Discoveries

DISCOVERIES

December 17, 2004

Iceberg remnant imperils penguins

WELLINGTON, New Zealand - A remnant of the largest iceberg ever recorded is blocking Antarctica's McMurdo Sound, threatening tens of thousands of penguin chicks with starvation and cutting off a supply route for three science stations, a New Zealand official says.

The iceberg, known as B15A, measures about 1,200 square miles, according to Lou Sanson, chief executive of the government scientific agency Antarctica New Zealand.

He called it "the largest floating thing on the planet right now" and said U.S. researchers estimate that it contains enough water to supply Egypt's Nile River complex for 80 years.

It is so big it has blocked wind and water currents that break up ice floes in McMurdo Sound during the Antarctic summer, which begins this month. The U.S. McMurdo Station and New Zealand's Scott Base are on the sound. Italy's Terra Nova base is nearby.

The iceberg is in the path of four ships due to arrive in Antarctica in a month with fuel and food for the three stations. Scientists are looking into solutions, including breaking an 80-mile path through the ice.

While the situation is a growing concern, the bases are not immediately in danger of running out of supplies, Sanson said.

The same cannot be said for the newborn Adele penguins.

Tens of thousands of the chicks could starve in coming weeks because the ice build-up in the sound has cut off their parents' access to waters where they catch fish, Sanson said.

There is "more fast [blocked] ice in McMurdo Sound than we've ever recorded in living history for this time of year," Sanson said.

The penguins are important to scientists as markers of environmental chance, such as global warming. The iceberg is threatening two of four colonies in the area that scientists have been studying for 25 years.

One is on Cape Royds, where 3,000 breeding pairs of Adele penguins now face a 112-mile round trip to bring food to chicks at their nesting grounds. The parents cannot survive such a long journey without eating much of the food they have gathered for their young, Sanson said.

Penguins carry the food for their young in a pouch in their necks and will eat it if they are hungry enough.

"Penguin researchers are predicting that the annual hatching is pretty certain to fail," Sanson said, meaning most chicks will die.

Likewise, scientists fear that only about 10 percent of the 50,000 breeding pairs of Adele penguins at nearby Cape Bird will rear a chick this season, Sanson said. Adult penguins there face a 60-mile round trip across the ice to reach open water and food.

New Zealand research scientist Peter Wilson said the ice blockage "is a very serious event for these colonies."

Associated Press

Quick Takes

Majestic swimmers

Sea Turtles: A Complete Guide to Their Biology, Behavior and Conservation, by James R. Spotila, The Johns Hopkins University Press, $24.95.

It's easy to fall in love with sea turtles, those majestic creatures that survived the extinction of dinosaurs and still swim today.

In some ways, this beautiful, 227-page picture book is a love story, too. The author, James Spotila, who holds the Betz Chair of Environmental Science at Drexel University, has devoted his life to the study and protection of the world's seven sea turtle species.

His book combines scientific expertise with stunning photographs of the world's sea turtles, many of which are on the verge of extinction. Even more striking, though, is the generosity that made this book possible.

A trust established by author John Grisham and his wife, Renee, donated money to keep the book's price affordable. And Spotila will donate all royalties to the Leatherback Trust (leatherback.org), a conservation group he founded with other scientists to save sea turtles.

Bottom line: This book is worthy of centerpiece placement on any coffee table. But Sea Turtles' loftier goal makes it much more than just another pretty picture book. - Mary Beth Regan

Did you know...

A snowflake can be one snow crystal or several stuck together. All snow crystals have a hexagonal (six-sided) structure because the tiny water molecules inside ice line up in a regular hexagonal shape called a lattice.

- e.encyclopedia science

In Brief

Laptops on laps might cut sperm count

Young men who use laptop computers might do better to rest their PCs on a table instead of their laps if they're interested in having children, according to a new study in Human Reproduction, a European medical journal.

An hour of laptop use on the lap produced enough heat to reduce the body's ability to produce healthy sperm, the report said.

The journal noted that sperm production requires a lower temperature than the rest of the body - the reason that the testicular glands are contained in an external sac. But the heat generated by the computer was exacerbated by the legs-closed position users adopt to balance the laptop. As a result, when researchers tested laptops with 29 volunteers, temperatures in the area rose an average of 5.7 degrees.

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