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Ross Sea: Protecting Antarctica

November 6, 2016

While some of us up North endure elections and Brexits, down under in  Australia the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) has been busy protecting one of Antarctica’s great treasures, the Ross Sea.

CCAMLR is a commission of 36 nations founded in 1982  to protect Antarctica and preserve this continent for science and future generations. This monumental agreement is all the more remarkable when you consider the size of Antarctica (larger than the USA) and the lousy state of the year 1982 (height of Reagan and AIDS). This commission has largely succeeded in protecting Antarctica from mining and harvesting operations. It has allowed the National Science Foundation (backed by unobtrusive US military forces) to largely administer access for biology, geology, and climate science.

But off the coast, it’s been another story, with fishing and whaling threatening the ecosystems of the Southern Ocean. This week, however, CCAMLR has reached agreement to put off limits an enormous swath of ocean known as the Ross Sea.

The Ross Sea is familiar as the region I crossed in the C-17 cargo hold on our way to McMurdo Station. McMurdo sits on the lava spit of Ross Island; in the above map, located at the edge of the ice shelf just below the words “Ross Sea Shelf.” The edge of the ice shelf is a magical region attracting thousands of penguins, seals and killer whales. On our final helicopter flight back from Taylor Valley, the pilot dipped and buzzed the shelf, startling pods of Adelies, Emperors and others for our last good look. The new CCAMLR agreement will protect more than a million and a half square kilometers of this ecosystem.

Meanwhile, back at Kenyon our own bit of Antarctica in our -80 freezer is yielding up secrets to the science of our supercomputer. Current projects include:

  • Discovering life forms capable of living half the year at forty below (where centigrade equals Fahrenheit)
  • Mining the microbial genomes for enzymes that make new antibiotics
  • Growing purple bacteria that store sunlight as hydrogen fuel–a stowaway colony from the mat stuff we picked up off the ice.


  1. Robert van der Heide permalink
    November 6, 2016 5:52 pm

    >bacteria that store sunlight as hydrogen fuel
    Wow. The commercial and environmental potential is pretty obvious. I hope this is a front-burner project.

  2. November 6, 2016 5:58 pm

    Yes, we’ve moved the “purple bacteria” project to a top priority. A hydrogen producer that works at zero degrees would be pretty interesting. It’s possible; photosynthesis involves redox reactions which have relatively low temperature dependence.

  3. November 7, 2016 4:02 pm

    Any pointer to an explanation of the ‘Gerrymander’ shape of the proposed reserve? Why the very irregular hollow middle?

    I’ve been unhappy the past few years seeing newly discovered seamounts publicized — who does that benefit but the deep trawlers who destroy them when they can reach them?

  4. November 7, 2016 5:28 pm

    Hank, you can be sure any deep trawlers know where the seamounts are already.
    The reason for the reserve probably has to do with a lot of negotiations, which include input from ecologists arguing for the most valuable ecosystems as well as commercial interests. The more you can protect the better.
    BTW the Antarctic treaties are supervised by guys with seven tours in Afghanistan, as well as satellite scans 24/7, so there is serious oversight, believe me.

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