by James McClintock, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012; 231 pages; $26
This new book by James McClintock, endowed professor of polar and marine biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is one readers worldwide will want to know. Its excellent scholarship and scientific research speak volumes for the 14 expeditions he’s made to Antarctica, the frozen and melting region we have heard of, but know so little about.
One of the book’s great redeeming features is the way McClintock crosses over, in and out, of different discourses — the historical, the biological-analytical, the sudden poetic and the personal story that gives the book significant human interest. A Thoreauvian-like writer, he starts with the geology and geography of Antarctica and expands with the most complex thoughts and urgings about its climate. We have a future in going back to his pages.
Evidence of global warming and the acidification of the sea are everywhere in this challenging book. Life under and above the ice that’s been stable for millions of years has been interrupted by warming from the air and carbon dioxide commingling with the waters; chapter by chapter McClintock documents the results. Everything that was successfully living off something else is either threatened or disappearing. One large ice shelf the size of Rhode Island broke up and went out to sea. Adelie penguins, formerly numerous, can’t make the long trip from their rookeries to the krill they eat that are also becoming fewer. Many marine invertebrates are affected by acidification which can lower the pH value of seawater so that seaweeds, clams, corals, and snails lose carbonate ions for making shells. The warming sea brings up the King crabs that devour everything in their paths, and without krill, baleen whales lose their food source.
McClintock recounts how humans can also be tragically at risk from diving accidents and predators like leopard seals. Thoreau once looked through a hole in the ice to retrieve an ax he dropped; McClintock, however, peered through a hole in the ice to save two divers prevented from returning by a large Weddell seal. Of the dangers and incredible sizes of icebergs he tells us much, and as the shelf ice breaks up, the way is open for glaciers whose icebergs constantly raise the level of seawater.
Global warming is not just in our back yard. Aided by the far-reaching Antarctic Circumpolar Current, what’s going on in Antarctica affects oceans all over the world — and ultimately, seriously, the lives of humans.
Reading here, everyone becomes a biologist. Between his early experience in Kerguelen and his powerful closing chapter, McClintock provides enough positive biological data to show how much he values his reader and the place he loves and writes about, citing achievements of the Montreal Protocol and the closing of the ozone above Antarctica as he does so. We share his exciting discovery of an amphipod that secures a sea butterfly on its back for protection, as well as his concern about the future of marine organisms and medicine. Like the poet with a sense of place, he turns to view the vistas of bright snow, the blue-green seawaters and the sheer, 100 foot-high glass-like walls of the icebergs. Even as it disappears, Antarctica is magnificent, and McClintock makes its ironic double appeal to every reader.
Theodore Haddin is an Emeritus Professor from The University of Alabama at Birmingham and lives in Birmingham.