CHIANGRAI TIMES – Suchana Chavanich, the first female Thai scientist to conduct research in the Antarctic, has returned with the distressing news that global climate change has reduced the penguin population by 20 per cent.
This is the real-life “adventure” that the stars of “Happy Feet” are undergoing, and if it takes references to a film cartoon to get fans thinking twice about how they damage the environment, bring on more cute and adorable images.
Associate Professor Dr Suchana was selected by Japan’s National Institute of Polar Research to join its 51st expedition to Syowa Station, and last week she published her account, “Antarctic … Land of Ice”, through the Chulalongkorn University Book Centre.
It was, without a doubt, a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the lecturer in marine science at Chula, and she describes her encounters with penguins and underwater creatures in lively fashion, keeping in mind that the temperature could drop to a mind-numbing minus-89 degrees Celsius.
Suchana was in Antarctica from November 2009 to March 2010, part of a specific mission to study the effects of climate change.
Few readers of the book will not be enticed to visit the only continent left where the natural ecosystem remains largely untouched by man. But the scientists determined that carbon dioxide is steadily building in the sky overhead – because of man’s over-dependence on fossil fuels, Suchana insists.
And, yes, that famous ozone hole above the continent is gaping again.
“What’s happening in the Antarctic is the opposite of what’s happening in the Arctic,” Suchana explains. The ice sheet covering most of the land down south is an estimated 2,450 metres thick, compared to the Arctic Ocean ice layer of just two to three metres.
The winter temperature up north ranges from minus 26 to minus 43 and reaches 0 degrees in the summer, whereas the Antarctic has an eight-month winter at minus 65 to minus 70, and summer runs from minus 25 to minus 45.
“Because of climate change we can see quite clearly the melting of the sea ice around the North Pole, but the Antarctic is experiencing colder weather,” Suchana, 39, says.
“The sea ice is thicker and stronger and takes much longer to melt. Severe blizzards occur more often, around 30 times a year [triple the previous rate]. So it becomes much harder for penguins to get to the sea for their food, and by the time they return to their nesting areas, their babies are likely to have died.”
On one occasion Suchana and her colleagues ventured within 50 metres of an Adelie penguin rookery with some 300 birds. Three penguins walked toward them as if to say hello or assess the threat. “I think those three were guards,” Suchana chuckles, “but it seemed like they and the seals nearby were just curious and didn’t consider us harmful.
“Another time we were aboard the Japanese icebreaker Shirase II and some penguins walked up to us and got very close. Then suddenly they realised how huge the ship was and ran away.”
Suchana also observed Emperor penguins, Weddell and leopard seals, Antarctic and snow petrels, and cape pigeons, but marine biology is her field, so fish remained her primary focus.
Her research continued that of Thailand’s first scientist to work in the Antarctic, Associate Professor Dr Woranop Wiyakarn, who participated in the same group’s 46th expedition. Suchana set out to discover how climate change in the last five years has affected the fish and their eating patterns.
“Fishing in a frozen sea isn’t easy!” she says. “Because of the low temperatures, the fish – like any other animal – move about as little as possible except when food is close.
“They’d normally take a lure, but in all the time I was fishing at Syowa Station I only caught two types of fish – Trematomus bernacchii and Pagothenia borchgrevinki [Emerald rockcod and bald notothen, which have a natural antifreeze in their blood]. Overall I caught just 40 fish.”
Climate change cannot be stopped, Suchana believes, but it can be slowed – and incrementally by each of us every day. She hopes her book will make Thais more aware of the effect they have on the environment as individuals, and also inspire younger readers to study science see the benefits of research.
Suchana of Syowa Station
Suchana Chavanich’s broadly based ecological research includes the study of near-shore species in both tropical and temperate regions and the conservation and restoration of marine ecosystems, particular coral reefs.
She is a member of International Society for Reef Studies and is currently project leader of Coastal Marine Biodiversity in the Western Pacific, a programme run by Unesco’s International Oceanographic Commission.
Thais have taken part in Antarctic research since 2004 through the collaboration with Japan’s Institute of Polar Research. The latest mission to Syowa Station included 85 people, nine of whom were women.