One day, out of the blue, I was approached by a group of scientists preparing a grant proposal for a marine biology expedition to Antarctica. They wanted a children’s book writer to come along with them, and write a book about the expedition. They hoped I would agree to be that writer.
The conditions, they warned, might be challenging. The expedition would make two voyages to the Weddell Sea to study icebergs that were once part of Antarctica’s enormous ice shelves, which have begun to break apart in recent years. Each voyage would last a month, and the month would be spent entirely at sea aboard an icebreaker. The first voyage would take place in the winter. It would be very cold, and very dark.
But the research they described sounded exciting and important. It had to do with global warming. Little is known about these icebergs. Work done several years ago showed that large and small icebergs alike are surrounded by “halos” of abundant marine life that extend out several kilometers in all directions. It is clear that the icebergs are adding nutrients to the water around them. Thousands of questions remain unanswered. How dense are the icebergs? Where are they going and how fast? How quickly are they melting? How much fresh water are they adding to the sea? How many different kinds of nutrients are they adding to the water, and in what quantities? How did nutrients get into the icebergs, and where did the nutrients come from? Are the nutrients the cause of the halos of marine life? What types of life forms inhabit the iceberg halos, and what are the populations? What life forms live under the icebergs, where no one has been able to look before?
But perhaps the most urgent question is this: are these remnants of the ice shelves helping to reduce carbon dioxide levels, and if so, how much. According to Ken Smith, an oceanographer and the expedition’s principal investigator, “We already know the new icebergs affect the water in complicated ways. We suspect they’re drawing down atmospheric carbon dioxide and sequestering particulate carbon deep in the sea. We want to know for certain, because the answers will add to our understanding of global climate change.”
Raised in the desert wastelands of Nevada, I have always been drawn to empty, otherworldly spaces. Antarctica is such a place, and I had long wanted to go there — to see what I could see, to learn what I could learn, to feel the wisdom and fear that comes from understanding I am but a mote in God’s eye. Did I want to be part of this adventure? Of course, I said YES.
As I thought about what I would give back in return for this incredible opportunity, I realized that I could share my excitement and the things I would learn not only through the book I would write later, but also in the moment, while the adventure was still underway. As every writer knows, immediacy makes everything more compelling. So the idea for this blog was born.
I expect to post to it occasionally during the run-up to the voyage and afterwards, and daily during the voyage, which begins on May 31, 2008 and ends on June 30, 2008. My intention is to provide interesting and informative reading for teens and adults, and classroom opportunities and science facts for teachers. Students can ask questions by using the “Comments” feature of the blog. Also, please see “Unarctica,” my Antarctic blog for children.
P.S. I love this illustration by Gustave Dore from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” but there are no polar bears in Antarctica.