Shutdown the meltdown

Who cares about Antarctica? Between failed marine reserves, rogue icebergs, the ratcheting down of federal science funding, and research stalled by the US government shutdown in October, the Antarctic meltdown is something of a hard case. On one hand, the international delegation of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine Resources (CCALMR) has been rumbling about the creation of a massive ocean sanctuary—what would be the largest in the world—which seems like progress. At the very least, the various reserve proposals by the US, New Zealand, Australia, France and others in the EU indicate rising awareness and political salience about “the last intact ocean ecosystem on Earth.” I suppose there’s the chance that underlying motives for its creation could be geopolitical or economic—a move to thwart anti-sovereignty claims or the fishery interests of other nations and bulwark their own competitiveness, but something tells me there’s genuine concern about the ecological pressures and risks to biodiversity at the heart of the marine reserve ideas.

Cape Denison--photo courtesy of Pauline Askin/Reuters

Cape Denison–photo courtesy of Pauline Askin/Reuters

On the other hand, the CCALMR has also failed to create the sanctuary three times in the past year because the commission requires unanimity in decision-making. In particular, Russia, Ukraine, (and now China) have repeatedly blocked the proposals to protect their own fishing interests in the Southern Ocean, presented under the guise of concern for legal technicality. Disappointing, to be sure. But it shows that Antarctica is more than just a blip on the political radar, even if the proposed reserve hasn’t managed to pass.

Speaking of radar—we may recall that NASA discovered an 18 mile crack in the Pine Island Glacier in 2011. Upon its discovery, scientists speculated that eventually the crack might cause a glacier to break off. In July of this year, the prediction came true. Images from the TerraSAR-X satellite of the German Space Agency reported that, indeed, a city-sized iceberg had separated from the Pine Island Glacier. At the time, however, it was basically being kept in place by other sea ice.

Pine Island Crack--Image courtesy of NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

Pine Island Crack–Image courtesy of NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

But not anymore.

Similar in size to Manhattan, the separated iceberg has made its way out of its icy entrapments and is floating out to sea. Sounds benign enough, but it’s actually a problem—on top of the disposition shared by many that the slow degradation of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is itself lamentable. The problem at hand, however, is an instrumental one. The iceberg is headed for the space between Antarctica and Cape Horn on the southern-most tip of Chile, which is an especially trafficked international shipping lane.

Pine Island Rift--image courtesy of NASA

CLICK ME FOR ANIMATION! Pine Island Rift–GIF courtesy of the German Aerospace Center

The iceberg could stick around for more than a year before it dissipates, and if it does move through Drake’s Passage and end up in the shipping lane it could cause some serious obstructions to trade and transportation—or at least pose complications. It’s unclear what exactly could be done about the new glaciers other than circumvention, so perhaps the situation is better framed as a condition rather than a problem—but at least it’s a temporary one at that. Nevertheless, now that Antarctica and Antarctic issues are verging into the realm of economics and international trade its relative political importance may elevate. To that effect, a team of UK researchers recently received and emergency grant to track and study the iceberg’s movement.

Drake's Passage--image courtesy of

Drake’s Passage–image courtesy of

Which brings me to another point—NSF funding, the government shutdown, and Antarctic research, which are especially relevant here at CU-Boulder since we have a legacy and prospect of research in Antarctica.

I talked about the state of federal funding for academic research at some length in Congress’ assault on knowledge. In essence, folks like James Inhofe and Lamar Smith are doing their best to restructure and minimize the federal budget for research and allocation priorities. Unless research strictly pertains to national security or will yield demonstrable economic benefit, apparently, by their account, it’s not worth funding. As far as Antarctic research goes, the economic benefits aren’t necessarily obvious, nor does it straightforwardly improve national security—which of course erroneously assumes that better understanding complex ecosystems and ubiquitous issues like the history of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations through ice cores and other paleontological records through programs like the WISSARD drilling project don’t strengthen national security, make us better off through new knowledge, or help us figure out what sorts of adaption measures will be necessary as the climate changes. Hogwash. Be that as it may, by new funding standards, it seems likely that funding for Antarctic research may become harder to come by.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

What’s more, the partial government shutdown in October didn’t help. Of course the federal shutdown didn’t help anything, but—aside from national parks and furloughed federal workers—of particular relevance here, the budgetary holds ups stifled funding for the US Antarctic Program and its three field stations, to which a team of CU researchers had been planning to travel in late October (the beginning of summer in Antarctica). Perhaps not surprisingly, the research timetable is quite sensitive and so because of the shutdown and lingering budgetary priority questions, much of the Antarctic research planned for this year has been deferred. In a “Dear Colleague” letter, the NSF informed hopeful researchers from CU Boulder, UC Santa Cruz, UT Austin, and other institutions alike poised and expecting to head south, that, as they feared, they’d have to wait to embark on their icy adventures. As the NYT put it, the ripples of the government shutdown made it all the way to the end of the Earth. Well done, obstinate, uncompromising, and unreasonable members of Congress who shall here remain nameless—well done. In any case, we should all keep an eye on this. And we should all care about Antarctica.

Mars in 30 days? Solar powered space flight

Here I thought the Solar Impulse was a breakthrough in solar powered flight, but NASA, the University of Washington, and Elon Musk of SpaceX (among others) have turned it to 11. With a new Fusion Driven Rocket (FDR) design, engineers may be able to cut the trip to Mars from 8 months to somewhere between 30 and 90 days. And what’s more: the engine operates via “magnetic inertial confinement fusion,” which, thankfully its designers explain, means that the rocket’s fusion reactor could be run by solar power alone–200 KW to be exact (an extremely feasible number). If flying from California to New York on solar energy as the Impulse team intends is impressive (and it is), then the FDR team’s plan for solar powered space flight is out of this world.

Colonizing Mars–part of Musk’s plan for making life multi-planetary to ensure that “the light of consciousness is not extinguished”–is undoubtedly among the more fantastical utopian visions of the future of humanity. Moreover, the team hopes to eventually make interplanetary travel so efficient that it’s commonplace. Skeptics and detractors (myself sometimes among them) may question the endeavor on “realist” or ethical grounds, claiming that either resource scarcity or social collapse is likely to preclude any significant opportunities for interplanetary migration, or that leaving the Earth behind is a defeatist reaction to socio-ethical challenges here at home, like stabilizing the modern ecological crisis. Indeed, I still think these points have some validity.

But Julian Simon’s infinite resource of human innovation again rears its head. The FDR is already in the pipeline, so to speak. And I’ll be the first to champion the triumphs of solar technology–especially when space travel is involved. Like so many others I’m sure, the prospect of an interstellar humanity speaks volumes to my inner Lewis and Clark–the passion for adventure and discovery too often squelched by the pervasive impact of human activity on and ubiquitous presence in what remains of natural world.

Interplanetary exploration and colonization promise new environments, mysteries, challenges, and questions–philosophical and otherwise. Should we leave Earth in the first place? What is the purpose of colonizing another planet? What would “environmental philosophy” mean if/when we depart from our environment of origin? What new responsibilities do we have to the non-human if and when we undertake massive martian geo-engineering projects like terraforming? If human beings create a living ecosphere on Mars, should we see ourselves as eco-constituents subsumed by a greater natural cycle as we are here on Earth, or, in a sense, should we regard ourselves as semi-gods, directly responsible for the martian natural cycle’s very existence? How should we organize a new society on Mars? Do Earthly political philosophies still apply? Once society on Mars is established, what responsibility will Martian humans have to their Earth-dwelling counterparts, and vice versa, if any? And should we today move further into the final frontier by small precautionary steps or giant proactionary leaps? Barring any unforeseen fatal design flaws or socio-political roadblocks, we could soon have our generation’s Neil Armstrong moment on the red planet. And we’d get there on solar power no less. To the sun god!