Few have witnessed the impact of global warming more closely than this scientist.
f Antarctica had a voice, it would be Jim McClintock. The marine biologist has been narrating the story of the changing continent for the past 30 years. A professor at the University of Alabama, McClintock studies the tiny marine invertebrates and crustaceans in the oceans around Antarctica. This research has taken him to Antarctica since the 1980s, when he first showed that Antarctic marine life has developed its own unique chemical defenses, some of which have medical applications in fighting AIDS, cancer, MRSA, and other human diseases.
McClintock has followed his far-reaching curiosity into marine ecology, climate change, and biomedical research. The small, strange creatures he studies—corals, sea sponges, sea butterflies, and other animals that form the basis of Antarctic ecosystems—are especially vulnerable to rising water temperatures and acidification as the Southern Ocean absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. McClintock has seen firsthand the impact of climate change on the oceans, glaciers, and marine life, a story he tells in his book Lost Antarctica: Adventures in a Disappearing Land. He has taken his storytelling approach all over the country, meeting with faith groups, campaigning for conservation organizations, and leading educational cruises to Antarctica for over a decade. Harrison Ford was so taken with McClintock’s book that he recorded a reading with the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation.
During a phone call from our respective home offices, McClintock shared his experiences of watching Antarctica transform—and turn green. He is especially familiar with the West Antarctic Peninsula, the northern-most tip of Antarctica that is one of the most rapidly warming places in the world, and is often seen as a “canary in the coal mine” for climate change. McClintock has done research on icebreaker ships, as a scuba diver, and at Palmer Station, along with leading cruises along the coast.
Palmer Station, the northernmost of the U.S. Antarctic Program’s three research stations, is located on Anvers Island along the peninsula that stretches up toward South America. It is home to the Palmer Station Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program, where McClintock’s colleagues have continuously studied changes in the surrounding ecosystem since 1990. The LTER program is critical to understanding changes occurring in the region, the impact on wildlife, and what we can expect to see in the future. McClintock speaks of his time along the peninsula with exuberance: he shares his mentor E.O. Wilson’s infectious generosity and passion for his work—and for the fragile world of Antarctica.
When you hear the term “the greening of Antarctica,” what comes to mind for you?
Wearing less clothing when you go outside! I think in the big picture it’s another term in the West Antarctic Peninsula to describe climate change and warming.
What kind of “greening” have you noticed in your 20 years traveling around the peninsula?
When I lead climate change cruises, we go up to the Antarctic Sound at the tip of the peninsula, and then turn around and sail back through Shetland Islands, working our way down to Palmer Station. The moss in some of these places is taking over. It’s just amazing. In the places that we’ve stopped and gone to shore over the last 11 or 12 years—gosh, some of them have really greened up. You’ll see a big rockface, and it has gone from a light covering of green moss, to this dense emerald green. And people on the cruise say: “Wow, look at that! Are we in Antarctica?”
Ocean acidification is happening now. You don’t have to wait for your grandkids.
I suppose given all the ice and marine life there, the “greening” of Antarctica isn’t always visibly green. What other sorts of large-scale changes have you been seeing?
There’s this massive glacier right behind Palmer Station on the peninsula that’s always on everyone’s mind: Marr Glacier. When I first got down there 20 years ago, Marr Glacier would calve a big chunk of ice into the bay next to the station maybe once a week. And it was a big deal. I remember people actually pushing past each other to get down the hall to look out into the bay, to watch the waves from a big calving. But now—say in the last 10 years—the glacier is going crazy. This last time I was down there in early 2020, it was calving three, four, sometimes five or six times a day. I’d say bigger chunks are coming off, too. And the behavior of people there has changed—they don’t really react. It’s just a constant backdrop. Everybody’s aware that it’s changed. It’s indicative of the 80 percent of the glaciers on the West Antarctic Peninsula that are receding. That’s the biggest physical factor that has struck me over 20 years at Palmer.
What do researchers believe is causing West Antarctic glaciers to become unstable and break apart like that?
It’s due to a combination of sea water temperature and air temperature warming. There’s also more rainfall than there used to be, which affects the glacial conditions. Midwinter air temperatures have increased about 10 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 50 or so years. This past year, just north of Palmer Station there was a record air temperature in the 60s Fahrenheit! As a result, you see a lot more crevassing in the glacier, so you see these big crack lines coming down the glacier, and the big chunks break off where the cracks are.
There’s something else about the glacier too. At Palmer, one of the things you do to get away is go for a hike. That’s really important, because you’re stuck in this little station and there aren’t a lot of places to go. So inevitably, every season, everybody hikes up to the top of Marr Glacier, at least once a month, sometimes every week. What I’ve noticed—particularly in the last five to 10 years—is that the surface of the glacier has changed. The ice is crustier. And the thing that really struck me is: I began to hear it. I began to hear channels of water trickling from the meltwater underneath the surface of crusty ice. You could hear running water. I thought: “I should come up with a microphone and record it!” To me, that running water is part of the climate change story.
Human-induced climate change may seem a purely modern phenomenon. Even in ancient Greece, however, people understood that human activities can change climate. Later the early United States was a lab for observing this as its settlers altered nature. By 1800…READ MORE
How have the changes in Antarctica affected you?
When you live somewhere and see, year to year, if not month to month, changes in the environment around you, it’s revolutionary. It just blew my socks off. As I came back each year to Palmer Station, the glacier had noticeably retreated. Penguins are disappearing around the peninsula. I personally witnessed climate change. I wasn’t a climate change scientist. I was a marine biologist who was living and working in a place surrounded by change.
How important is Antarctica in the climate change story?
Polar environments are the barometers of change because a small increase in temperature can have a huge impact on the ecosystems in the ice. I think the fact that Antarctica is one of the first and foremost regions of the world—along with the Arctic—to be impacted makes it especially important, because it tells us what’s coming elsewhere.
I give a lecture called “From Penguins to Plankton: Dramatic Impacts of Climate Change in Antarctica.” After I’ve spoken about Antarctica, I show how Antarctica affects the place I happen to be lecturing—whether I’m in New York or Alabama. I’ll say: “How is it affecting us here at home?” If you look at the Circumpolar Current that goes around Antarctica, for instance, it’s the biggest ocean current on our planet. And it heads north and splits into the Pacific and Atlantic sides of the northern hemisphere. This means Antarctica has a huge impact on the climate of the rest of the world—a lot of people don’t realize that. And then of course the melting of the ice is affecting sea levels here on the coast of Alabama. Antarctica might be far from us, but it’s very much a part of our world—in some ways almost like a critical organ.
We’ve got a resource to cure human diseases that we’re going to squander because of climate change.
What does your own research on ocean acidification and marine invertebrates tell us about Antarctica?
Well, one thing we noticed this year, which I had never really seen before, is the huge number of salps. Salps are these gelatinous organisms that float around in the water. They can be solitary or colonial, traveling in chains. They look kind of like jellyfish. This last season when I was down there in February and March, I was helping on a research dive, and I looked down in the water and just saw chains of salps going by everywhere. But this has been one of the predictions: that salps are going to move down the peninsula and dominate the ecosystem. The downside of salps is that they are little tiny feeding machines. They eat everything. And where the salps are getting really abundant, the krill aren’t as common, and the food web is slipping from this krill-based state to salp-based. But salps are like lettuce, their nutritional value is extremely low.
Does that mean fewer large predators like penguins and seals can survive in a salp-based ecosystem?
Exactly. I’ve been peering into this water for 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like this. And the divers came up, saying “Wow, that was a salp dive!”
Salps aren’t really green, I guess.
No, not so much greening as jellyizing.
Along with jellyizing, how do you see wildlife changing along the peninsula?
The biggest wildlife factor that I became deeply aware of when I first got to Palmer is ecologist Bill Fraser’s penguins, the Adèlies. They’re out on these little islands in front of the station. Twenty years ago there were significantly more than there are now. There were 16,000 breeding pairs when Bill first went down there in 1974. Every year Bill’s team does counts, and I go by the birding hut and ask, “What are you at this year?” The last count I heard was 1,100. So 90 percent of them are gone. In my book I call them “Ghost Rookeries”—there are so many empty rookeries. It’s hard to believe that they may be gone eventually. Bill thinks they will be, at least from the West Antarctic peninsula.
This reminds me of something I heard: Antarctica’s “greening” is making it a less uniquely polar environment, and more like an “ecological world suburb”—more temperate, more like the rest of the world.
Increasingly the peninsula has a warmer, humid, more sub-Antarctic climate. And you’re finding species moving in that wouldn’t have survived in a traditional polar climate. A case in point would be the Gentoo penguins and Chinstrap penguins. They’re warmer-weather penguins that are extending their range down the peninsula as it’s warming. Meanwhile the Adèlies, which are more specifically polar penguins, are disappearing.
I don’t believe anybody can go to Antarctica and come back the same person.
Is there anything that can be done to slow the greening? How do you envision the West Antarctic Peninsula looking in 50 to 100 years?
Rising ocean temperature and rising ocean acidification are both significant challenges to Antarctic marine life. They’re happening now. You don’t have to wait for your grandkids. You can go to the Southern Ocean today and pick up a little shelled sea butterfly in your hand and you can see that the shell is dissolving—there’s actually etching on the aragonite that forms the shell. It’s urgent, it’s happening. People have asked me, “What can we do about the poor Adèlies?” The answer is we’d have to do something about burning fossil fuels. That’s the bottom line. You can’t separate Antarctica from the bigger picture of what carbon dioxide is doing to the Earth’s atmosphere. We can slow the trajectory if we get to business, move to an economy based on renewable energy. But when I envision the peninsula in 50 years, we’re looking at very little sea ice and less krill offshore. Some species are better able to cope than others. The Gentoo penguins will be doing great, and the Adèlies will largely be gone.
In your biomedical research, you’ve argued that these ecosystem changes will affect humans more directly, right?
At Palmer, I work with a chemist named Bill Baker, who studies marine chemical ecology. He and I extract chemicals from Antarctic sponges and soft corals to look for potential cures to human diseases. We have found chemicals in Antarctic sponges and tunicates and some algae, that have garnered attention as potential drugs. One of them is a tunicate that has a compound that is active against melanoma skin cancer, another is a compound in an Antarctic sponge that’s active against MRSA—the Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus that everybody dreads getting in the hospital because it’s antibiotic-resistant. That’s caused quite a bit of interest because the compound we found is the first chemical to penetrate a biofilm. You can imagine a surgeon putting in a knee replacement, and the replacement gets a film of mucus and proteins and different things growing on it; the MRSA can hide underneath it like a blanket, and drugs can’t reach it. This compound from an Antarctic sponge was the first chemical that had activity against MRSA under a biofilm. My point is: This is an ancient seafloor community that’s been isolated a long time. It’s got fairly high species diversity, and we’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of the potential medicinal value to humankind. We’ve got a resource for the future of humankind that we’re potentially going to squander because of climate change.
What do you say to folks who want to go down to Antarctica but are worried about contributing to the damage?
Cruises to Antarctica are definitely an environmental issue. I’m concerned about the carbon footprint of cruises, I’m concerned about people dropping litter, I’m concerned about people getting too close to the wildlife. I’m concerned about the fact that Antarctica is a growing tourist industry. I try to push things like carbon offsets for the cruise industry, or getting rid of two-cycle engines for the Zodiac boats, and replacing them with cleaner and quieter four-cycle engines. And I do get asked by people, “Is it worth it? Should we be going down to Antarctica as tourists?” It’s difficult. But after 13 years of leading cruises, I’ve seen the impact on these guests who witness climate change—who become ambassadors for Antarctica after visiting this amazing place. I honestly believe it changes you. I don’t believe anybody can go to Antarctica and come back the same person. I don’t say that lightly. Antarctica is in its own right a spiritual kind of experience.
Marissa Grunes is a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard University Center for the Environment, where she is at work on a book about Antarctica.
Lead image: Oleksandr Umanskyi / Shutterstock