Posts Tagged ‘Jon Bowermaster’

Good Green Reading: Wildebeest in a Rainstorm

When Jon Bowermaster isn’t writing for us here on Earthkeepers, he’s documenting his travels for other publications and in his own films and books.  His latest book, Wildebeest in a Rainstorm is a fascinating compilation of stories and observations from some of Jon’s greatest adventures with such notable companions as Wangari Maathai, Richard Branson and Bobby Kennedy, Jr.

The following excerpt is from his essay “Endangered Species,” in which he and preeminent field biologist George Schaller discussed the environmental importance – and inherent danger – of ecotourism:

“I’ve never been interested in anything but the outdoors,” he confesses.  Today he insists his primary goal is to help alert the public’s attention to a global “century of destruction” in which he believes that humans are destroying natural resources, particularly plants and animals, at such a rate that mankind will ultimately be threatened.  Though hardly a typical tourist, Schaller believes the current boom in ecotourism – if done properly, by skilled and committed companies – is one avenue for preserving both wilds and wildlife.

“For many areas of the world good tourism – which means limited numbers of strictly controlled people that are aware of the environment, that are knowledgeable about what they are up to, that don’t litter, that don’t disturb the animals, that treat the local people with respect – can have a real benefit.  Otherwise such regions might just disappear.  In an area has foreigners coming and looking and the money from their visit stays there, local people will be more likely to protect it.  If nobody ever visits, say the rainforest, the more likely it will be logged.”

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Bluepeace

Writer, filmmaker, adventurer and contributing Earthkeeper blogger Jon Bowermaster rounds out his recent visit to the Maldives:

Saffah Faroog sips a mango juice and continues explaining the history of the Maldives oldest environmental group, Bluepeace, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. He is its communications director, a volunteer like the rest of its staff, and has a great story to share – the organization has a great web presence and a long history of doing the right thing in the Maldives by keeping environmental stories in the news. There’s no lack of subject matter with beach erosion, species loss, the impact of climate change and rising sea levels and the still lingering after-effects of the 2004-tsunami still daily stories.

“Perhaps the most impressive thing for us here in the Maldives,” he says, “is that just two years ago I would never had a conversation in public with you like this, not about these subjects. We had to be very careful about everything we wrote, anything we said in public or private, because almost anything could be construed as a potential criticism of the government, thus possibly resulting in recrimination.

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Going Carbon Neutral in the Maldives

Bird’s eye view of the Maldives, courtesy of Jon Bowermaster

The call to Friday prayers on Eydhafushi are spread island-wide by plastic loudspeakers affixed to poles and buildings scattered around the Maldivian sand-spit, home to three thousand. When it comes I’m floating a quarter mile offshore and it wakes me from a heat (90 degrees F) and calm-sea reverie; a reminder that here, near where the Arabian Sea melds into the Indian Ocean, we are in an all-Muslim nation. (I was reminded last night too, with a chuckle, when the man in matching linen who brought me a bottle of chilled rose and bragged about it’s ‘fruity’ taste admitted his lips had never touched alcohol.)

Earlier in the morning, before the day’s heat arrived, I’d walked a nearby jungled island, crows and rails darting among the pandanas and palms, camouflaged lizards and introduced rabbits scooting across the sandy paths. The foliage was dense and green, the island far more substantial than most in the Maldives, which are typically little more than sand and sea rubble piled up on coral. Given that even a substantial island here rises just six feet above sea level, as much as anywhere in the world the Maldives are threatened by rising sea levels.

The first democratically-elected president in the nation’s history has quickly turned into a vocal leader.  One of his first pronouncements was that he was going to start setting aside money for and start looking at land to buy to move his people, to get them out of harm’s way if sea levels rise as expected.

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Climate Change and Survival in the Maldives

Jon Bowermaster is a writer, filmmaker, adventurer and fellow Earthkeeper who has spent the last 20 years exploring remote corners of the globe and documenting his experiences for a variety of national and international magazines, as well as in his own books and documentary films.  We’re honored to feature periodic posts from Jon here on Earthkeepers, and you may follow his travels anytime on his own blog.

The last time I was in the island nation of the Maldives – nearly 400,000 people scattered among 1,200 tiny islands running south for a thousand miles off the tips of Sri Lanka and India – the place was on edge. It was early in 2005 and the tsunami waves had rushed over the islands just a few weeks before. Fortunately for the Maldives a combination of deep channels running between islands and the sizable coral reefs that surround many of them prevented the giant wave from sweeping its entire population into the sea. Only about 100 people were killed, far fewer than drowned on the coast of Somalia hundreds of miles further west.

I came to report on the post-tsunami impacts for the New York Times and as I wandered among the homes badly cracked by the wave and saw decades-old garbage dumps swept into the sea by waters that rushed over the islands – which rise less than six feet above sea level – everyone was talking about the possibility of another such incident.  “What can we do to prevent the next wave from taking us all,” was the collective concern. “What if there is a second wave coming?”

The Maldives new president is talking louder than any elected official in the world about the need to slow the seas from rising.  He obviously has a vested interest.

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Barren and Carcass Islands, The Falklands

Jon Bowermaster is a writer, filmmaker, adventurer and fellow Earthkeeper who has spent the last 20 years exploring remote corners of the globe and documenting his experiences for a variety of national and international magazines, as well as in his own books and documentary films.  We feature periodic updates and observations from Jon here on the Earthkeeper blog … and you may follow his travels anytime on his own blog, Dispatches.

As I’ve figured out during the past ten days, when it comes to islands few can compete with South Georgia for its fantastic wildlife, landscape and sense of mystery. So when Barren Island – one of the Falklands 740 smallish isles – appeared out of the fog this morning it both lived up to its name and reminded me we were no longer in magic land.

Flat and not surprisingly devoid of any foliage taller than my boots, Barren Island is nonetheless distinct for its burrowing penguins, a solitary snipe, a beach covered with bleached-out whale bones and something I hadn’t seen for awhile: Beach trash.

That there was a smattering of plastic and detritus washed (tossed?) off commercial fishing boats on the far side of Banner is not the fault of the island, or of the Falklands. Most of what I saw on this beach, as I’ve seen on virtually every coastline I’ve visited during the past decade, comes from boats of all kinds, many of which still treat the ocean like a limitless dump.

A sheep farmer named Mike, who happens by in his Zodiac just as I land ashore, leases Banner Island. I ask about prevailing currents and where the washed-up stuff most likely comes from. “Boats,” is his simple answer. Mainland Argentina is several hundred miles away.

Photo copyright Fiona Stewart

Along with its brother island George, which I can make out in the near distance, Barren are the southernmost working farms in the Falklands. They are successful at sheep and cows and re-growing tussock grasses in part because they are rat-free, a problem impacting many of the near islands. Seals, giant petrels and gentoo and Magellanic penguins share the beaches happily, but the islands are best known for the amazing bird life … everywhere.

We spend the morning walking the length of Banner and then sail to the somewhat unfortunately named Carcass Island (named after a sailing ship, not a cadaver). Just a trio of families has lived on Carcass over the past century and the island itself is well looked after and boasts another thing I haven’t seen for many weeks: A bed and breakfast.

But the plastic and trash on the beach here is even worse than on Banner; in fact, it may be among the worst example of man’s mistreatment of the ocean I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying a lot, since I’ve spent the past decade studying beaches and coastlines around the globe. During the last ten years we identified a trio of environmental issues impacting everyone who lives on or near a beach: Climate change, over fishing and plastic pollution. Sadly, Carcass Island could become the poster boy for the latter. A few of its beaches are so thick in man’s plastic waste that its rocks and sand and shoreline disappear beneath my feet.

- Jon Bowermaster

The Weddell Sea

We’ve moved to the other side of the Peninsula, the eastern edge of the five-hundred-mile long finger jutting out of the continent, into the Weddell Sea. We tried to get in here last year, by sailboat and kayak, but were shut out. The winter of 2007 had been a particularly cold one, even by Antarctic standards, and the entry to the Antarctic Sound had been blocked long into summer by a pair of giant icebergs, each tens of miles long. That blockage, combined with a lack of wind, meant that where we had hoped to paddle – circumnavigating Vega and James Ross islands – was choked by frozen sea, passes between the islands still filled by one and two year old ice.

This year is very, very different. The winter of 2008 was warmer and windier and even though we’re a day away from the official start of summer, much of the Weddell is already clear of the same kind of thick pack we saw last year.

That said, it is never a picnic over here. Though sunny and bright, I take a long walk today and nearly lost the tip of my nose to frostbite. The biggest worry here, this time of year? Sunburn. The combination of the atmospheric ozone hole and all the bright snow, ice and sea that surrounds means sun block is as necessary as Gore-tex.

 The landscape on this side of the Peninsula is very different. The islands are short-hilled and rust-colored, stark. Other than a solitary Argentine base, there’s no one around for one hundred miles, and you sense that remoteness. Only a couple of the dozens of tourist boats that prowl the Peninsula each austral summer comes here. More than 100,000 sizable bergs calve off the Antarctic continent each year, about one-third of them come from the glaciers lining the Weddell Sea. Remember in 2002, when a chunk of ice the size of Rhode Island dramatically broke off from the Larsen B ice shelf? The Larsen B is just south of where I am today and some of that ice and its brothers and sisters are still grounded here. As I write I’m standing alongside a flat-topped berg a few stories tall and at least two miles long.

Photo copyright Fiona Stewart

The ice here is different too. The sky is bright blue, the wind howling at thirty to forty miles an hour and I spend the better part of an hour looking through a spotting scope towards Seymour Island, following “the pack” being pushed by wind and current. It is miles wide, floating on the surface, exactly what you would not want to get caught in. Imagine being surrounded by a fast-moving pack tens of miles wide, unable to escape. You could be stuck for days, or worse.

The Weddell’s icebergs are mean and tough too, none of that soft, slushy stuff you might see at this time of year on the western side of the Peninsula. Hit one of these, and you’ll suffer. They are extremely hard, toughened by years of extreme cold and wind, often studded just below the surface by giant, sharp continental rock. Even the name of the water here is ominous – the Terror and Erebus Gulf – named for a pair of historical wooden sailing ships that first risked exploring the region.

At the north end of the channel, I take a longer walk on Paulet Island, known for its 100,000 pairs of nesting Adelies. There are so many birds it is nearly impossible to clamber up the boulder-strewn beach. Beneath many of the adult birds peek the first chicks I’ve seen this year. As the day goes on, the sky grows evermore blue, the winds stronger.

- Jon Bowermaster

 National Geographic writer, filmmaker and adventurer Jon Bowermaster has spent the last 20 years exploring remote corners of the globe and documenting his experiences for a variety of national and international magazines, as well as in his own books and documentary films.  Updates on Jon’s adventures around the globe can be found on his own blog.

Sharp Peak

Standing at the foot of Sharp Peak, a 4,000-foot-tall snow-covered granite peak rising straight up from the sea, beneath a 360-degree indigo sky, today just might be the most beautiful I have ever seen in Antarctica. Though even as I write that, I knowingly admit it’s impossible to compare days, especially here, since I’ve witnessed so many beautiful ones here over the past twenty years.

Photo copyright Fiona Stewart

But this one was a beauty with a Capital B. Sitting off Prospect Point I am surrounded by THE most spectacular wilderness on the planet. Running about in a Zodiac on a glass-calm black sea, snowcapped mountain ranges circle me marked every few miles by substantial towering glacier tongues. Thick new snow is piled up on the hills and six-foot-thick fast ice (frozen sea) extends from the continent. Dozens of penguins and seals swim and fish, then slide up onto the ice for a rest.  Flat-topped tabular icebergs bigger than small apartment buildings – crystal blue and surreal white – sit grounded in the bay or frozen into the fast ice. The sun is high and air temperatures reach to nearly forty … (earlier in the day I heard it was -10 F in Minneapolis!). Aaaaah, Antarctica!

Last year we tried climbing Sharp Peak, but were forced to quit before we started due to too soft snow and crevasses masked by flat, grey skies. On that day the bay was chock full of floating ice of all sizes; this year most of the winter ice has already been blown out. Though we wouldn’t have had much luck climbing it today either, due not to slushy snow, just way too much of it.

It is particularly hard on a day like this, surrounded by ice that is hundreds of years old and mountains covered by new-fallen snow, to believe that one day much of this whiteness lining the Antarctic Peninsula could be gone.  Though the air temperatures along the Peninsula have risen during the past fifty years by nine degrees Fahrenheit, the biggest increase on the planet, it is still easy for critics of climate change and its impacts to use this exact vista to suggest that no amount of warming, no matter who or what is responsible, will ever make a difference to this place.

Photo copyright Fiona Stewart

But despite appearances, evidence is all around: All along the Peninsula average temperatures of air and surface water are way up. Eighty-seven percent of all of the continent’s glaciers are flowing faster then ever and have receded. Each year the frozen continent is losing enough ice mass to cause the world’s oceans to rise about .05 inches, adding about 40 trillion gallons of fresh water to the world’s ocean, equivalent to the amount of water used by all U.S. residents every three months. Estimates for sea level rise are on the order of eighteen to twenty feet over the next couple millennium, but we’re not sure if it all may arrive in the same one hundred years. Ice shelves the sizes of small states along the Peninsula are fracturing at alarming rates.

The best analogy I can make for what is happening down south will be familiar to anyone who lives in a cold weather, ice-and-snow climate. Serious scientists in Antarctica talk about a “critical point,” when the combination of warm temperatures, precipitation and loss of ice cover will encourage Antarctica to melt very, very quickly. Think of your own backyard on a warm day at the end of a long winter; your yard, your stoop has been covered in snow and ice for several months and then one early spring day, after a momentous day of rain and warm temperatures, the last remnants of winter disappear …  just like that.

The very same could happen here, which is the worry. Though I will admit to understanding why, on a day like today surrounded on all sides by miles and miles of ice and snow, there are still some out there who doubt the globe is warming precipitously.  I am not one of them.

- Jon Bowermaster

 National Geographic writer, filmmaker and adventurer Jon Bowermaster has spent the last 20 years exploring remote corners of the globe and documenting his experiences for a variety of national and international magazines, as well as in his own books and documentary films.  Updates on Jon’s Antarctic adventures can be found on his own blog, and we’ll be following him here on Earthkeepers as well.

Science in Antarctica

Thanks to the 1959 treaty that governs Antarctica, the entire continent is supposed to be devoted to science (rather than military exercise, national claims or mineral exploitation). And no one does science with more conviviality than the Ukrainians at their base in the Argentine Islands called Vernadsky.

Photo copyright Fiona Stewart

I stopped in yesterday for a visit with the thirteen scientists and support crew who have been here non-stop since last February; only the cook remained from my visit of the year before, when we stopped a couple times during our kayak expedition … one night closing down the southernmost bar on the Peninsula and having to carry a couple team members back to our boat.

While the base’s reputation among Antarctic cognoscenti is for concocting the best home-brewed vodka in Antarctica, its 63-year meteorological record keeping is without compare along the Peninsula, perhaps the best on the continent. As I walked the halls of the base yesterday, one chart kept in the weatherman’s office jumped out at me: A slowly rising line from left to right, beginning in 1945 – when the Brits built the base, then known as Faraday – and ending in 2008, charting the rise in average temperatures here on this island. In 1945, the average annual temp was -5.5 C (-10 F); this year, -2.3 C (-4.25 F).

Six degrees Fahrenheit warmer over the past fifty years makes it one of the greatest average temperature increases on the planet. And it’s not just the thermometer that tells the story. During the last winter – roughly March to October – for the first time anyone can remember the sea around the Argentine Islands never froze solid. This past year they also had heavier than usual snowfalls, thanks to a combination of the decrease of frozen sea (more open ocean means more evaporation and more precipitation) and warmer temperatures.

In the narrow main hall I clamber up a wooden ladder, to revisit the machine the Brits initially used to discover the ozone hole, which opens up above Antarctica each year. The Ukrainians have kept up the monitoring of the atmospheric hole; the current Mr. Ozone at the base showed me another graph, illustrating how the ozone hole grows to its largest in August (25 million square kilometers) and shrinks to its smallest in December (12 million square kilometers). While the hole has been shrinking in recent years (thanks to an international ban on hole-causing CFCs) everyone at Vernadsky takes it very seriously. Everyday before they go outside they check its size and the sun’s strength … and on some days decide not to go out if the hole is big and sun penetrating, for fear of burning eyes and skin.

- Jon Bowermaster

Photo copyright Fiona Stewart

National Geographic writer, filmmaker and adventurer Jon Bowermaster has spent the last 20 years exploring remote corners of the globe and documenting his experiences for a variety of national and international magazines, as well as in his own books and documentary films.  Updates on Jon’s Antarctic adventures can be found on his own blog, and we’ll be following him here on Earthkeepers as well.

Grand Didier Channel, Antarctic Peninsula

I first came to Antarctica twenty years ago, as part of an international team intent on dog sledding across the continent. Since then, I’ve been back more than a dozen times; last season for nearly three months, much of that time traveling the length of the six hundred mile long Peninsula by sailboat and kayak, the rocky finger jutting into the Southern Ocean from the continent. Unlike many of the most veteran of Antarctic aficionados I’ve had the good fortune to get to know both the stark, forbidding interior of the continent, as well as parts of its glacier-lined coastline.

Photo copyright Fiona Stewart

What I’ve learned is that every summer season – roughly December through February – is vastly different here. And every day is vastly different too. What is not changing is that during the past fifty years, most noticeably during the past decade, air temperatures along the Peninsula have warmed more than anywhere on the planet. The impacts of warmer temperatures are evidenced everywhere, from loss of ice cover to changing wildlife habits. The ability to take a close-up look at that evolution is a great chance for me.

This morning I spent the morning among the Yalour Islands, near the northern end of the Grand Didier Channel, zipping by Zodiac around icebergs of a variety of shapes and sizes. Initially the skies were bright and blue, the first such we’ve seen in a few days. Actually, the last blue skies were accompanied by hurricane winds, which blew every cloud in the sky out of the way. But as is typical for Antarctica, things changed rapidly today as a fast-moving snow squall blotted the sun and turned the idyllic scene quickly more ominous, a whiteout, impossible to see the shoreline.

We passed through these islands eleven months ago by kayak and the difference today is dramatic. Because we were going to travel along the Peninsula by kayak last January, for many months I had started each morning checking out http://www.polarview.aq/and its satellite images of Antarctica’s ice.

Each year more than seven millions square miles of sea ice freezes around the continent, growing the continent to twice the size of the U.S. And each year that pack ice breaks up and melts in different patterns and stages dependent on how warm the temperatures are, how big are the winds. Thanks to a colder-than-usual winter last year the continent was ringed by frozen sea ice until late in January, even the Peninsula, which is generally the first Antarctic region to lose its ice.

By comparison, this season the Peninsula is amazingly clear of pack ice, less than anyone can remember seeing.

Perhaps most telling: Yesterday at Cuverville Island, on a rocky, north-facing slope we spied something very new to Antarctica: Grass. About twenty feet off the sea, two small patches of just-greening herb sprouted, fed by summer sun and warming air temperatures, clear evidence the Peninsula is warming.

- Jon Bowermaster

National Geographic writer, filmmaker and adventurer Jon Bowermaster has spent the last 20 years exploring remote corners of the globe and documenting his experiences for a variety of national and international magazines, as well as in his own books and documentary films.  Updates on Jon’s Antarctic adventures can be found on his own blog, and we’ll be following him here on Earthkeepers as well.

Stories of the World with Jon Bowermaster

National Geographic writer, filmmaker and adventurer Jon Bowermaster has spent the last 20 years exploring remote corners of the globe and documenting his experiences for a variety of national and international magazines, as well as in his own books and documentary films

For his Oceans 8 project, Jon spent the last decade traveling the globe by sea kayak and investigating the local cultures, histories and environmental issues of those living along the world’s coastlines.  We were fortunate to catch up with Jon recently, and in the video interview below, he describes his Oceans 8 adventures, discusses the perceptions and realities of climate change he’s observed, and talks about the next step in his journey.

 

We’ll feature future updates from Jon in his travels here on Earthkeepers … in the meantime, you can also follow his adventures through Dispatches on his website.