There are twice as many emperor penguins in Antarctica than previously thought, stated the National Science Foundation in mid April.
That’s certainly good news, as concerns about the effects of global warming on penguin colonies rise. But another new report mentions an increasing number of something else in Antarctica that may not be such a positive omen: There have been more sightings of unregulated boats bringing tourists to the continent than ever before, says the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. And we humans tend to drag along some not so welcome passengers with us.
It would seem that the more accurately we’re able to observe our world, the more our views about life on our planet change. But sometimes the very act of our observing changes that life. Are there ways that science and tourism can evolve to become less intrusive on the worlds we explore?
Census-taker from space
The international team of scientists that conducted the emperor penguin study for the National Science Foundation (NSF) used high-resolution satellite images to estimate the number of penguins at colonies around the Antarctica coastline. On the ice, emperor penguins, with their black-and-white plumage, stand out against the snow. Using a technique known as “pan-sharpening” to increase the resolution of the satellite imagery, the researchers were able to differentiate between the penguins, the ice, shadows, and guano. This allowed them to analyze forty-four known emperor penguin colonies and seven previously unknown ones.
Ground counts and aerial photography were then used to calibrate the analysis. The final count was 595,000 birds, which is almost double the previous estimates of 270,000 to 350,000. This study marked the first comprehensive census of a species taken from space.
Before this type of technology, it was difficult to get an accurate count of the penguins because they breed in remote areas that are often inaccessible to us because of temperatures as low as -58 degrees Fahrenheit. But now, such research can be conducted safely and efficiently with little environmental impact. Since current statistics suggest that emperor penguin colonies will be seriously affected by global warming, an accurate, Antarctica-wide census that can be easily repeated on a regular basis will help with monitoring the impacts of climate change on this iconic species.
Boats from below
At just about the same time (in mid April) that the NSF announced the results of the penguin census, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) reported that there has been an uptick in incidents and sightings involving commercial and private yachts (not associated with IAATO) in Antarctic waters. A Brazilian motor yacht, the Mar Sem Fim, sank April 7, 2012, in Maxwell Bay, South Shetland Islands. It’s suspected the sinking was due to compression of the ice following severe weather the previous day. Luckily, the Chilean Navy rescued the four Brazilian passengers and crew.
The yacht Nilaya — operated by self-proclaimed “wild Viking” Jarle Andhøy — was recently detained and subsequently released by Chilean authorities following its arrival from the Ross Sea. Andhøy is reportedly wanted by New Zealand officials for sailing to Antarctica on two occasions without permits, insurance, or contingency plans. Last year, Andhøy’s yacht Berserk sank in McMurdo Sound, with the loss of three crew members. He has had previous run-ins with the governments of Canada, Finland, Norway, and Russia.
An editorial published in the New York Times on March 19, 2012, titled “Seeding the Southern Continent,” talked about a 2007 and 2008 study where a team of scientists carrying vacuum cleaners examined a representative sampling of visitors to the Antarctica coast, carefully inspecting their bags, clothing, equipment, and footwear. Nearly everyone was found to be carrying plant life from other continents — some of it as far away as the Arctic. On average, the visitors carried 9.5 propagules (any detachable part of a plant that can be used for reproduction) per person. Since more than 33,000 tourists visit Antarctica a season — in addition to the scientists and support staff — a lot of propagules land on the continent. More than half of them come from plants capable of surviving Antarctic conditions and from flora families known for being highly invasive elsewhere. Some of these species have taken root near research stations.
It is visits to our most remote and pristine places, however, that often inspire us to conserve and protect them. Yosemite National Park was set aside after Teddy Roosevelt slept under the stars there, and the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore was established after President John F. Kennedy’s visit in 1963. There’s no doubt that tourism is the agent of conservation.
We have to ensure, however, that our act of observing — as in the case of emperor penguins — doesn’t change the world we want to keep seeing.
Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,