Julia Whitty

Julia Whitty

Environmental Correspondent

Julia is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction (Deep Blue Home, The Fragile Edge, A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga), and a former documentary filmmaker. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

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Julia is a writer and former documentary filmmaker and the author of The Fragile Edge: Diving & Other Adventures in the South Pacific, winner of a PEN USA Literary Award, the John Burroughs Medal, the Kiriyama Prize, the Northern California Books Awards, and finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean. Her short story collection A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga won an O. Henry and was a finalist for the PEN Hemingway Award. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

Antarctic Ice Melting From Below by Warming Ocean

| Wed Apr. 25, 2012 1:20 PM EDT


First map of Antarctica's moving ice: Image courtesy Eric Rignot, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and University of California IrvineFirst map of Antarctica's moving ice: Image courtesy Eric Rignot, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and University of California Irvine

A paper published today in the science journal Nature reveals that the melting of Antarctica's ice sheet is being driven by a warming ocean more than a warming atmosphere.

Which means even though summer air temperatures have not yet warmed enough to substantially melt Antarctica's surface snows, the oceans are undermining the frozen continent from below—fueling a recent, widespread, and intensifying glacier acceleration and its accompanying rise in sea levels.

The results are based on 4.5 million measurements made by a laser instrument mounted on NASA's now defunct ICESat satellite between 2003 and 2008, which mapped the thickness of most floating ice shelves around Antarctica. The results:

  • Of 54 ice shelves mapped, 20 are being melted by warm ocean currents, most of those in West Antarctica.
  • In all cases the inland glaciers that flow down to the coast and feed into these thinning ice shelves have accelerated, draining more ice into the sea and contributing to sea-level rise.

The Ronne-Filchner Ice Shelf in West Antarctica on the afternoon of 12 January 2010 .: NASA images courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC.

The Ronne-Filchner Ice Shelf in West Antarctica on the morning of 13 January 2010: NASA images courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC

The Ronne-Filchner Ice Shelf in West Antarctica  rapidly breaking up. Top image taken on the afternoon of 12 January 2010. Bottom image taken 24 hours later on the afternoon of 13 January 2010: NASA images courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC

The melting is happening fastest where deep troughs cut through the underwater continental shelf, allowing warmer water access to the undersides of the ice shelves. 

Lead author Hamish Pritchard at the British Antarctic Survey says:

"What’s really interesting is just how sensitive these glaciers seem to be. Some ice shelves are thinning by a few meters a year and in response the glaciers drain billions of tons of ice into the sea. This supports the idea that ice shelves are important in slowing down the glaciers that feed them, controlling the loss of ice from the Antarctic ice sheet... We think [the cause is] linked to changes in wind patterns. Studies have shown that Antarctic winds have changed because of changes in climate and that this has affected the strength and direction of ocean currents. As a result warm water is funnelled beneath the floating ice. These studies and our new results therefore suggest that Antarctica’s glaciers are responding rapidly to a changing climate. 



You can see that happening in this NASA video which shows warm ocean currents attacking the underside of ice shelves. Ice shelves colored red are thicker (greater than 1,800 feet / 550 meters). Those colored blue are thinner (less than 650 feet / 200 meters).  

The ice2sea project team behind the new paper will be releasing its projections on sea level rise into the 21st and 22nd centuries later this year. 

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5 Pieces of Good News From Planet Earth

| Fri Apr. 20, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Credit: NASA.Credit: NASA.

Most news from nature is depressing—species extinctions, changing climate, dying oceans. Yet it's not all bad... though we might never know it, since positive news is underreported. 

I wrote about this tendency in my latest MoJo print piece about my old friend Enriqueta Velarde and her work to save an island and a whole ecosystem called Can One Incredibly Stubborn Person Save a Species?

That article grew from a call-to-arms in a science paper in TREE last year: Conservation science must engender hope to succeed. The authors persuasively argued that by not reporting good conservation news, both the media and science journals facilitate a climate of despair and pessimism and create a self-defeating positive feedback loop. They suggested we work harder to broadcast successes stories and the people behind them. 

So what works and where? Here are a few stories that caught my eye recently.

Credit: Scott Schliebe via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Scott Schliebe via Wikimedia Commons.

1) Huge Drop in PCB Levels in Norwegian Polar Bears 

Nothing we hear about polar bears these days is good. Except this. Researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology have found that levels of toxic PCBs and related contaminants in bears from the island of Svalbard have dropped by as much as 59 percent in cubs, and by as much as 55 percent in their mothers, between 1998 and 2008. Biologist Jenny Bytingsvik says the sharp downward trend is a sign that international agreements to ban PCBs are working.


Credit: Amur Leopard via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Amur Leopard via Wikimedia Commons.

2) Amur Cats Get Their Own National Park 

Extremely rare Amur leopards (wild population: 30) have won a long-fought battle to establish a safer home for them with the establishment of the 650,000-acre (262,000-hectare) Land of the Leopard National Park in Russia's Far East. The park is also home to 10 rare Amur tigers. Since some cats cross the border into China, the World Wildlife Fund hopes to establish a cross-border reserve to allow the leopards to expand their habitat and hop the border at will. China already has two wildlife reserves on its side.


Credit: Toby Hudson via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Toby Hudson via Wikimedia Commons.

3)  Half Billion Dollars Funds Most Ambitious Conservation Programs Ever

The Global Environment Facility based in Washington DC, which administers huge honking trust funds for conservation, allocated $516.4 million to 40 individual projects and nine larger program last November—its most ambitious round of funding ever. Included: a proposal to protect at least 5 percent of Brazil's ocean territory through marine protected areas; and a project to investigate the potential of creating 'blue forest' preserves in the ocean to facilitate the storage of carbon over time by mangrove and coral ecosystems. 

Credit: Oregon State University via Flickr.Credit: Oregon State University via Flickr.

4) Right Whales Return to New Zealand

Southern right whales have been extinct from ancestral calving grounds off New Zealand for more than a century. So presumably no living whales remembered how to get to New Zealand from their sub-Antarctic feeding grounds. Yet some whales are finding their way home again. And recently published research by a team from the US, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia suggests they're a genetically distinct group—the likely descendants of whales that once lived off New Zealand. Prior to whaling, 30,000 whales bred in the sandy bays of Kiwi Land. A few dozen have returned since 2005, hopefully the pioneers of a new wave.


 Credit: Tamar Assaf via Wikimedia Commons.

Credit: Tamar Assaf via Wikimedia Commons.

5) Arabian Oryx Returns from Extinction

This beautiful antelope was believed to be extinct in the wild since ~1973 when the last individual was shot in Oman. Captive breeding efforts went into cooperative overdrive with a program called Operation Oryx, a collaboration between the Phoenix Zoo, Fauna & Flora International, and the World Wildlife Fund. Today after successful reintroductions and a lot of hard work from antelope moms, ~1,000 individuals are again living in the wild, with ~6,00-7,000 in captive herds. The species has ratcheted up three levels on the Red List: from "Extinct in the Wild" to "Critically Endangered" to "Endangered" now to "Vulnerable." Only two more stops before "Least Concern."

Bonus: Did you know that earth's protected areas cover 8 million square miles of land and sea—more than twice the size of Canada? We've sure come a long way since 1872. Charts and maps here.

There Are More Protected Places on Earth Now Than Ever Before

| Thu Apr. 19, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Credit: Tiago Fioreze via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Tiago Fioreze via Wikimedia Commons.


In case it sometimes feels like we've never done anything good for the wild parts of our planet, take a look at these stats from the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA).

My piece, "Can One Incredibly Stubborn Person Save a Species?" is about one conservation success story: Mexican biologist Enriqueta Velarde, who has singlehandedly brought two bird species back from the brink of extinction on an Island off the coast of Mexico. Happily, Velarde's story is part of a larger trend. Since 1872 we've take a once radical idea—preserving nature—and scaled it up globally with amazing speed.


Credit: World Database on Protected AreasCredit: World Database on Protected Areas


According to the WDPA: 

  • As of 2008 there are >120,000 protected areas covering a total of about 8 million square miles (~21 million square kilometers) of land and sea
  • That's an area more than twice the size of Canada
  • Terrestrial protected areas cover 12.2 percent of the Earth's land area
  • Marine protected areas cover 5.9% of Earth's territorial seas and 0.5% of extraterritorial seas 


Credit: World Database on Protected AreasCredit: World Database on Protected Areas


There's still much variation from nation to nation:

  • Only 45 percent of 236 assessed countries and territories have >10 percent of their terrestrial areas protected
  • Only 14 percent of 236 assessed nations have >10 percent of their marine areas protected 

And there's still a long way to go to meet targets set by the Convention on Biological Diversity:

  • By 2009 only half the world's 821 ecoregions were >10 percent protected
  • Less than 20 percent of the world's 232 marine ecoregions were >10 percent protected
  • While nearly 10 recent of land ecoregions had <1 percent protected
  • And more than 50 percent of marine ecoregions had <1 percent protected

Yet the trend remains positive. Ecoregions deemed most important for preserving biodiversity increased in total protection from 19-25 percent in 1990 to 26-35 percent in 2007. 


 Credit: World Bank, Development Education Program

Credit: World Bank, Development Education ProgramAnd when you set this exponential trend towards protection against the exponential growth in our population since the Industrial Age—with all its exponentially increasing pressures to exploit not protect—then this revolutionary advance in human thinking becomes all the more impressive.

Each one of these hard-won protections for the natural world sustains us more than it costs us.

Credit: ProtectedPlanet.net/World Database on Protected AreasCredit: ProtectedPlanet.net/World Database on Protected Areas

The World Database of Protected Areas has created an interactive website where you can see what's protected where. 

And check out their ProtectedPlanetOcean to interact with the marine waters granted some measure of preservation.

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