Ross Sea, Antarctica

If you look at a map of Antarctica, below the long arm of the Graham Land Peninsula which reaches out towards the Shetland Islands, there is an inlet that, for most of the year, is glued by a vast swath of sea ice to the ice sheets and mountains that make up the mainland continent. Out of this swath of ice rises the great white cloak of Mt. Erebus, from which seeps a permanent plume of water vapor and carbon dioxide, an ever-present white flag on the horizon. Mt. Erebus is an active volcano, and at its summit its caldron contains a persistent volcanic stew, one of only four permanent lava lakes in the world. Down the great cloak of this mountain, a line of white leads out to the Ross Sea. It is easy to envision the whole of the Southern Ocean as a pristine marine wilderness, as virginally white as the snow that blankets the ice. But it is really just the Ross Sea, with its deep continental shelf and difficult-to-access waters, that may be one of the few remaining pristine marine ecosystems left on the planet.

I lived by the Ross Sea for ten months, over two summer seasons, and experienced a great appreciation for, and a great humbling from the landscape. To travel from here to there, I boarded a C-17 airplane, departing the lush and humid hills of New Zealand for an antithetic land. From one of the four porthole windows, by the stacks of pallets and cargo-strapped gear, I could see the very tips of the Transantarctic Mountains, though much of this prodigious range is buried in the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. I fell in love with the landscape immediately – it was so stark, so big, so unlike anything I had ever seen before. The prevalent wind fills the air with drifting snow that looks like glitter in the sun (a phenomenon known as “diamond dust”), and sometimes, when the wind is particularly high, the horizon disappears altogether, producing a landscape entirely devoid of color and scale.  In concert, diamond dust and sunlight can produce the most spectacular sun dogs I have ever seen, great halos of light that ring the sky with a gradient of brilliant color.

A five minute walk from camp allows for sensory deprivation: there is little to smell, and little to hear. The only colors are blue and white, and the only thing to feel is the slow seep of the ever-present cold.  There is an incredible profundity to this degree of isolation, a peace and an appreciation that comes from being exposed to something so much grander than oneself.  I suppose this is always the genuine state of affairs – we are so small in the scheme of things – but this revelation is never so pronounced as it is when you are alone, utterly, and left with the feeling that only the thin line of the horizon is keeping you from falling away into space.

McMurdo Station, located on an island in the Ross Sea, is the continent’s most populous research base, with a crew of over a thousand during the summer season.  C-17s land on the frozen water, on runways daily groomed by track vehicles that look a little bit like military tanks.  People are drawn to this place for many reasons.  A pervasive Antarctic saying is that you come for the adventure, return for the money, and then stay because you don’t fit in anywhere else.  There are Antarctic lifers, people who live a split existence between two continents.  Jules, a heavy equipment operator, has been going down south for over thirty years.  I spent some time with her when I was fixing doors at a small station dedicated to releasing Long Duration Balloons – funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation, these balloons can provide information about things like radiation and magnetic fields in space.

Underneath the Pegasus Airstrip (named for a  wreck of a C-12 Lockheed Constellation airliner that crashed nearby) and below eight feet of solid ice, the water here is rich with life. During my second season, Jules coordinated an effort to install a viewing tube, a giant hole in the ice that is filled with a human sized container made of Plexiglas. You can descend the thin rungs of a ladder, have a friend slide a wooden cap over the top, and sit down in a tiny room surrounded by the Ross Sea. The bottom of the ice looks like the inside of a geode: crystals glow yellow and blue from the distant sun.  The filtered cries of the Weddell seals are akin to wind through an attic window. Sit down there long enough, and you start to notice movement in the water: gently undulating are hundreds of tiny jelly creatures. Among them is the graceful Clione antarctica, a kind of marine slug also known as a sea angel.  Myriad tiny fish swim in tandem, and twice I was treated with the presence of Diplulmaris antarctica, which looks like a tangle of sepia branches and strands of glass-clear rice noodles, but is actually a large jellyfish.

A few hardy species of bird grace the deep south in the summertime, and the penguins and seals are often sited in the sun, but it is below, in the low and cold light of the ocean, where diversity abounds and the heart of the Antarctic ecosystem steadily beats. And like oxygen in the blood, two species are particularly vital: Euphausia superba and crystallorophias, Antarctica’s krill.

There is an astounding number of Antarctic krill in the southern ocean. Although estimating an actual population size is an inexact and complicated science, one study posits an overall Antarctic krill biomass of 100-500 million tons. For comparison, global human biomass is estimated to be around 300 million metric tons, and an average adult human is the biomass equivalent of around 41,000 krill.  Krill have been fished steadily since the mid-1970s, predominantly by Japan and Russia, with annual catches numbering in the hundreds of thousands of tons. Krill are both pivotal and contentious mainly because they are delicious (check out this apt headline and recipe).  They are popular in Asian cuisine, and they are vitally important to marine predators, from whales to penguins to the leviathan Patagonian toothfish.

Patagonian toothfish, or Chilean Sea Bass if you are perusing a menu in the USA or Canada, are not pretty. They often weigh as much as an well-muscled adult human (~220 lbs) and have a mouth full of teeth that rival a shark’s. They are, however, another extremely popular target for human consumption. In 2000, over 16,000 tons of toothfish were harvested in Antarctica, and NOAA estimates over 32,000 tons may have been illegally harvested in the same year. Toothfish have historically been the catch of choice in the southern seas, but the rise of interest in krill is not just a southern change – there is a global trend of fishing lower trophic levels, due to the potential for higher yields. Overfishing organisms that are part of lower trophic levels (i.e are eaten by many other creatures), however, could be a particularly risky business in terms of sustainability, especially since so many organisms rely on these lower level creatures for sustenance.

Krill are not just a meal for many. They also may play a sneaky role in carbon sequestration – the storage of carbon in more stable forms that are not readily released into the atmosphere. Vast quantities of carbon can be found inside of marine phytoplankton, the delicate little photosynthesizers that grace the surface of our global oceans. Phytoplankton populations are often limited most by how much iron is available, as iron is a necessary nutrient in their diet. This relationship between iron, phytoplankton, and carbon is so important that the possibility of inundating marine systems with iron intentionally to encourage phytoplankton growth – and therefore the sequestration of carbon – has been proposed as a serious solution to climate change. How does this relate to krill? A recent study has shown that krill may play an important role in the movement of marine iron – they consume iron-rich copepods at greater depths, and then bring this vital nutrient to the surface when they rise to feed on phytoplankton.  In their pursuit of their favored source of food, they are also possibly providing food for the phytoplankton. With reduced krill populations, this important mechanism will likely be reduced, which might impact the quantity of carbon that is safely harbored within our global waters.

An organization called the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) has more power than any other to dictate the fate of the Ross Sea, but has lately reached an impasse.  Member countries New Zealand and the United States have championed a motion to designate the sea as a Marine Protected Area (MPA), but some countries that regularly fish the southern ocean have prevented anything from being successfully implemented.   The Ross Sea MPA cannot move forward without consensus. It is a complicated, messy political process, as no single country governs Antarctica and its waters.

However, many of the people who actually live by the Ross Sea do have a sense of ownership – a stake in the research that they support and a love for the landscape and its inhabitants.  One free day when I was deployed, I took a ride on the frozen sea in a large-wheeled vehicle called a Delta. The Delta was packed with workers taking their “boondoggle”, a trip to see the continent that is gifted to most of McMurdo Station’s support staff.  We drove along the winding coast, past waves frozen in motion, and icebergs the size of ocean tankers. We were enroute to Scott’s Hut on Cape Evans, a relic of the continent’s intrepid past. The human history of Ross Island is intriguing enough, an obvious reflection of our species’ drive for discovery and knowledge.  But it was a pair of curious emperor penguins that made the trip for all of us.  Two of these majestic birds waddled from a mile away, curious about our red parka-clad flock emerging from the belly of the Delta. In a landscape so big and so empty, seeing anything alive can seem stark and shocking, but it was especially moving to hear the penguin’s lively ululations, and the dancing of their wings as they approached.  I have never felt so communicative with a wild animal as I did then, eye to onyx eye with two entirely uninhibited creatures of the ice. I’ve no doubt that everyone I took that trip with would defend the importance of this cold stretch of sea. To deny the Ross Sea MPA status is to turn our backs on some of the most globally important and resilient organisms, as well as, it turns out, some of the most personable creatures on this planet.