Scientists from six continents talk about the seventh behind its back

Beautiful city

It’s not an Onion article – it’s the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) Biology Symposium. It’s happening this week in Leuven, Belgium.

Conditions in Antarctica right now are dark, cold, and inaccessible. Most of the plants, animals, and other living things – at least the ones on land – have gone to sleep for the winter. Of course, when I say “to sleep” in Antarctica that typically means dried out, frozen, or both – and they can still wake up from that! Antarctic critters are cool like that.

Anyway, this is the season that biology is not very interesting in Antarctica, so it’s a good time to analyze and present data to other scientists somewhere warmer, like Belgium. I was at the American research base McMurdo last season, so I met mostly Americans, but Antarctica is a unique continent because it is governed by an international treaty for use of peaceful scientific purposes.

Anthony Bordain – yes, the celebrity chef author/TV host – did a recent episode of his show in Antarctica (he was there filming while I was there in January). Whatever you may think about his style and his show, I was surprised and impressed by the thoughtful conversations he had with scientists and support staff of many stripes about life there and the importance of science and empirical facts. If you missed it, you can stream it for about $3 on Amazon. I recommend it, if only for the view out the helicopter as they land at the camp in Lake Hoare, where I worked. I hear that sight never gets old, even after dozens of seasons.

I also love the Belgian chocolate shops, like Bittersweet.

Although I met mostly Americans on the ice, I was aware there were many other national bases, which is why I was so thrilled to give a talk at SCAR Biology – a chance to meet Antarctic researchers from elsewhere! The conference welcome letter said there were about 400 attendees from about 30 countries. I love hearing all the different languages spoken around me. I have had fascinating conversations with people from at least a half dozen countries. I am still new to Antarctic biology, and am learning new things daily.

Here is a (very) incomplete list of things I have learned so far this week (note: this is not peer-reviewed or technical, and I might get some details wrong, so take these with a dash of skepticism):

  • Cryoconite holes can form not only on glaciers, but on ice shelves. That makes sense, but I had not really thought about it before.
  • Some algae in the McMurdo Dry Valley lakes produce antifreeze protein.
  • Rotifers are picky eaters who sort their food, not indiscriminate filter-feeders.
  • Overwintering crews at Antarctic stations show similar immune responses to astronauts, including fluctuating underperformance and overreaction of immune systems.
  • Diatoms are flying through the air in the McMurdo Dry Valleys.
  • Someone was once stabbed to death on a research cruise (not an American one) over a romantic interest.
  • Although cryoconite holes have been proposed as a likely feature to host life on other planets or even comets, there are some good reasons why they might not be likely to host life on Mars.


And then an iceberg the size of Delaware broke off the Larson C ice shelf, and Antarctica was in the New York Times (again – their reporters were down there this season while I was there, too). I’m a biologist, not an ice-shelf-ologist, but what I understand from reading expert opinions is that it’s the kind of event that happens, but is more likely to happen more often with climate change. And if it happens too much, and too much of the floating ice holding back the ice sheet from pouring off the rocky continent into the ocean goes, then we’re looking at more rapid sea level rise. So my understanding is that it’s hard to say whether this particular berg would have broken without climate change, but that this is certainly not a good sign. It’s neutral or ominous, not hopeful.

I have not heard much discussion of it today at the conference, even from marine biologists. Icebergs break off ice shelves, and this change is one more data point in the overall trend, is all. The media are not calling biologists for comment – I suspect the public is more interested in whether we will have to canoe to the grocery store tomorrow than whether the next generation will grow up without tuna fish sandwiches because the ocean ecosystems have collapsed.

But the iceberg break-off, along with a new analysis published in Science showing the relative magnitude of various actions to reduce a personal carbon footprint, has me thinking about the fact that hundreds of people took transatlantic flights or the equivalent to be here.

Several of the sessions at the conference are specifically for presenting research on human effects on Antarctic ecosystems, including the effect of climate change. Although atmospheric patterns result in my study site not changing at this time, the oceans have been absorbing perhaps more of the heat than some early expectations – and what does that mean for fish? I went to one talk on the adaptation of fish in the Southern Ocean to heat shock.  The conclusion was that given millions of years, the fish could adapt to survive warming of the ocean by a few degrees – but that current projections don’t give them millions of years before we hit those temperatures.

So is it worth the carbon spewed into the atmosphere for us all to be here?

On a personal level, I am tempted to say yes. Yes, because while Skype is wonderful for connecting people in a low-carbon way, casual proximity yields the reshuffling of disciplines that create the combinations that wind up being advantageous, analogous to reshuffling DNA between multiple organisms in sexual reproduction (hey, we’re biologists here!). The unexpected interactions can lead to exponential growth in scientific discovery. You go to dinner in a strange city with a new friend, the distant colleague of someone you met on the train from the airport, and get stuck sitting next to a stranger entirely out of your field. By the end of the dinner, you have an idea for a collaborative project next season when you are both on the ice that would never have occurred to you otherwise.

On a scientific level, it may be tricky to measure the cost in the amount of carbon produced by the meeting and the degrees warming it will add to the climate, but it is almost impossible to quantify the value of the reshuffling of ideas and inspiration to young researchers in producing knowledge. Although studies try to put dollar amounts on basic research that underpins world changing technology, the exercise can feel as frustrating as trying to pin down a price for biodiversity or for friendship.

I’m still processing these thoughts, so I’ll end with a gratuitous Antarctica photo from last season. Onward we march?

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