The end of the world at the ends of the earth

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 1997:

NASA and the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration in late
March and early April recorded “the lowest
ozone values ever measured” by satellite
monitoring over the Arctic, according
to Goddard Space Flight Center
weather scientist Pawan K. Bhartia.
Bhartia reported that ozone levels
over the North Pole in March were
40% lower than the 1979-1982 average,
coming a year after levels that were 24%
lower than the 1979-1982 average.
Bhartia cautioned that, “These low
ozone amounts are still nearly a factor of
two greater than the lowest values” discovered
in the Antarctic, but ozone layer
depletion at either pole is already associated
with increased ultraviolet radiation
and global warming, leading toward
potential ecological catastrophe.

In the northern polar region,
caribou, polar bears, ringed seals, and
many Arctic plants and birds are already
menaced by global warming, University
of Toronto forester Jay R. Malcolm
warned last December, in a report sponsored
by the World Wildlife Fund.
Malcolm cited the midwinter starvation
of at least 6,200 reindeer and perhaps as
many as 30,000 on the Chukotka
Peninsula, in Siberia, just across the
Bering Strait from Alaska. Normally,
reindeer kick away snow to find winter
forage, but in November 1996 an unseasonable
thaw followed by refreezing
sealed the forage under ice. Chukchi
herders drove about 53,000 reindeer to
safety, from a herd of about 240,000,
using tractors to break ice so that the caribou
could eat along the way.
Simultaneously, three feet of
snow hit normally hot, dry Mongolia,
after fires devasted 41,000 square miles
of grass and forest last spring, followed
by floods last summer––and epidemics
of anthrax and cholera.
A sign that climatic change is
affecting Alaska too came in October
1996, when instead of migrating south,
an estimated 80,000 caribou––the North
American reindeer subspecies––split
from the main herd and moved straight
west, toward Nome.
“There’s never been a major
herd entering the Seward Peninsula like
this,” said Alaska Department of Fish
and Game biologist Peter Bente, as
hunters rushed to shoot quotas of up to
five caribou per day, and antler velvet
farmers who raise domesticated reindeer
fretted that their stock would join the
caribou when they moved back east.
Antarctic crunch
Catastrophic effects of ozone
layer depletion and global warming are
even more evident at the opposite end of
the earth, including the dramatic breakaway
of a piece of the Antarctic ice shelf
almost the size of Rhode Island in
January 1995.
Wrote Reuters science correspondent
Roger Atwood, visiting Palmer
Station with a Greenpeace expedition on
a 50-degree day in mid-February, “Heatstressed
penguins are panting or sliding
down snowbanks, trying to cool off.
Elephant seals bask in the sun in fetid
pools. There may still be debate about
why the Antarctic climate is
changing––because of greenhouse gases,
a natural cyclical upswing, or some combination––but
there’s no doubt it is
changing. The mean temperature on the
Antarctic Peninsula has risen by about
two degrees since 1950.”
Another 40 to 50 years of that
could bring a 10% shrinking of the
Antarctic ice cap, raising the global sea
level by anywhere from 12 to 30 feet.
Micronesia, Bangladesh, and The
Netherlands would be submerged at the
lower end estimate, while the worst-case
scenario would drown most coastal cities
The crumbling ice helped move
the House of Representatives to ratify the
1991 Antarctic Treaty in September
1996, signed by 26 nations and approved
by the Senate in 1992. Of the signers,
only Russia, Japan, India, Belgium,
and Finland have yet to adopt implementing
But against the enormity of the
threat to the Antarctic environment, the
Antarctic Treaty is a series of non-sequi –
teurs, banning mining and oil drilling in
the region, making scientific research the
priority human activity in the Antarctic,
and requiring visitors to remove their
waste––all irrelevant to the major pollution
threat, the ozone layer damage done
by so-called “greenhouse gas” emissions
from other continents. The major
human-created sources of greenhouse
emissions are industrial processes now
somewhat under control in the developed
nations but expanding in the Third
World, plus methane released from artificially
dense concentrations of livestock.
Approximately 140 nations
have ratified the 1992 Climate Change
Convention, agreeing to reduce greenhouse
gas emissions, but implemention
and funding for corrective measures are
still subjects of bitter dispute.
Ozone layer damage, occurring
mostly at the poles, allows extra
ultraviolet radiation to strike the earth.
This seems to coincide with failures of
krill reproduction––just as Japan has first
pioneered and then escalated commercial
krill fishing. That’s bad enough news for
baleen whales, about 80% of whom
spend up to 80% of their time feeding on
krill in the waters now encompassed by
the Southern Oceans Whale Sanctuary.
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
founder Paul Watson has postulated that
the Japanese strategy is to starve whales
within the sanctuary, to make a case for
“culling” a purported surplus. But the
news is worse for Antarctic penguins,
who need close concentrations of krill to
feed them and their chicks through their
nine-month nesting cycle, and unlike the
whales, can’t seek food elsewhere.
Satellite telemetry did produce
evidence last year, however, that young
emperor penguins, free to seek their fortune,
are venturing far into the Southern
Ocean from their birth colonies within
the Ross Sea––beyond the 60th parallel,
the edge of the habitat protected under
the Antarctic Treaty and the Convention
on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine
Living Resources. This takes them out of
competition for food with mature penguins,
and into conflict with longline
fishers. One penguin from a colony near
Cape Washington was 1,775 miles to the
north when the battery of a tiny transmitter
glued to feathers on his back gave out,
four months early. Emperor penguins
who survive their youth return to the
Ross Sea to seek a mate at age four or
five. There are currently an estimated
135,000 breeding pairs among about two
dozen Ross Sea emperor penguin
colonies. The known peak was 175,000.
“It is disturbing to learn that
emperor penguins leave the relative safety
of the Ross Sea during at least one critical
stage in their life cycle and range in
areas that are heavily exploited by commercial
fishers,” Scripps Institute of
Oceanography researcher Gerald L.
Kooyman told The New York Times.
Aware of a potential krill shortage,
the Australian Antarctic Division in
November 1996 moved to set the first
krill fishing limit in the southeast Indian
Ocean: 850,000 tons per year, seven
times the current global catch. Other limits
in effect by treaty are 1.7 million tons
in the South Atlantic, and 500,000 tons
in the southwest Indian Ocean. Thus the
global catch could be 25 times as big as it
is now without exceeding any limits. The
krill industry claims the total Antarctic
stock is around a half billion tons.
Bill Fraser, chief scientist at
the U.S. National Science Foundation’s
Palmer Station, who has studied penguins
in Antarctica for more than 20
years, reported in February that the number
of Adele penguins nesting on
Cormorant Island is in drastic decline due
to the loss of pack ice. Twenty-one
colonies are apparently extinct, while the
island penguin population is down to
9,200 pairs, from 15,200 in 1975.
Weddell and crabeater seals, also preferring
ice habitat, are likewise in decline,
while chinstrap penguins, elephant seals,
and fur seals are all on the increase.
Colleague Deneb Karentz said sea
urchins had ceased reproducing, while
starfish embryos have begun exhibiting
significant deformity, in apparent
response to ultraviolet radiation.
Kirk Malloy, William Detrich
and colleagues from Northeastern
University and the University of Texas
reported similar harm to icefish in the
February 17 edition of Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences.
“We were surprised at the
extent of the DNA damage we found,”
said Malloy, “although we still need to
know what happens during the rest of the
year when the ozone hole closes up.”
Added Detrich, “Ozone depletion
has previously been shown to harm
one-celled marine plants in Antarctica.
We’ve now documented significant damage
at a higher level of the food chain. It
is striking how closely the damage to the
fish eggs tracked with the increased
intensity of ultraviolent light.”

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