocean should be taken to heart by all the peoples of the world.

Caption: (photo w adelies in foreground) “A “penguin’s eye” view of the sinking Bahia Paraiso from Torgersen Island

Caption: (photo w slick) Oil slick and a floating barrel of oil just hours after the Bahaia Paraiso started to sink. For over 25 years, the Bahia Paraiso has remained submerged with the long term damage still being assessed.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Antarctic Oil Myth

Antarctica, the last wilderness, a continent covered by glaciers and surrounded by sea-ice – and full of oil?

There has been a lot of talk in the media lately about huge oil reserves in Antarctica. China building a new research station has prompted to write about a “race for resources” between countries and The Guardian also reported on the People’s Republic’s increased presence on the icy continent as proof of their desire to stake a claim to the South Pole’s riches.

Thanks to the Antarctic Treaty, resource extraction on the continent is banned and this restriction can only be lifted in 2048 (and only then if 3/4 of Treaty Parties agree and there is a regulatory system in place), so for now, the only way for nations to be a player in the Antarctic game is through scientific research. As one of the most pristine ecosystems left on this planet, Antarctica is a great setting in which scientists can examine anything from climate processes to penguins. But somehow all these articles make it seem as if everyone is just sneaking down there to wait for the Antarctic Treaty to expire and start drilling for the hundreds of billions of barrels of oil supposedly to be found under the ice and rock. But are there really such significant resources?

Antarctic fur seal and king penguins

The Guardian cites a Policy Brief by the Lowy Institute in which National Security Fellow Ellie Fogarty claims that “Antarctica’s predicted oil reserves have been estimated at up to 203 billion barrels”, making it “the third largest in the world.” She cites the source of this information as a publication by Bill St John, then President of Primary Fuels Inc., which was referenced in a publication by MacDonald et al. titled “A preliminary assessment of the hydrocarbon potential of the Larsen Basin, Antarctica”.

Thus, Fogarty did not cite the original source of the estimate, but instead cited a reference to it in another work. Furthermore, MacDonald et al. were actually criticizing the St. John estimate as “hampered by poor data”. They explain that St John simply estimated the volume of Antarctic sedimentary basins and assumed that they hold as much oil as very productive regions on other continents. Such an estimate is extremely theoretical and unreliable since it is not based on surveys but rather on guesses. In another report on Antarctic resources, John Kingston, petroleum expert of the US Geological Survey, emphasizes that he does not endorse St. John’s assumptions.

Not only is it extremely unlikely that Antarctica harbors billions of barrels of oil, but it is even questionable if the continent has any reserves that would be worth exploring. In a chapter on Energy Minerals in the Encyclopedia of the Antarctic of 2007, MacDonald, professor for petroleum geology at the University of Aberdeen, explains that the only exploitable coal is hard to get to and that no oil and gas has ever been found. “The petroleum potential is unproven (but likely to be low). Coupled with the difficulties of working in the harsh environment, it is unlikely that any exploration will occur in the future”, the chapter concludes.

The Antarctic continent - covered and surrounded by ice.
Image Credit: NASA
So what is all the fuss about? If Antarctica does not actually hold huge oil reserves, they cannot be a threat to its protection, right? Except that such misinformation creates what Macdonald calls the “El Dorado complex - the idea that unknown lands will be a treasure trove of resources.” Media stories that present this kind of information as solid fact rather than unconfirmed speculation can shape public perception and can influence political action. Countries might be reluctant to designate protected areas if they feel like this will keep them from future prosperity through oil exploitation and thus make way for other types of resource use, jeopardizing the health of this last truly wild place.



  • Fogarty, E. (2011). Antarctica: Assessing and Protecting Australia’s National Interests. Policy Brief. Lowy Institute for International Policy.
  • MacDonald, D. I. M. et al, (1987). A preliminary assessment of the hydrocarbon potential of the Larsen Basin, Antarctica, Marine and Petroleum Geology, 5, 34-53.
  • MacDonald, D. I. M. (2007). Coal, Oil and Gas, In: Encyclopedia of the Antarctic (Ed. Beau Riffenburgh), 1, 268-269.
  • Kingston, J. (1992). The undiscovered oil and gas of Antarctica. [Denver, CO]: Dept. of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey.
  • St John, B. (1986) Antarctica -- geology and hydrocarbon potential, In: Future petroleum provinces of the world (Ed. M. Halbouty) Am. Ass. Petrol. GeoL Mere. 40, 55-100 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

We at ASOC Warmly Welcome our New Executive Director, Mark Epstein

February 5, 2014

Dear ASOC Colleagues and friends,

As you know, ASOC’s co-founder and long time leader is retiring. Warm wishes for Jim Barnes have poured in from all seven continents. If you would like to add your wishes to the wall of tributes on ASOC’s website, please email me a thought, poem and/or picture at Jim has graciously agreed to work what was supposed to be half time through March 31st does not seem to know what half time means, and his leadership and guidance has helped me through a tremendously important, busy and fulfilling first month on the job. I know this is a farewell, not a good bye.

Jim has already shared details of my bio in his kind farewell letter. I’ll just add what an honor it is to succeed Jim and to work with you, the ASOC community of friends and colleagues. Ironically, over the past summer, before I was aware of the opportunity to lead ASOC, I had finally gotten around, with the help of my teenage children Ali and Dash, to putting a collection of framed photographs I snapped when on a “trip to the ice” in 1989. Traveling through the Southern Ocean around the Antarctic Peninsula was a thrill beyond words, especially joining one of my heroes, Denis Puleston, who was leading his 31st voyage across "Drake’s Lake.”

However, also being part of the rescue of the stricken Bahia Paraiso and then working with colleagues at the Environmental Defense Fund to shine a light on that disaster and the very real threats to wildlife and the last wilderness, underscored the importance of our collective work. I look forward to re-joining the ongoing work to ensure Antarctica remains a place of peace and a wilderness unspoiled.

While I have big shoes to fill, I am confident that with the support of colleagues and friends, we will ensure ASOC’s enduring future as the non-governmental organization working full time to preserve the Antarctic continent and its surrounding Southern Ocean. In the coming years, we will continue towards a legacy of “no take” marine protected areas and reserves, protecting the wilderness and wildlife from encroachment and increasing a focus on Antarctica as an iconic example of the pressing need to address and reverse climate change. I appreciate you ongoing work and support.

With warm regards,

Mark S. Epstein

Executive Director

Friday, January 24, 2014

Mining Under the Ice

In 1871 the cook of a survey party in Kimberley, South Africa stumbled upon the first exhumed diamond of what is now the world’s premier diamond mining region.  Within a year of that discovery, 50,000 prospectors and miners had descended on the once pristine and uninhabited region.  Today, Kimberley is known for two things - diamonds and the world's deepest man-made hole.  

With the recent discovery of diamonds in Antarctica, it appears the southernmost continent is at risk of following the path of Kimberley. This is one of the more recent episodes in a series of valuable mineral discoveries in the Antarctic.  We have also found evidence of petroleum stores, as well as several precious metals.  However, mining these minerals is especially harrowing, expensive and would decimate the continent.  Thankfully we have the Antarctic Treaty system which expressly forbids the mining of Antarctic mineral resources.  But is it enough?

What is the Antarctic Treaty?
Since it has no permanent or native human population, Antarctica is not singularly governed by any country.  The Antarctic Treaty System and its related agreements govern and regulate activities related to Antarctica.  The treaty, which came into force in 1961, sets Antarctica aside strictly as a demilitarized scientific preserve.  There are now 50 parties to the Antarctic treaty, including the US, Australia and China. 

In 1988, with the addition of what is termed as the Madrid Protocol, the Antarctic Treaty expanded its reach to more widely protect the Antarctic Environment.  Among other things the protocol states, “Any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research, shall be prohibited."

So what are we afraid of?
Currently, the Madrid Protocol is set to remain in effect until 2048, at which point it will go under review by the treaty’s consultative parties who may choose not to renew the Protocol.  As our more convenient mineral stores continue to empty, we grow bolder, more innovative, and more desperate to find new sources for these highly valued commodities. 

Some fear that countries are subtly working to position themselves for that moment in 2048, when the consultative parties may let go of the Madrid Protocol.  One need only look to China, which has already built four Antarctic research stations and has scouted the construction site for its fifth.  As China is in no way bashful about expanding their influence into Antarctica, they would have more stations there than Australia and Britain, and one fewer than the US.

Hopefully, the recent proceedings of the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) are NOT an indication of future Antarctic (dis)agreements.  There was some division at the most recent CCAMLR meeting over the establishment of a marine reserve in Antarctica’s Ross Sea.  This would have been one of the largest marine reserves in the world, and would protect one of the most ecologically valuable regions on the planet.   However, parties with large fishing interests in the region – namely Russia and the Ukraine – put a stop to this.  If this trend expands from CCAMLR to the Antarctic Treaty, and Antarctic parties continue to act on behalf of their singular short term economic gain over the longterm global benefit, then the Madrid Protocol’s days are most likely numbered.  This would lead to eventual mining in the Antarctic and untold global environmental challenges.  

Monday, January 20, 2014

Farewell as ASOC Executive Director

January 17, 2014

Dear ASOC Colleagues and friends -

As many of you are aware, thirty-five years after co-founding the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, and after almost a decade as its Executive Director, I am retiring this year. March 31, 2014
will be my last day on staff. I am pleased to announce that Mark Epstein will take over as ASOC’s new Executive Director on January 20.

Mark officially joined the team January 1, 2014 and the transition to his leadership is well underway. He stood out during a year-long search, based on his decades of work in the conservation community. Mark brings leadership experience as a nonprofit CEO, Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer of state, national and international organizations. He has been a senior executive with leading organizations, including American Rivers, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the Oregon Natural Resources Council, and served as board chair for the Coral Reef Alliance as well as several other nonprofit and private sector organizations. His career includes significant experience in strategy, fundraising, communications, and outreach work with diverse coalitions. Mark traveled to the Antarctic Peninsula in 1989 while working for the Environmental Defense Fund, and documented the sinking of the Bahia Paraiso near the US’s Palmer station, underscoring the critical need for strong environmental safeguards to protect the world’s last great wilderness.

Mark is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and NYU School of Law. He also ran for Congress in 1990, earning 41% of the vote with a grassroots-based campaign focused on bringing environmental issues to the forefront in the coastal New York community he grew up in. Mark believes deeply in ASOC’s mission and is excited about working with the ASOC team, its coalition of over thirty NGOs interested in Antarctic environmental protection, and other partners and colleagues.

I am very grateful to my colleagues for the opportunity to lead ASOC, which has allowed me to know so many wonderful people. Antarctica and ASOC will always hold a very special place in my heart. I look forward to supporting Mark in the coming months and to ensuring ASOC’s enduring future as the non-governmental organization working full time to preserve the Antarctic continent and its surrounding Southern Ocean.


James M. Barnes