This article is from the In-Depth Report The Future of the Poles
Science Talk

Kayaking Antarctica with Jon Bowermaster

How a warming climate leads to freezing penguins, with journalist and author Jon Bowermaster, who has kayaked the world's seas, most recently in Antarctica. And Cynthia Graber takes us on a tour with a new M.I.T. underwater autonomous vehicle. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Websites related to this episode include

How a warming climate leads to freezing penguins, with journalist and author Jon Bowermaster, who has kayaked the world's seas, most recently in Antarctica. And Cynthia Graber takes us on a tour with a new M.I.T. underwater autonomous vehicle. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include

Podcast Transcription

Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting November 12th 2008. I am Steve Mirsky. This week we'll go down to the sea and [in] ships—well boats, very small boats. First in kayaks in Antarctica then in an autonomous submarine off the Cape Cod coast. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. The Scientific American Web site features an In-Depth Report this week on the future of the North and South poles. Coincidentally, last week, I had a chance to talk to veteran journalist Jon Bowermaster who has spent a great deal of time in Antarctica. Jon is a longtime contributor to National Geographic. He recently completed a project called Oceans8, a video series featuring Jon traveling around the world a continent at a time looking at the health of the world seas and the lives of the people who depend on them. We talked about the series and then concentrated on his most recent kayaking expedition to Antarctica.

Jon: Half the world's population lives within 50 to 60 miles off the coastline, so what happens to the coastlines will have its own Ocean's impacts [on] half of the population. We used kayaks as kind of a [an] allure; people we met, most of them who [whom] are fisherman, boating people who accepted us as brother and sisters, depending on the makeup of the team; and never once—expect [except] for one of the trips—never once did they ask us what are you doing here, because they all assumed that everybody travels by kayak or travels by boat. They were [a] little mystified by what the boats were made out of, why were there these bright colors and in a couple of occasions, especially in Asia they wanted to know why we had hair on our legs.

Steve: That's really interesting.

Jon: But otherwise they completely accepted us and it was very helpful actually to our hoarding [us] because we simulated [assimilated] very easily, much more easily than if we had arrived by land.

Steve: So you were in fiberglass, and they used wood or whatever it is.

Jon: We were in plastic or fiberglass and they were in wood or woven bamboo in the case of Vietnam. The project began in 1999 and ended just this past winter in Antarctica. We started in the Aleutian islands, [the] next year it was Vietnam, the Tuamotu with big archipelago of atolls in the South Pacific, the Altiplano of South America which is the driest place on Earth, and which seem[s] kind of a futile place to take kayaks but there are big desert lakes there that [and] we drag[ged] the kayaks from one to the next. And it gave us an opportunity to talk about how the planet changes and evolves and [how] what is the driest place on Earth today hasn't always been the driest place on Earth and that those high desert lakes were remnants of when the sea is used to be there, marine fossils and coral in that high desert. Just after that we went to Gabon where wildlife conservation scientists Michael Fay and I did a big trip around a couple of the new national parks by boat.

Steve: It's West Africa?

Jon: Yeah, right on the equator in West Africa. And then Croatia and the Adriatic sea, you know, it has 1500 islands, they are half of Croatia, so it's perfect for us and the environmental story there was overfishing, incredible overfishing. We thought we are going to be self sufficient, not have to take much food, we just fish and nothing to catch and small family fisherman that we would meet and ask if we can buy some fish, we were reluctant because if they were catching anything they already had commitments. Tasmania—and which is beautiful and wild and a very good environmental story there because they have a very well managed fishery and then this past winter, Antarctic summer of November, December, January we were in the Antarctic.

Steve: Kayaking through Antarctica is is the obvious question, how cold were you?

Jon: Well, that's the environmental story—is that in many days our concern was less about the cold and more about sunblock.

Steve: Wow!

Jon: We had a string of two and a half weeks where we, you know, if you are skied on [at all], you know what a kind of a spring ski day is—the weather like that is beautiful—big blue skies, temperatures into, not always, but into the 40 degrees Fahrenheit, which is not what you think about when you think of Antarctica.

Steve: Sure.

Jon: That was then followed by nine days of really torrential rainfall which again is not what you think about when you think of Antarctica.

Steve: How long have you been going to Antarctica?

Jon: Actually I had my first assignment for National Geographic—for the yellow magazine—was in 1989 and I was there in '89-90 for about seven months.

Steve: Can you just go there now and look around and say, "This is very different from what it used to be?"

Jon: Well, we flew in 1989 from the tip of Chile onto an ice shelf called (unclear 4:47) and that ice shelf no longer exists, that's now ocean. So that's a first example. I have traveled on both the interior and in the interior (unclear 5:57) see much of a change, because it is still high and dry and very cold. But I have traveled a lot along both sides of the Antarctic peninsula which is of 600-mile-long peninsula just off the continent and on both sides of the peninsula you see dramatic change in the, not just the size of the glaciers as they come down to the sea, but the ice shelves that used to kind of protect them from the sea which are increasingly breaking off and moving out more and more and more. When you think about Antarctica, what is amazing is that it doubles in size every winter, because the sea around it freezes seven million square miles of ice freezes around the continent and you never know from year to year how it is going to change; most of that ice, most of that seven million square miles doesn't really recede that much, but that along the peninsula it all breaks off and blows out and that's what creates the icebergs that you have seen.

Steve: Tell me about the penguins—there's some interesting things going on there because of the changes in the climate?

Jon: Well, as we traveled down the western side of the peninsula, we stopped at several science bases, [the] American base of Palmer, the Ukrainian base of Vernadsky; we met Brits and Russians who worked and liv[ed]ing down there for a decade and each one of them would take us out and show us a glacier then say "Well, look at that glacier over there, look at that new island over there and that new land bridge. Ten years ago that didn't exist; that's because that glacier over there has receded by 30, 40, 50 and a hundred feet." But to us who hadn't seen it before still look[ed] like a hell of lot of ice. Now that's the thing about Antarctica. We talk about it's ice just [disappearing] when you are sitting there, especially at sea level in a kayak, it looks like Alaska, another Alaska, and sometimes I doubted the scientists; I am sure they are telling us absolutely the truth, but when you are seeing it for the first time, it's kind of hard to register. But as we move[d] down the coast and we also start[ed] to go under these islands which were filled with young penguin chicks—penguins are all kind of born in November, they leave the nest in the first week of February or so and when we were seeing them in January, they were still covered by down and this was during that kind of torrential rain period that we saw, and as a result these penguin chicks which were [a] couple months old covered in down are getting soaked by cold rain during the day and then at night time the temperature drops down into the teens and they are freezing and dying. And for us that was a much more powerful example of climate change impacting wildlife than anything which we have seen previously and gave us an image of climate change that the receding glaciers didn't.

Steve: Penguins are freezing because it's getting too warm?

Jon: Penguins are not built for rain, they are built for cold. But the parents of these chicks are wising up and season by season more of them are moving farther south down along the peninsula where it's colder; it is not getting as warm or it's not raining and they are catching on. But in the interim thousands of chicks are dying.

Steve: That's really amazing.

Jon: Two of the things [What] we see impacting Antarctica is climate change. When [T]he peninsula is [has] warmed by [an] average of 5 to 9 degrees in the last 50 years, more than anywhere else on the planet—Fahrenheit.

Steve: Fahrenheit, okay.

Jon: So, I mean it is warming. There's absolutely no question, no one would dispute that. Parts of Antarctica are getting colder and [the] peninsula is warming. So you see impacts of that everywhere. The other thing that we are seeing kind of related is this boom in tourism. Absolute boom. Each year such new records for how many people are going and visiting the peninsula of Antarctica. Last year 40,000 people arrived by cruise boats.

Steve: So, is that good or bad?

Jon: You know, good or bad is tough. I mean, you know, if you operate from kind of a high plane you say the more people who visit, the more people who return as ambassadors for Antarctica and ambassadors for preserving this very special place. The downside, of course, is that, just statistically, the more people who visit, the more bigger footprint they leave, the more of an impact they have. By pure happenstance I was there last November one day after Thanksgiving when the first tourist ship sank of [off] the coast of the peninsula. I was on another ship and we were the first to arrive and witness both the passengers who float[ing] in their lifeboats and then the sinking of this 40-year-old ship, which gave everyone caution because, of course, it suggests that, you know, there but for the grace of someone go I. The environmental impact is potentially huge; I mean that was a boat carrying diesel fuel, about 5 tons of oil and lubricants [and] 154 passengers. For the moment, the beaches of Antarctica are the most pristine scene I have seen on the planet, but that could change; [the] more boats that go down, the more people arrive with plastic bags and other paraphernalia that blows off the boat or gets left lying on the shore—that will change things. The little thing is that that was the explorer that sank the 154 passengers; the last season the Star Princess, which is a cruise boat that carries 3,107 passengers, in which another 1,500 crew went to Antarctica. Now imagine if it gets iced one day, you know for us to help, save or rescue 154 people was doable; to rescue 5,000 people, impossible. So just and this is not to be totally gloom and doom, it's just by pure statistics eventually, you know, more and more accidents will happen just as more and more people go. They anticipate within a couple of years 80,000 people could visit by cruise boats. So the potential environmental impact on Antarctica is huge.

Steve: Are there any kind of rules that have been put in place to govern the activity of tourists while they are on Antarctica?

Jon: Well, there is, you know, the international treaty that governs Antarctica, references tourism very very briefly. When it was written in 1959, they never anticipated [this].

Steve: My...the people would be that crazy.

Jon: I have no idea, and they have never really properly gone back to amend the treaty to address that. So the only thing that exists is that any tour operator who goes to Antarctica is supposed to join a voluntary group called the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. Most of them do and most of them follow the voluntary guidelines which relate to how many people you can land on shore at one time—just 50—you know, how many boats can be in and [in] what vicinity at any one time; but there are several other big companies who actually have refused to join. They don't want to go by any rules no matter whether they are voluntary or not and the tricky thing in Antarctica is there is no navy, there is no police, there is no coast guard, there is no enforcement. So even if you are disobeying these voluntary rules, there's no one there to monitor you.

Steve: By definition you're in international waters no matter how close to the land you are.

Jon: That's right. I mean, the only way you could outlaw tourism in Antarctica would be to rewrite the law of the sea which no one is going to do, so you can't stop tourism down there. All you can do is try, try, try to set up some sort of guideline and hope that people are following it. And most of the tour operators do. Most of the operators are pretty respectful. That said, even the most respectful companies going down there, and you can't help but have an impact, even—it's impossible to take a big boat down there with, you know, several hundred people on it: You're going to leave something behind. The good thing for Antarctica is that it is huge. I mean even without that 7 million square miles of frozen sea ice around it, you could fit the United States in Antarctica very easily, including Alaska. So, what tourism is impacting and actually what climate change is impacting is a relatively very small piece of that peninsula; but you know the impact on the peninsula if all that ice melts could be huge; when they talk about sea levels rising, you know, by inches and feet, you know if that ice along the peninsula melts they will add to the volume of the sea very quickly. Now, the smart scientists that we met along the peninsula all say that there is this critical point. You know, if you live in the United States, you have lived in the north, we all know that there comes a spring day when you got a bunch of snow out on your back porch and it will rain or the sun will come out and that snow will disappear in a day. And that's what scientists are concerned about in Antarctica is that there is this critical point where, yes, it looks like there's still lot of ice but as temperatures continue to rise and as there is more and more rain there will be a point where lot of that ice will disappear quickly.

Steve: When you were in Antarctica in a kayak, what do you eat? How do you bring enough provisions with you to make sure that because you [are] burn[ing] in a lot of calories, kayaking around in cold weather and got both things going on, your energy expenditure for the exercise you are doing plus just keeping your body heat up?

Jon: Yeah, you know, that's a very good point. [A lot] of fatty stuff, [a] lot of chocolate. I don't do it, but some will eat raw sticks of butter filled with fat. Yeah, you have to burn kind of in that 5,000-to-6,000-calorie range. The thing that we found over the years [is] that what's best is smoked fish because it is very nutritional and lasts. But yeah, lots of nuts and chocolate and things. In Antarctica of course, the tricky things with those foods is you have to make sure they don't freeze, because you don't want to be breaking your teeth biting into frozen nuts. But that said, you know, to be honest, we were down there for five to six weeks and most of us had just enough spares that we could afford five to six weeks on a kind of lean diet.

Steve: I would imagine there must be some kind of an impact that you feel when you are doing something like this.

Jon: Well, this is the beauty of traveling in places like that by kayak is that you are separated from this cold ocean, 29 degrees Fahrenheit by a millimeter of carbon fiber Kevlar—you're right there. But as a result, you experience this place from a very unique perspective, not so much unlike a seal or a whale like us. I remember one day in January, we kayaked through this channel called LeMaire. The LeMaire channel is one of the most beautiful places along the peninsula. It is very narrow, tall glaciers on either side and it happened to be one of those beautiful blue sky days and I can remember thinking over and over during that day, you know, how lucky we were to be there because I have been to that channel before and often it's big and blowy and gusty and windy because you're pushing all these [this] ice and wind through this narrow slot. Antarctica is one of these places that truly gets into your blood. You know, I went there first in 1989 and 90. I had been back, many times since; I leave in three weeks for another seven weeks stint. I feel very fortunate to be able to go to this place despite the fact that the numbers of tourists are visiting, the numbers of people who have repeat visits to Antarctica is pretty rare. And this 20 years of watching Antarctica, it has given me some insight into how are the places changing and reminds me even more powerfully how it's a place like others on the planet, but it is different. And then it's a place that's not monitored, there are very few people living there, it's a place that demands observation, you know, you have to stay focused. But as you can imagine, in this day of budget cutting in countries around the world, Antarctic science programs are being sliced, so there is this concern that it's a place also that could be kind of forgotten in the not so distant future, and that would be a tragedy because as that ice melts and if it can specifically continues to melt at the rate it is now, that will impact all of the world's oceans.

Steve: You said Antarctica really gets into your blood. You know about the ice fish in Antarctica, where it literally has...

Jon: Ice in its blood.

Steve: They have evolved to not really have blood anymore. They still have veins and hearts that pump fluid through blood vessels but what's going through there is just ice water, because the colder water is kind of super saturated with oxygen, so they don't need the specialized molecular structures to carry the oxygen anymore; and they are in deep trouble, all these species of ice fish because as the water warms up, it does not carry enough oxygen for them anymore. So, you know, the gene sequences for hemoglobin fossilize because there was no selection pressure to keep them around and, you know, like your freezing penguins they could be victimized by the warm up.

Jon: Well, the other marine life is being impacted by the warming temperatures are the krill, of course, which are the basis of food supply in Antarctica for all the marine animals, but because the warming seas are killing them of [off] as well. So, you know, I think in the big picture, I think Antarctica is a place that demands attention. Unfortunately I think the attention it is going to get in the coming decades is not necessar[il]y what we hope for it. And that is because especially lining the peninsula as that ice melts, it makes that continent much more accessible to exploitation, oil drilling, precious mineral searches, which is suddenly going on now. In the 1930s and 1940s, when countries were racing to Antarctica to claim their own pie slice, Hitler even sent planes down during the height of World War II, so that Germany did not miss out and so that Germany would get a claim as well; they marked off its pie slice with Swastika-marked sandbags. The international treaty that governs the continent was signed in 1959, essentially eliminating those nationalistic claims, but of course no one really took them off their books and as a result all those countries still regard those pie slices as theirs in case the treaties ever fall apart. Last year, last November, the U.K. claimed one quarter of Antarctica as its own. A new claim despite the treaty, totally outside of the reasons and limits of the treaty, and when asked why they basically said "Well, you know some day Antarctica is going to change and we want to be on the books for having [it], so that's ours." And so the same kind of fights you're seeing now in the Arctic over who owns what are going to happen in Antarctica sooner than we expect.

Steve: Especially if it becomes easier to prospect for gold or to drill for oil, then you are going to see all those treaties of cooperation pretty much go out the frozen window.

Jon: Well that's right. It's because all that [it] takes to recuse yourself from the treaty is a letter. You know, "I quit". Basically a little notice stamp and that's it; and so there will be no recrimination other than maybe in the court of public opinion, but that's it. Certainly there is oil there, when you think about where Antarctica came from, up from the tips of South Africa and South America is oil; up until now it's been too treacherous. It's still too treacherous to put oil rigs in around there because you have giant icebergs 10 miles wide breaking off which would easily take out an oil rig, but as that ice disappears, that will change.

Steve: For more on John Bowermaster and his series, Ocean8, go to his Web site Jon is spelled J-O-N, Bowermaster, B-O-W-E-R-M-A-S-T-E-R and to check out the Scientific American In-Depth Report on the future of the poles just go to the SciAm Web site

Steve: Cynthia Graber is a frequent contributor to the daily SciAm podcast 60-Second Science. She recently joined M.I.T. researchers on a boat off the coast of Cape Cod where they were putting a new autonomous underwater vehicle through its spaces.

(sound of a vehicle moving underwater)

Cynthia: That is the Odyssey IV being placed overboard. It's bright yellow, about six feet long and four feet tall. It looks not surprisingly a little like a big budgie fish; Justin Eskesen designed the software that controls the Odyssey.

Justin: I am going to send it on a machine. It is just going to go underwater and then hang a little away from us, roughly southeast.

Cynthia: Justin just sent the Odyssey underwater for a couple of minutes and told it to come up at a specific location and hold on to its position to a stand place.

Justin: So, you can see it's right now right over there.

Cynthia: I can see it just barely as it pokes its yellow head out of the water. This is the latest generation of M.I.T.'s autonomous underwater vehicles, or AUVs. There are, of course, already AUVs out there [already]. They generally fall into two categories. Some can speed through the water and take images as they go, some can hover in place. Hovering is useful for, say, performing maintenance work on ships; put all that together and you have a vehicle that can speed down, hang out, take a bunch of images even interact with its environment. The Odyssey IV can do all this to about 6,000 meters down, some three and three-quarter miles below the surface which means that this machine is well suited to its main goal the study of deep sea coral. Franz Hover is the principal investigator.

Franz: It's a garden of Eden on the seafloor, when you find one of these outcrops of corals. So, you may find new chemicals, you may find new fish; it's very exciting it's like finding new forests. They are repositories of climate data. The fossils have isotopic, should say, signatures. If you can gather these fossils and get them back to your lab and do some analysis on them you can figure out what climate it was like.

Cynthia: Finding the coral in the first place is hard enough; what comes next is even more difficult.

Franz: What we were doing with this vehicle is we are seriously tackling the manipulation problem. It's built for that and it's what we are supposed to do with the corals. It's what offshore industry wants us to do, is to go autonomously pick things up and put them down, interact with structures, and that poses all these new problems.

Cynthia: Such as: How do you design a deep-water vehicle that can without human eyes telling it specifically what to do, navigate deep under water, recognize coral, reach out, take a small sample and speed back up to the surface? This involves imaging, navigation, communication systems. Today these types of machines [operations] are mostly done by machines tethered to a boat and controlled by humans. Autonomous machines potentially have much more flexibility. The solutions for the Odyssey IV are still on the design phase. Coral research was the impetus for this machine.

Franz: That was the proposal that got it built. Its second life now is the offshore oil and gas manipulation, inspection and manipulation.

Cynthia: (unclear 23:34) the vehicle as well for offshore oil work. After an hour or so out in the water, M.I.T. researchers wrestle the Odyssey IV back on board. In the lab, the team is working on the recognition, navigation and manipulation systems. Next summer, they are hoping to check out the ocean floor off the coast of Long Beach, California, in search of deep sea coral. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Cynthia Graber.


Steve: Now it's time to play TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: After a law was enacted in Florida requiring vision tests for its senior drivers, the death rate among senior drivers actually went up.

Story number 2: The Phoenix Mars Lander has ceased communicating with Earth after five months on the Red Planet.

Story number 3: Study subjects who wash down a placebo pill with a strange tasting drink got more of a placebo effect than those who took the pill with plain water.

And story number 4: M.I.T. researchers have invented material that can repel oil and water.

Time is up.

Story number 4 is true. M.I.T. researchers have invented a material that seems to be able to repel hydrophilic and hydrophobic liquids. How you hold on to it if you are sweating, I don't know. The so-called "omniphobic" surface was reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. You can read more about how they did it in the article called "How to Make Materials Everything-Proof" at the Scientific American Web site.

And story number 3 is true. A strange tasting drink with no active ingredients nevertheless resulted in a stronger placebo effect. Study subjects took a drug or placebo pill with either water or the odd drink and the ones who got the placebo with the strange liquid had almost a stronger response as did the subjects who got the real drug, a far bigger placebo response then the water drinkers got. For more check out the November 10th edition of the Scientific American mind and brain podcast, 60-Second Psych.

And story number 2 is true. The Phoenix Mars Lander has gone quiet. Mission engineers got their last message from the Lander on November 2nd. It was designed for three months but lasted five. The batteries have pretty much drained and are unable to recharge due to the seasonal decline in sunlight on Mars. The analysis of all the data that the Lander sent back however is just beginning.

All of which means that story number 1 about the death rate going up among senior drivers in Florida after they had their vision tested is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. In fact the death rate among drivers over 80 has dropped in Florida since the state passed a law requiring vision tests for drivers over 80. Shocking in [that] it turns out you have a better chance of surviving behind the wheel if you can see. No data on whether fewer pedestrians are ploughed into but as a frequent walker and cyclist in Florida, I am all for the drivers being able to actually see me. The research appeared in the Archives of Ophthalmology.


Well that's it for this edition of Scientific American's Science Talk. Visit for all the latest science news, In-Depth Reports like "The Future of the Poles" and slide shows. For Science Talk, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

Science Talk is a weekly podcast, subscribe here: RSS | iTunes

Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Starting Thanksgiving

Enter code: HOLIDAY 2015
at checkout

Get 20% off now! >


Email this Article