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Bipolar adventures: The science of northern and southern oceans

Reflecting on lessons learned from Alaska to Antarctica on World Oceans Day

By Dr. Francis K. Wiese, National Marine Discipline Lead (Anchorage, Alaska)

Pastel colors stretched between horizons as I walked out on deck. At eye level, I see porpoising chinstrap penguins, ice floes dotted with crabeater and leopard seals, and amorphous icebergs with a backdrop of white mountain ranges thousands of feet tall. There is a chill in the air, in the distance are the sounds of surfacing humpback whales, and I’m surrounded by the smell of crisp, clean Antarctic air. That first night over a decade ago sticks in my mind and has kept me coming back to Antarctica all these years.

My trips to this unique and enthralling place start on the other side of world in Alaska. I have studied the world’s oceans for more than 20 years but have called Alaska my home since 2005. Our Stantec marine sciences team works on projects all over the world, but the North, like the South, has a fascination perhaps only paralleled by the desert. They are places with vast expanses, truly indescribable, mind-blowing scales, that appear barren but are full of life. 

Effectively traversing the entire North and South American continents, I arrive in Ushuaia in southern Argentina, over 9,000 miles and 36 hours from my home; I feel like I could still be in Alaska. Ushuaia is a small city nested on the feet of a mountain range and bounded by the ocean. I embark the MV FRAM and we head east out the Beagle Channel toward the infamous Cape Horn. As we leave the sight of land, we become ocean dwellers traversing the Drake Passage toward the Antarctica Peninsula. The ocean is stirred here as the Antarctic Circumpolar Current is forced through its narrowest opening in its journey around the world. The next afternoon there is a sudden chill in the air and the sky fills with seabirds—Arctic terns, whose pole-to-pole migration I have mirrored; the agile mottled cape petrels; and the majestic albatross with up to 10-foot wingspans that wander the Southern Ocean and whose paths we are fortunate to intersect. We have crossed the Antarctic Convergence, and I realize we are all here because the ocean here during the austral summer, like the waters off Alaska in their summer, are the most productive waters on earth.  

Admiring the elegance of the birds in flight, the majestic whales, the playful porpoises, and the pink mats of krill on the water surface, it is easy to understand how they all depend on healthy oceans to survive. Turns out, so do we.

Forty percent of global human populations lives within 50 miles of a coast, including 2/3 of the world’s largest cities. Seafood is the primary source of animal protein for more than a billion people, accounting for around 15 percent of the animal protein consumed worldwide. In many places, like Alaska, it also supports more jobs than any other habitat or industry. Almost three quarters of Earth’s surface is covered by ocean, an interconnected global habitat that drives the world’s climate, making it both mesmerizing and complicated to study.

The mechanisms that govern ocean dynamics—i.e., what makes ocean ecosystems tick—have fascinated me for years. In Antarctica, I spend my time giving lectures to cruise passengers on ocean systems and its inhabitants, watching the fascination in people’s eyes as we discover all the things the oceans hold and control beyond the naked eye. I also spend some time sitting next to a penguin rookery listening to the perpetual trumpeting of Gentoo penguins. It’s a bit of a Zen thing.

At home, I plan, implement, and conduct scientific studies to understand this vast ecosystem—what controls it, what affects it, how we can simultaneously live from it and protect it? There is still a lot to learn, but one thing is clear: we are changing the world’s climate. We are directly and indirectly altering and impacting our ocean and its inhabitants; in turn, we are impacting people’s livelihoods worldwide. For many, the ocean is their garden. As we celebrate World Oceans Day, it’s good to remember it’s one ocean, one world. It requires a united effort to be aware, study, protect, and celebrate this amazing blue world.

Related item: Environmental Services

Francis is Stantec’s Technical Leader for Marine Science in Canada and Alaska. He’s spent more than 20 years working in the marine environment throughout the world. Away from the office, Francis is still near the water—kayaking, sailing, swimming, diving, or serving as a scientist/lecturer on Antarctic cruise ships.

We are directly and indirectly altering and impacting our ocean and its inhabitants. As we celebrate World Oceans Day, it’s good to remember it’s one ocean, one world.

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