Into the heart of a frozen continent

A scientist finds adventure, beauty and discovery in the coldest place on earth.

James McClintock has made 15 journeys to Antarctica.
McClintock says that a journey to this frozen place will change your outlook forever. “You don’t come back from Antarctica the same way you left,” he says.

Looking through a three-foot-wide dive hole into the frigid blue waters of Antarctica, James McClintock saw something he’d never witnessed before. A passing shrimp-like amphipod appeared to be carrying a tiny orange pack on its back.

Intrigued, McClintock, then a young assistant professor of polar and marine biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, scooped up the creature and took it back to the lab at McMurdo Station where he and a fish biologist teased the pack from the creature’s back.

To their stunned surprise, the orange pack opened up and flew away.

The tiny sea butterfly, which had been captured and held by the amphipod, turned out to contain an unpalatable chemical that kept the crustacean from becoming lunch for some hungry fish. Its discovery not only landed McClintock in the pages of the prestigious journal Nature but also launched a career that has made him a something of scientific rock star.

McClintock (biology, ’78, Cowell) has published 265 scientific papers, written two books, spoken about his work in front of 1,000 people at a Moth storytelling event at Lincoln Center in New York City, and had a point in McMurdo Sound in Antarctica named after him by the U.S. Board of Geographic Names in honor of his work. More importantly, his research in Antarctica has included studies on ocean acidification, the effects of climate change on marine life, and the discovery of chemicals contained in seaweed and sponges that may hold promise for treatment of melanoma and the deadly MRSA bacterium that is resistant to many antibiotics.

If not for two professors at UC Santa Cruz, his story might have been very different.

Arriving at the wooded campus from Santa Barbara with the idea of studying English, McClintock remembers becoming intrigued when a Cowell College core course in biology turned to talk of marine invertebrates. He soon signed up for an invertebrate zoology course taught by John Pearse and Todd Newberry, now both emeritus professors in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology, which focused on these amazing and adaptable creatures.

As McClintock tells it, “John is this amazing teacher who has a way of grabbing you by the soul.”

Pearse, for his part, recommended that McClintock spend a semester at a UC marine research lab in Bodega Bay studying sea stars and sea urchins.

“Jim was a self-starter,” remembers Pearse, who later invited McClintock to accompany him to Antarctica as a postdoctoral researcher. “He was very curious and outgoing.”

But if Pearse grabbed McClintock’s soul, Antarctica took his heart. He’s been there 15 times as a researcher and 10 times as lead lecturer for an annual philanthropic cruise focused on climate change and organized by the ship line Abercrombie and Kent. Listen to him talk by phone from his campus office in Birmingham and his description of Antarctica is close to poetic.

“The scale of the landscape is absolutely stunning,” he says. Mountain ranges that appear close enough to touch are actually hundreds of miles away. The sea surface, glassy and calm one minute, can be lifted into the air by hurricane-force winds a few moments later, while the ice is alive with unimaginable shades of blue and green.

“You don’t come back from Antarctica the same way you left,” he says.

His research trips, the last 25 years of which have been funded with grants from the National Science Foundation, have included a collaboration with Bill Baker, a marine natural products chemist from the University of South Florida, and Charles Amsler, a seaweed biologist also from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Working out of remote Palmer Station, the trio has focused on defense mechanisms developed by invertebrates and seaweed involving chemicals that are unpalatable and sometimes toxic to their predators. The research also has had implications for drug development including the discovery of a substance in sea squirts that appears to fight melanoma and a seaweed protein that seems to be active against the H1N1 flu, which sparked a 2009 pandemic. Most recently, the group found a compound in an Antarctic sponge that could help in the treatment of a specific type of the deadly MRSA bacteria.

Meanwhile, McClintock, along with his colleague Richard Aronson at the Florida Institute of Technology, is also charting the movement of king crabs up the Antarctic Slope as ocean temperatures rise. The arrival of these claw-equipped predators on the Antarctic Shelf could cause incredible damage to a pristine sea floor where rare invertebrates like sponges and anemones thrive, he says.

But if the excitement of discovery brings McClintock back to Antarctica, the rapid changes he’s witnessed there make him worry for our future.

He’s studied the impacts of ocean acidification and watched a glacier that used to calve once a week now release chunks of ice four to five times a day, he says.

“You can look across from Palmer (Station) and see the ghost rookeries where, 45 years ago, there were 15,000 breeding pairs” of Adélie penguins, says McClintock by telephone from Birmingham where he is now an endowed university professor of polar and marine biology.  “Now there are 1,500 breeding pairs, which means 90 percent are gone, and we know very confidently it is because of climate change.”

The seabirds, he explains, lay their eggs the same week each year but because of climate change, unseasonable snowstorms sometimes bury the colony, and when the snow melts, the penguin eggs and chicks drown.

That’s one of the reasons, he says, he has shepherded 200 well-heeled cruise-ship passengers to the Antarctic each year for the past decade.

Experiencing a beach filled with a mass of penguins that have no fear of humans and will often wander up to inspect their two-legged visitors, seeing humpbacks surface, and hearing scientists talk about how climate change is threatening the breathtaking landscape and wildlife can bring people to tears, he says.

“These people go home as ambassadors for Antarctica. They talk to senators and politicians about climate change,” McClintock says.

That outreach has made him understand the importance of scientists letting their voices be heard. He helped start a website, UAB in Antarctica, which allows lay people an up-close look at scientific research; has traveled across the country speaking to students from third grade to college; and has lectured in front of groups including the famed Explorers Club. In fact, he says, since the United States pulled out of the Paris Accord, which laid out a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, his requests for climate-change talks have increased.

Yet his message, he says, is also hopeful.

He likes to tell the story of the discovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica in the 1980s, when scientists released a paper detailing how the protective layer between earth and the sun was thinning.

“What I like to tell people is that within several years of one of the most important papers of the 20th century,” McClintock says, “we had 20 countries sitting around a table in Montreal, and they OK’d the Montreal Protocol,” which phased out products that were harmful to the ozone layer. The treaty has now been ratified by 197 parties.

Last year, McClintock says, a new paper showed that rather than expanding, the ozone hole is shrinking.

“That’s what I leave audiences with,” McClintock says. “That maybe we can get together and figure this out after all.”

James McClintock is the author of Lost Antarctica and A Naturalist Goes Fishing.