Antarctica's Sea 'Babies' in Limbo The icy ocean around Antarctica is one of the most unspoiled in the world. It's world-renowned for its penguins, but one team of scientists is more concerned about the animals you can't see — and the fate these microscopic creatures may face in a warming world.
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Antarctica's Sea 'Babies' in Limbo

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Antarctica's Sea 'Babies' in Limbo

Antarctica's Sea 'Babies' in Limbo

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Scientists are going to the ends of the Earth to try to figure out how climate change might alter life as we know it.

As part of our series Climate Connections with National Geographic, NPR's Daniel Zwerdling put on his parka and joined a researcher who's finding troubling clues under the ice of Antarctica.

(Soundbite of snow mobile)

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Donal Manahan and his research team are lining up their snow mobiles like hotrods before the race. We're standing at the edge of the sea along the Antarctica's coast. It's called McMurdo Sound. Actually, we're standing on top of McMurdo Sound.

Professor DONAL MANAHAN (Professor of Marine Biological Sciences, University of Southern California): Right, we are about to head out about several miles out over frozen ocean. About six feet of solid ice will be under our Ski-Doos.

ZWERDLING: Manahan is a professor at the University of Southern California. He's leading this expedition with 20 young Ph.D.s who've come to work with him from all over the world. Everybody's wearing the same uniform - red parkas lined with fur. It's about 10 below zero with the wind chill. When they get to the research area, they're going to take water samples so they can study life in the sea.

Prof. MANAHAN: Because we want to understand the transitions that happen under the ice in Antarctica, because there's all of these changes going on with the melting ice and we want to see what effect that has on the organisms that live here.

ZWERDLING: The scientists often get stereotyped as cautious and dull. But when these guys get on their Ski-Doos, they're not. Manahan leads the pack and we're racing across the ice up to 50 miles an hour. My driver takes a ridge like they do in a James Bond movie - we go flying through the air.

(Soundbite of snow mobile)

ZWERDLING: We are in the middle of a spectacular white canvas - sea, land, massive mountains. Everything is blinding white. We get to the research site in about 30 minutes, and Manahan's Ph.D.s grab shovels and axes off a sled. They dug a hole here a few weeks earlier. They went six feet down to the sea. But since then, the hole has been healing itself, like an icy white scar. So Manahan's colleague, Deneb Karentz, supervises while the team reopens it.

Professor DENEB KARENTZ (Professor of Biology, University of San Francisco): And they'll go down to where it's deeper here, that - we've kind of had that as a working platform.

Unidentified Woman #1: You want it leveled off here?

Prof. KARENTZ: Yes. Yes.

ZWERDLING: They don't have much time to collect their samples. They've got a late start. Plus, there are zillions of seals in the sea. They're called Weddell seals. Each one weighs about 1,000 pounds and the animals have a habit of interrupting the scientists' work.

Prof. KARENTZ: If you look around, there's very few places for them to get a breath of air. So whenever we drill a hole, they kind of take it over.

ZWERDLING: And suddenly, almost on cue…

(Soundbite of seal breathing)

ZWERDLING: …a shiny black nose pokes just above the water. His nostrils open and close like rubber flaps.

(Soundbite of seal breathing)

Prof. MANAHAN: So typically, they will do 15-minute dives and then they will come up and breathe heavily that you just heard. And then, of course, you'll hear the breathing tail off as they oxygenate. As soon as they're ready to go, whomp, down for another 15-minute dive. As soon as the seal shows, we have to stop. So we are under no circumstance to disturb the seal and since there's only one or two holes for miles around here, because we drill this one, hey, that's become their home. One of the things these seals have to do is continually keep their ice holes open, so they're grinding their teeth all the time, keeping the ice holes open so they can breathe.

ZWERDLING: After a couple minutes, this seal takes one more breath for good measure.

(Soundbite of seal breathing)

ZWERDLING: And bloop, he's gone.

Donal Manahan grew up in Ireland. He says when he was a boy, he dreamed of going on adventures, so he became a marine biologist partly to take him there. Manahan doesn't look like a guy who takes risks. He's a little doughy, and he wears glasses that seem bookish. But he dove almost two miles deep in a mini sub to study life at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. And he's gone scuba diving right here, under the ice.

Prof. MANAHAN: I could feel my heart was just in my mouth. I was pounding in that first time I jumped in.

ZWERDLING: The water is barely 29 degrees. They only allow the best divers to do it.

Prof. MANAHAN: And the hole is amazing. You see this shaft of light like a UFO landing…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. MANAHAN: …shaft of light that's six feet in diameter just blasting through the hole and coming down to the bottom of the ocean. And all around you is this beautiful blue ice. And it looks like diving under clouds.

ZWERDLING: Manahan says this is one of the best spots on Earth to study how sea life gets affected with the environment starts to change, because it's probably the most pristine ocean on the planet. Manahan and his colleagues are focusing on the teeny babies that live in this sea. They study the larvae of fish and worms and sea urchins. To catch them, they drop a metal canister through the hole. And as the canister sinks, it collects water at specific depths.

Unidentified Woman #2: Bye-bye.

ZWERDLING: Then the researchers take these samples back to their lab. They run all kinds of tests. And they've already seen some troubling results which suggest what could happen with global warming. When they heat the sea water, only one or two degrees, it causes the babies' metabolism to go out of whack.

Prof. MANAHAN: Let's use a human analogy. If I heat up my body temperature by a couple of degrees, it's called a fever. And once it gets beyond a few degrees, I go into a coma. So all of these issues of global warming, ocean current changes - all of these things are going to have a dramatic effect on the organisms. Sometimes you could…

ZWERDLING: Oh, I'm sorry.

Prof. MANAHAN: Sure. Sure. Wow. There's a second seal.

ZWERDLING: Hole over there, sorry to interrupt.

Prof. MANAHAN: Yeah. No doubt, it's incredible. Yeah.

ZWERDLING: A big, fat seal has just popped up out of another hole. He's sunbathing. And here's what Manahan was starting to say about climate change. It's going to reshuffle life on the planet in complicated ways. For instance, some parts of Antarctica are staying cold, other parts are getting warmer. Some kinds of penguins are doing great, others are practically dying out. And as for Manahan's babies, so far, the water temperature hasn't changed, and they haven't seen signs that the larvae are suffering - yet. But it's a different story in the North Atlantic. The water temperature there has gone up and the babies' ecosystem there has already gone haywire.

Manahan says scientists around the world are holding their breaths. They're wondering where they'll see the next, big changes.

Prof. MANAHAN: There will be losers and there will be winners. The big issue, to me is, is human civilization going to be on the losing side?

ZWERDLING: Manahan says what happens down here in Antarctica will warn how it's all going to play out. He says think about the history of civilization. Humans as we know them have been around for about 250,000 years, but they started building cultures and cities only in the past 10,000 or 12,000 years. Manahan says civilization took off partly because the Earth's climate finally became relatively stable.

Prof. MANAHAN: So the issue about climate change is will we tip ourselves into a climate instability in the future that will be like what planet Earth was like 10 or 20,000 years ago, or even a hundred thousand years ago? People say, oh, okay, that's happened before. Well, sure it has. But we didn't have six, eight billion people on planet Earth to support back then. So that's my big concern, is we can basically, you know, ruin the civilization as - modern civilization as we know it.

ZWERDLING: Now the wind is howling. The cold's biting even through the parkas. And Manahan's team packs up.

(Soundbite of snow mobile)

ZWERDLING: They'll be back to take more water samples in a few days. But right now, Manahan's thinking about more urgent needs - dinner.

Prof. MANAHAN: Yum, yum. So I've never enjoyed food more in my life than I have working in Antarctica.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. MANAHAN: When you go back, you feel like you deserve an extra plate of hot pasta. Hmm.

ZWERDLING: Donal Manahan and his research team on the frozen sea in Antarctica.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

BLOCK: And you can take a photographic tour of Antarctica at our Web site, You'll also find the latest global warming stories from National Geographic.

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