Emperor penguins counted by satellite (Wall Street Journal)

Antarctic census is one for the birds

Biologists count hard-to-find emperor penguins with satellite photos supplied by a U.S. intelligence agency

By ROBERT LEE HOTZ

McMurdo, Antarctica


Bird-watcher Philip Trathan is counting the emperor penguins here—from space. In the first complete census of these well-known birds, the British wildlife ecologist and his colleagues are scanning high-resolution satellite photos of Antarctica for penguins, like military analysts searching for Iranian rocket sites. In fact, their precision imagery comes from the U.S. National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. The photos are part of the roughly $25 million of commercial satellite images the agency buys every month for use by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Department.

“You can count individual birds,” said Dr. Trathan, a penguin ecologist at the British Antarctic Survey, who is part of an international census team.

Their penguin census, which will be completed later this year, is the latest application of satellite mapping techniques that are transforming perceptions of Antarctica, where millions of square miles of ice blend into a wilderness of white, and only penguins are truly at home. In many ways, this shifting snowscape is as uncharted as the day explorers first sighted its mainland almost 200 years ago.

“Until last year, we had better maps of Mars than of Antarctica,” said Paul Morin, director of the University of Minnesota’s Antarctic Geospatial Information Center, which is funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation to use the unclassified intelligence imagery in science projects like the penguin survey. “We can now see one of the most inaccessible places on Earth, on demand,” Mr. Morin said.

With the newest high-resolution imagery, researchers can detect anything on the continent larger than an end table. At that scale, a four-foot-tall, 90-pound emperor penguin is just large enough to show up in a single pixel. Dressed by nature in darkly formal feather-wear, an emperor penguin stands out in high contrast against the ice, even when viewed by a camera moving at four miles a second in an orbit 423 miles overhead.

Still, the emperor penguins complicate the count by huddling together for warmth. On an especially cold day, as many as 10 of them can cram together on a square meter of ice—a space slightly larger than a single pixel. “If you have so many pixels of penguins,” said mapping expert Peter Fretwell at the British Antarctic Survey, “you have to decide how many penguins per pixel.” Wildlife biologists estimate the count will turn up between 200,000 and 400,000 breeding pairs.

Living across the continent’s 5.4 million square miles of polar ice, the emperor penguins are a bellwether that can help researchers detect subtle changes in climate and ocean conditions affecting all of Antarctica. Other penguin species wax and wane in response to changing regional winds, temperature trends and commercial fishing. But so far, no one knows how emperor penguins have responded to the changes, because there has been no easy way to find them all.

“Emperors are a really tricky species to get a handle on,” said Dr. Trathan. “At the moment, nobody really knows how threatened emperor penguins really are.”

It’s no wonder. The birds make themselves at home in two of Earth’s most inaccessible environments. No other bird dives deeper underwater, as far as 1,500 feet. No other creature breeds on the sea ice during Antarctica’s winter darkness, when temperatures drop to 80 degrees below zero and winds top 100 mph.

For years, field biologists based here at the U.S. McMurdo Station have tracked meandering emperors, bobbing like off-balance bowling pins, as they slip, slide and belly-flop over ridges of wind-rippled snow.

The new census is not the first time penguin watchers have tried satellites. By chance, researchers last year discovered they could detect vast stains of penguin excrement on the ice using older low-resolution satellite images. That revealed the locations of 38 emperor colonies, 10 of them never seen before, Dr. Trathan and his colleagues reported last June in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography.

Still, they couldn’t actually see any penguins until they gained access to the newest images, which the intelligence agency buys from commercial satellite operators DigitalGlobe Inc. in Longmont, Colo., and GeoEye Inc. in Dulles, Va. Scientists hope the newest images will allow them to study emperor penguins without disturbing them—and without leaving their home laboratories.

“If you can do it from space,” said Dr. Trathan, “you can do it from your desk.”

Printed in The Wall Street Journal Europe, page 33

Original article here

Race for Arctic Energy Riches Heats Up

By Peter C. Glover, ET Europe Associate Editor

Ed. Note: “The Arctic: Territory of Dialogue” conference in Moscow has been postponed because of the volcanic eruption in Iceland. It has been rescheduled to take place sometime in September.

Race for Arctic Energy Riches Heats Up

When Vladimir Putin calls for international dialogue and personally attends the resulting conference, you know Russia means business. Whether the intention is that the international cards are dealt fairly or the flim-flam of talking shop PR diplomacy, is hard to say. But the whimsically titled “The Arctic: Territory of Dialogue” conference on the future of the Arctic’s oil and gas riches represents new Cold War intrigue writ large.

The race for the Arctic’s energy bonanza is heating up. If you were in any doubt, check out this conference season. Last month, Canada hosted a summit of Arctic Ocean Foreign ministers from the littoral nations, i.e. Canada, the US, Russia, Denmark and Norway. It was billed as Canada finally taking its Arctic initiative seriously. But the conference only hit the headlines when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized the organizers for excluding other interested parties, especially the indigenous peoples and Iceland, Finland and Sweden.

In June, the Adam Smith Conferences will host the Russian Arctic Oil and Gas conference, this, again, in Moscow. But with the Arctic Council already supposedly the carriers of the torch for the new international Arctic “arrangements” why inaugurate yet another series of international talking shops?

Well, one major clue comes with the priority of the organizing group, the Russian Geographical Society (RGS), and with those invited as speakers and guests. The RGS, historically, is far better known for its environmental rather than energy concerns, as a review of its new “The Arctic” website confirms. According to Svetlana Mironyuk of Ria Novosti news agency, which is responsible for micro-managing the event, the conference will be “the first large project of the revived Russian Geographical Society.”

And, while Prince Albert of Monaco, the Aspen Institute Arctic Commissioner, is the honorary guest, it appears that he and Putin are the only invited statesmen. According to Mironyuk, this underscores the point Putin wants to make, that Arctic territory disputes are matters to be left to the “explorers and scientists.” Making the call for international dialogue in an address to the RGS in mid-March, Putin began with the politics: “There has been much ado around the Arctic region. You know how the [Russian] flag was erected [on the seabed] and how negatively our neighbours reacted to this. Nobody has stopped them erecting their own flags. Let them do it. But we work under the rules established by the United Nations and in line with maritime laws.”

Putin soon moved to other more esoteric matters. Indeed his RGS audience must have thought that Al Gore had been parachuted in as the Russian Prime Minister made an impassioned plea … to save the polar bears. Putin said, “The number of polar bears continues to decline. In fact, they are on the verge of extinction. Of course, this must not be allowed, and the polar bear should be preserved not only in zoos, but in wildlife also.”

Leaving aside that polar bears are actually currently thriving, as recent studies have shown, one can only gasp that the Russian PM has apparently found environmentalism being converted to a sudden concern for the Arctic wildlife. Am I being a little cynical perhaps, or is all this a clear indication that Putin is building an international case for Russia as the key Defender of the Arctic environment, to further bolster Russian geographical claims? You call it.

Meanwhile, if Russia is serious about taking the initiative in reducing growing tensions over Arctic territorial and mineral rights and potential future conflict, then there are certainly plenty of tensions around to defuse. Russia and the US have yet to resolve a long-standing demarcation dispute in the north Pacific; the US and Canada are arguing over large areas of the Beaufort sea; Denmark is wrangling with Canada over claims in Greenland; and there’s Norway’s claim to a massive portion of Russia’s continental shelf in the Barents Sea. Britain, too, has lately made a claim in the north Atlantic giving it “Arctic access.”

Then there are, of all things, China’s Arctic claims.

Currently on a worldwide metals and energy shopping spree, China too has shifted its eyes to the vast new energy frontier beckoning under the Arctic. China clearly has no intention of being dealt out of the Great Arctic Energy Game. Beijing has gained observer-status at the Arctic Council. It has opened research stations in Norway, at Spitzgen. It owns the world’s largest, Soviet-bought, ice-breaker with which it already plies Arctic waters. Though China has no rights to Arctic shelf deposits per se, it understandably has a serious interest in the region’s strategic and economic future. Not least, over new oil and gas fields, the settling of the legal rules for the polar oceans, border demarcations and, particularly, newly navigable Arctic waterways; shipping lanes that could significantly reduce the length of China’s westbound trading routes.

With potentially 15% of the world’s total hydrocarbon reserves at stake, Putin plainly wants to position Russia as the key dealer at the new Arctic energy table. He has a credible case. The RGS claims that 80 percent of the “Arctic land” is governed by the Russian Federation and Canada. And a US study in June 2009, authored by Californian geologist Dr. Donald Gautier, has acknowledged that Russia, with the longest Arctic border and its army of nuclear ice-breakers, does indeed “own the rights” to most of the Arctic’s energy riches. Gautier stresses: “Russia is already the world’s largest producer of natural gas, and so our findings suggest that the undiscovered resources are going to have the effect of more or less reinforcing that Russian strategic strength with respect to its natural resource potential.” Just what Europe, the US, China and Japan need — Russian calling the shots on a sizeable chunk of the world’s oil and gas resources for decades to come. No wonder Putin perceives an unprecedented opportunity to offer international seats to the Arctic Great Game, in anticipation that most won’t want to straggle in late being dealt out altogether.

Russia, like any new frontier pioneer, is going to need partners to overcome the enormous technological difficulties that lie ahead. Putin is no fool. By taking the roundtable diplomatic initiative as the leading Arctic energy power and chief protector of the Arctic environment, the new “green” Putin believes that “jaw-jaw” – on Russian terms, of course – is clearly better for business than energy “war-wars.”

The conference thus amounts to an invitation to interested parties to offer an international blessing to a betrothal and something of a marriage of convenience between the Russian and the Polar bear. Kismet, so Putin might believe, given that “Arctic”, from arktos, is the Greek word for bear.

Original article here

‘Man Who Ate His Boots’ An Arctic Tragedy (NPR)

April 17, 2010

Listen to the show here

Sir John FranklinThe Man Who Ate His Boots is the tragic tale of British explorers and their numerous failed attempts to find an Arctic sea passage connecting Europe to Asia. The search for the Northwest Passage captivated the British imagination and sent many men to their deaths. Host Guy Raz speaks with author Anthony Brandt about his new book as well as its most famous character, Sir John Franklin, whose final disastrous expedition ended in cannibalism.

Copyright © 2010 National Public Radio®. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

GUY RAZ, host:

If you’ve ever read Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein,” you’ll recall that early scene when Captain Walton’s ship becomes trapped in Arctic Sea ice. The crew had been trying to reach the North Pole when a mysterious ghost-like monster appears in the distance.

Well, Ms. Shelly was writing during a period in British history when the country was gripped by the race to find Northwest Passage. Napoleon had just been defeated:

Mr. ANTHONY BRANDT (Author, “The Man Who Ate His Boots”): The world was England’s to conquer. If the ice was impenetrable, if the odds were impossible, no matter. They were Englishmen, members of a superior race, the children of destiny.

RAZ: That’s Anthony Brandt reading from his new book, “The Man Who Ate His Boots.” It’s about Britain’s obsessive search to find a sea passage through the Arctic that could connect Europe to Asia.

The most famous and tragic expedition was led by Sir John Franklin. In 1845, he led two ships and 129 men through the ice-covered waterways above the Canadian mainland. Not one man survived.

For that story, we’re joined by Anthony Brandt. He’s in our New York bureau. Welcome to the program.

Mr. BRANDT: Well, thank you.

RAZ: Before we talk about the famous Franklin expedition of 1845, set the scene for us. I mean, how much did this quest to find a northwest passage capture the imagination of the British public in the early 19th century?

Mr. BRANDT: Well, it was an old quest that had been going on for 300 years, or nearly 300 years by that time. And the public was very enthusiastic that it was being renewed after the Napoleonic wars. The country was feeling good about itself. This had been a historic mission that the English had assigned themselves to do many centuries before. They felt it was their time and that nothing could stop them.

RAZ: There were a series of these expeditions, and about at least 15 of them until 1845 when Britain’s admiralty decides to sponsor a new expedition, again, to find the Northwest Passage. John Franklin is tapped to lead this expedition but he was the last choice, right?

Mr. BRANDT: He was the last choice. He was 59 years old. He had no business doing this again but he was trying to save his reputation.

RAZ: I mean, he had already been on a few of these expeditions before.

Mr. BRANDT: Right.

RAZ: And he wasn’t sort of a hero out of central casting. He was described as, quote, “looking something like a stuffed bear.”

Mr. BRANDT: Yes. He was pudgy. He said if he had to walk around on the ice, he probably wasn’t the person to do it. But all he had to do was stay on ship and direct things.

RAZ: So, the journey starts out okay but what happens sort of a few weeks in?

Mr. BRANDT: They left Baffin Bay in August, I think, of 1845. They headed into Lancaster Sound and nobody saw them after that. Not a word came out. They disappeared for three years. And in 1848, the admiral team got worried and said we got to look for them and find them. Eleven years they searched for them.

What they found eventually was a single piece of paper describing up to a certain point what had happened. They had gotten trapped in the ice after their first year unable to move. The ice was slowly taking them, drifting them south at the rate of about 14, 15 miles a month, maybe not even that fast. And it was clearly polar ice, thick ice, and there was no way out. They had been trapped there for two years.

RAZ: And most of the crew survives for these two years. The survivors do abandon the ships and eventually, everybody died. They had plenty of food. Why didn’t they survive?

Mr. BRANDT: It’s not fresh food and scurvy was the scourge of all sea voyages at the time. You need vitamin C on a daily basis. It only comes in fresh food, and they took enormous quantities of lemon juice. But after six months, nine months a year, lemon juice loses the vitamin C. It’s a fragile chemical and it kind of disintegrates.

So, by the end of two years, usually 18 months, scurvy will appear. And unless you have fresh meat or fresh vegetables, it will very rapidly start killing people.

RAZ: And there’s evidence that suggests that the crewmembers who eventually left the ship actually had to eat the others who died.

Mr. BRANDT: Well, what they did when they left the ships was they did some peculiar things. They dragged boats with them filled with their silverware and with odd – with tons of clothing that they didn’t need. You wonder if they had sort of lost their reason at some point. But the evidence of cannibalism is irrefutable. At some point, they started eating their dead. There are many, many bones that survive with saw marks on them. And the only reason you cut into a bone with a saw is so that you can put the limb or whatever it is into a pot and cook it.

And there was a huge controversy when evidence came back that they had resorted to cannibalism. The English were very, very upset about that.

RAZ: Anthony Brandt, the Passage wasn’t navigated until 1903 when the Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, did it. Now, of course, you can do it as a tourist in an icebreaker. And in fact, in 2007, for the first time in recorded history, there was almost no sea ice in the Passage at all, which seems like a kind of a fitting epilogue to the story that you tell.

Mr. BRANDT: You have to imagine ice that’s 40 feet thick. That’s as thick as a four-story building is tall. That’s thick. And if you had seen it, you would never believe that it would never melt. Now, it melts.

RAZ: That’s Anthony Brandt. His new book is called “The Man Who Ate His Boots.” It charts the history of the search for the famed Northwest Passage.

Anthony Brandt, thank you so much.

Mr. BRANDT: It’s my pleasure.

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Cro Magnon skull shows that our brains have shrunk

Cro  Magnon brain
A 3D image of a Cro Magnon brain. Credit: Times Online.

March 15, 2010 by Lisa Zyga

(PhysOrg.com) — A new replica of an early modern human brain has provided further evidence for the theory that the human brain has been shrinking. The skull belonged to an elderly Cro Magnon man, whose skeleton is called Cro Magnon 1. The entire skeleton was discovered in 1868 in the Cro Magnon cave in Dordogne, France, and has since become one of the most famous Upper Palaeolithic skeletons. Using new technology, researchers have produced a replica of the 28,000-year-old brain and found that it is about 15-20% larger than our brains.

To produce the brain replica, called an endocast, the scientists first digitally scanned the interior of the empty skull. The images revealed the impression left by the brain on the neurocranium, which was then transformed into a 3D image. Software was then used to fabricate the brain endocast.

The researchers, including Antoine Balzeau of the French Museum of Natural History, said that an initial assessment of Cro Magnon 1’s skull supported the theory that brains have grown slightly smaller over the past tens of thousands of years, reversing an earlier trend toward larger brains.

The finding doesn’t suggest that humans today are less intelligent than earlier humans. Although previous studies have found a very small relationship between brain size and intelligence, many other factors affect brain intelligence.

For instance, different parts of the brain have different functions. The researchers found that the Cro Magnon brain appears to have had a smaller – the brain region linked to motor control and language – than our brains today. The researchers explain that this finding shows that some parts of the brain are more “compressible” than others, while other regions seem to provide a benefit by growing larger.

Although scientists don’t know for sure why our overall brains are shrinking, some researchers hypothesize that our brains are becoming more efficient as they grow smaller. Having a large comes at a cost, so smaller brains have an advantage since they enable the body to use the extra energy for other purposes. On the other hand, perhaps a large skull had certain advantages for earlier people. One idea is that Cro Magnons needed large skulls because of the difficulty in chewing their food, which included lots of meat such as rabbits, foxes, and horses. Since our food has become easier to eat, we don’t need such large skulls or jaws. Another theory is that the high infant mortality rate in earlier times meant that young humans had to be physically robust (with large heads) to survive their early years.

The researchers plan to show a mold of the later this week at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.

Protect us, not polar bears: Inuit officials

(CBC News, 15 April 2010) — Nunavut Inuit who do not want polar bears listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act say they should be the ones being protected from the Arctic bears. Speaking Wednesday before the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board (NWMB) in Iqaluit, Inuit elders and officials voiced their opposition to a proposal by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) to have the polar bear listed as a species of special concern in Canada. “We have to listen to our communities, we have to listen to Inuit, and we get our direction from Inuit and also from our executive,” said Paul Irngaut, a wildlife adviser with Inuit land-claims organization Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. “Our executive does not support the listing, and that’s what we relate to [the] NWMB.”The polar bear was last classified as a species of special concern — one step below threatened and two below endangered — in 2002. COSEWIC, an arm’s-length federal scientific advisory committee, recommended the same status for the species in 2008. The federal government has to give a final decision on whether to approve that status. Scientists on the committee argue that although Canada’s polar bear population has improved over the last 50 years, the species’ future could be threatened by climate change and receding sea ice. But one by one, Inuit representatives on Wednesday spoke of the threats polar bears pose to people in Nunavut communities — from bears breaking into cabins and destroying hunting equipment to bears mauling people to death. The polar bear hearings conclude on Thursday with final submissions. The wildlife board will then be expected to prepare its own position on the COSEWIC proposal by early July. The board will submit its recommendations to Federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice, who will have 60 days to respond. “We, too, are worried about polar bears in the future because climate change, it’s a huge thing. It’s not only going to affect the polar bears, it’s going to affect us, so we are concerned too,” said Irngaut. “But we feel that at this time, the polar bear is really being used to combat climate change, and we don’t agree with that.”

Original article here

NRK dropped their standards: “Naked bluff” on Primetime TV

Hornorkesteret: I know this is old, but shame on you, NRK! This is not what we wanted from a license- and state funded national broadcasting corporation. The naive and racist view presented in this show is old fashioned and should be long forgotten. Why don’t you make a program about how the Waorani actually live, and leave the stupid westerners on their couches in Norway!

Gáldu – Resource Centre for the Rights of Indegenous People
— According to Ny Tid newspaper, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation paid money to Waorani-tribe in Ecuador that they must be naked during the filming.

NRK or Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation is now sending every Saturday evening a program called “Den store reisen” or “Ticket to the tribes”. Three different Norwegian families are visiting indigenous tribes in Namibia, Indonesia and Ecuador.
More than 800 000 people did watch this program last Saturday primetime and now the NRK admit that they have paid this indigenous group to be naked on TV.

NRK now admits that they paid money to the Waorani Indigenous tribe to appear without clothes while they recorded this primetime TV.

Watch the program here on NRK

This is Saturday entertainment for Norwegian TV viewers.

The Indians remove their clothes to work on the set, according to the anthropologist Laura Rival from the Centre for International Development at Oxford University.

She has studied the Waorani tribe since 1989 and was in the village of Banemo when the Belgian version of the series was recorded.

“The Waorani take their clothes off just for these programmes. I know them. They never walk around naked in groups any longer, it’s only for tourists and reality shows,” she says.

“The Waorani go around naked. The men’s penises are tied to their bodies with string,” says NRK’s website in a section on the tribe’s rules and way of life. In the TV series, on the website and in the promotional pictures all the Indians are completely naked.

“This has been staged,” said Rival on seeing NRK’s group picture of the extended family without clothes.

She recognised the NRK’s Waorani from the Belgian production and can name the adults in the picture. According to Rival, they are used to performing role plays for TV production units in the area.

NRK admits that the tribe was asked to remove its clothes.

“We don’t ask that they wear European clothes. The tribe agreed to live in a more traditional way while we are filming, but they are the ones who decide what will be shown. It is important to be clear that they collaborate with us freely. We pay them to take part,” says NRK’s production manager Per Selstrøm.

The producer in charge from the production company Strix, Malin Østli, does not recognise Rival’s description of life in Banemo:

“We flew up the Amazon for an hour and a half and saw no indication of people living in a western manner. That they have seen white people before and been in contact with the outside world is totally natural, since they live next to an airstrip. Some of them wear T-shirts every day, but most are naked and have a completely traditional lifestyle.”

Are there usually people living in the house where you filmed?

“Not everyone we filmed usually lives in the house. We made the family bigger to include more characters and decided to have slightly more people in the house than those who are normally there to get more life. They traditionally live in an extended family, so it wasn’t entirely unnatural. Everyone lived there during the recordings and it was real everyday life for people in the area that we visited,” declares Østli.

The Waorani have taken part in a large number of reality programmes. The BBC’s Tribal Wives and several countries’ versions of Ticket to the Tribes were filmed in the area.

“It’s not intended as a “Fly on the Wall” documentary. It is a kind of staged documentary to bring out their differences and make it more thought-provoking, a collision between two very different ways of life,” explains Selstrøm.

Aren’t you showing the tribes as more primitive than they actually are?

“Not in my view. Is dress about primitiveness? When Norwegian Lapps want to sell souvenirs at North Cape, they wear their traditional costumes.”

Isn’t NRK going too far in describing them as a “primitive tribal community”?

“Perhaps we should have weighed each word more carefully, but I would urge people to watch the whole series. It finishes with one of the Waorani boys going to school,” says Selstrøm.

Playing a role

The anthropologist Laura Rival compares the Indians’ role in the Belgian TV production that she observed with the role of an actor:

“They took their clothes and went to work in the newly built house. Then they put their clothes on again and returned to their normal complex lives. This could be compared with a job in which they have a uniform and put on a performance for the tourists.”

In her view, reality programmes give a superficial picture of the Indians’ complex lives, in which they balance tradition and modernity in a globalised world.

Says Rival, “These programmes are built on the same ideas that the west has had for 400-500 years: find the last people in the wild and live with them. The TV companies are only interested in recreating western myths. This is very patronising and gives a false idea of their differences”.

Updated 19.09.2008
Published by: Liv Inger Somby

Major exhibition chronicles Shackletons Antarctic adventure

A major photographic exhibition at the Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool, will chart the extraordinary story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s famous Antarctic expedition.
Running from the 16th July to the 3rd January 2011, Endurance: Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure will feature over 150 images taken by expedition photographer James Francis Hurley, charting the epic tale of survival after Shackleton’s ship Endurance was crushed by the ice.
This travelling exhibition, brought to the UK for the first time by New York’s American Museum of Natural History, will allow students to view images of Endurance trapped in the ice by day and night, studies of the expedition members, Endurance sinking beneath the ice, daily life while camped on the ice, and the crew marooned on Elephant Island. There will also be a full-size replica of the James Caird, the lifeboat sailed to South Georgia Island in search of rescue.
Merseyside Maritime Museum, part of National Museums Liverpool, offers an extensive education programme for visiting school groups of all ages.
For further information or to organise an educational trip, telephone: 0151-478 4441 or log onto www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk