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From leading an Antarctic cruise to studying the effects of climate change

In our new series, we explore what it takes to land—and work—the world’s coolest travel jobs. Our first installments featured Q&As with an avalanche forecaster and wildlife photographer. Next up: a marine biologist and climate change expert who has spent nearly three decades studying Antarctica. 

Dr. James McClintock is a professor of polar and marine biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He has published more than 235 scientific papers, written a book called Lost Antarctica: Adventures in a Disappearing Land, and leads an annual climate change cruise to Antarctica. Although he has presented lectures to amphitheaters packed with decorated scientists, McClintock is just as happy explaining global warming to a bunch of third graders. “I love what I do and I love to share it,” says McClintock, who will make his 26th trip to Antarctica in January. “Sharing my experience is how I give back to the community.” We caught up with McClintock at his office in Birmingham to find out more about his unique line of work, what it takes to break into this competitive field, and how he keeps his spirits up when the whole world seems like one big trash-can fire. 

You must have had a busy month after the Larsen C ice shelf collapsed.

[Laughs] It’s been pretty crazy! I’ve done several interviews, including NPR, and my university just did a big Facebook Live post.

When a major event like that happens, does it change your day-to-day job or does it just ramp up the media aspect?

The media piece blew up because I’m known as one of those climate change people who is familiar with Antarctica and its impact. I’ve had 30 years of funding from the National Science Foundation to do research there, so [doing interviews] is my opportunity to give back through educational outreach. I also heard from several colleagues following the collapse; it looks like there may be a joint effort among marine biologists who work in Antarctica to visit the site where the Larsen C had sat. We’re going to look at the marine seafloor communities to see what was under there, if there are any new species, and how those species are responding to climate change.

Would doing that be a career highlight?

It could be. Although every time I go to Antarctica, it’s an amazing scientific enterprise. 

Let’s go back to the beginning. Did you always want to be a polar marine biologist?

I grew up in Santa Barbara, California, on the coast, going to the beach, surfing and looking in tide pools, hiking mountains and backpacking; I was very nature focused. I went to the University of California at Santa Cruz as an English major, but I had a teacher my freshman year who just knocked my socks off. This was a marine biologist. So I said, “To heck with English!” I spent three months at a marine lab north of San Francisco and worked at a lab in Florida during grad school. One day, my professor walked in, tapped me on the shoulder, and asked me to come to Antarctica with him. He’d gotten a grant and had room for one student. 

What was that first trip like?

It was amazing, exciting, thrilling. . . . We were like kids in a candy store when it came to the science that could be done there! But it was emotionally difficult because I was leaving a fiancée. I mean, we were in the middle of nowhere. You can’t fly in. You have to go by ship, 14 days at sea with 40-foot waves, seasick. . . . I thought, What am I doing with my life? Plus, there was no communication with my fiancée once I got there, other than Western Union telegrams—which cost $3 a word. I was a starving graduate student, so she only got about eight words. 

But the experience was life changing, I imagine?
Yes. I came back and said, “This is what I want to do with my career.” The stars were aligned because the same professor who’d gotten me into marine biology at UC Santa Cruz got in touch when I finished my doctorate and said, “You know, I just got a big grant in Antarctica; I think I can work you into it.” So for my post-doc, I went to McMurdo Station, which sits below New Zealand. That’s where I got interested in chemical ecology. 

Tell me more about your specialties.

I work in ocean acidification and temperature effects and warming, which is the climate change piece. But my bread and butter is a field known as marine chemical ecology. It’s neat. We study how marine invertebrates like sponges and corals—things that sit on the seafloor and might not have a shell or cannot run away from a predator—use nasty chemicals to defend themselves. Another component of my work is called drug discovery. How cool is it that when we find a chemical that is protecting an Antarctic sponge from getting eaten, it turns out that same chemical could prevent an MRSA infection? We’ve also found compounds that are active against melanoma skin cancer and the H1N1 flu virus. 

For someone interested in travel, science, and nature, yours sounds like a dream job. What are the downsides?

The hardest thing is being away from family. I’m still married to the same wife, but I have colleagues in Antarctica who are on their third wife or third husband! It was very difficult, for example, when I had to fly to McMurdo Station six days after my son was born. That was very emotional. It helps to limit your time away. I’ve worked at Palmer Station for the last 17 years, and I usually go down for two months at a time. Other researchers go for four or even six months. 

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What is life like at a station?

Palmer is a bit like summer camp. With 44 people, you know everybody. Unlike McMurdo Station, which has 1,000 people, Palmer is very egalitarian. The guy who sorts the recycling is on the same footing as a Harvard scientist. On Saturdays, everyone pulls a little slip of paper out of a hat and cleans something, so that Harvard scientist is down on the floor of the women’s bathroom, scrubbing. Everyone supports everyone else. 

What kind of person should not work in Antarctica?

There was one guy who went down there to be a plumber. He took one look at the station and got right back on the ship. You have to be comfortable living in an isolated situation. And you have to realize that if anything happens, it’s going to be a week or more before you can get out—even in an emergency. 

Why does it take a week?

They have to send a special ship and it takes four or five days to get across the passage from Chile to Palmer Station and four or five days to get back. In an extreme emergency, where our station M.D. cannot save your life but thinks maybe a hospital could, it’s possible to land a small plane on top of the glacier behind the station. It’s frowned upon though because it’s dangerous.

That has to be agonizing when you have a family emergency.

Can you imagine?! One of my friends down there lost his dad and there was nothing he could do. He called his family, but he couldn’t make the funeral. One of my toughest experiences was the time that my son, at the age of 17, drove off a road in Mountain Brook, Alabama, and ended up in intensive care. There was no way I could get home and help my wife through that period. Thankfully, she had some choir friends who took turns sitting in the hospital with him. I got home as soon as I could, and then boy did I get it! You know whose job it was to take my son to physical therapy every day for the next six months? [Laughs] You can guess!

After that happened, did you hesitate about going back the next season?

No, I really didn’t. My family understands what draws me to Antarctica. Also, the communication has been revolutionized. Where before we had Western Union telegrams, now I can hike up on the glacier three miles behind the station and talk to my wife on an IP phone like she’s sitting next to me.

Have you ever brought your family to Antarctica?

Yes! And it was wonderful. About 10 years ago, I was invited by [luxury travel company] Abercrombie & Kent to join a cruise in Antarctica as a climate change lecturer. I asked if I could bring my wife and two kids—then ages 10 and 12—and they said fine. That was really special. To be honest though, I had a little trepidation [about accepting a lecturing job on a tourist cruise]. As a scientist, I wasn’t sure I wanted all those tourists going to Antarctica. But after the first trip, I totally reversed my position on it. I realized that when people get to see Antarctica themselves, they become ambassadors for it. These are bright, educated, politically savvy world travelers who go home and talk to their senators and congresspeople. They support conservation efforts. They’re philanthropists. The cruise went so well, the vice president of A&K’s cruise operations asked me to lead a whole cruise themed around climate change, which I’ve been doing every year since. Each of the 200 guests on that cruise contributes $100—or $20,000 total—and I work with the scientists at Palmer Station to buy a piece of equipment they can use in their climate-related research. Guests get to meet the scientists and see where they work. It’s a real formative experience.

You’ve been going to Palmer Station for nearly two decades. How has it changed?

When I first got to Palmer, nobody told me I’d be sitting in the middle of one of the most rapidly changing environments on the planet. Seventeen years ago, when the glacier behind the station would calve once a week, it was a big deal. Everyone ran outside and watched the chunks of ice break off into the bay. I was down there two months ago and this was happening three or four times a day. You don’t even get up from your chair anymore. The glacier is going crazy. It’s just disintegrating. In the early ’70s, you could open the door to the station and almost step onto the glacier; these days, you have to hike half a mile just to reach the edge. Also: It’s raining now! It’s not supposed to rain in Antarctica. Polar environments are the sentinels, the canary in the coal mine with climate change. A small increase in temperature has a much bigger impact here than it does in Bangkok. This is the perfect place to be if you’re interested in studying the first effects of climate change. What happens here influences everything else on the planet. 

What are the changes that keep you up at night?

The one that bothers me the most is what I call the ghost rookery. Forty years ago, there were 15,000 breeding pairs of Adélie penguins on these little islands in front of Palmer Station. You’d look out the window and see crowded colonies. My colleague, Bill Fraser, is a penguin expert; he tagged these 15,000 Adélies when he was a grad student 45 years ago and has followed them ever since. Now, there are just 1,500 left—that means 90 percent have disappeared. They’re not moving to other rookeries; they’re simply dying out. Bill believes that as it’s warming, it’s also getting more humid. Increased humidity means it’s snowing more and later than it used to. So the Adélies will come and lay their eggs the same week every year, but these unseasonable snowstorms bury the colony in snow. When the snow melts, the penguins drown. We can lose an entire generation this way. On top of that, 40 percent of the sea ice along the peninsula has disappeared. The krill populations that live underneath the sea ice are becoming less abundant, and that hurts everyone—the penguins, the baleen whales, the seals. Communities have always changed, but they change on a scale of millennia, not a few decades. Some organisms—like the Adélies—are not going to be able to change that quickly, and that’s part of the reason we’re in a major extinction period right now. 

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How do you not get super-depressed watching the news, given what you see every day at work?

What’s kept me going is the fact that, ironically, since the [Trump] administration appeared and [the] Paris [Climate Accord] was pulled out from under us, I get more invitations to speak on climate change than ever before. There’s a lot of enthusiasm and energy and people asking ‘What can I do to help?’ I marched in the New York City science parade; now there are scientists running for office. So maybe there’s a silver lining.

You must run into blatant climate change deniers from time to time. Is your strategy to engage them or walk away?

When I give my climate change lectures to general audiences, I’m not dogmatic, I’m not political, and I don’t tell them to buy a Prius. I tell personal stories of my work to draw them in and then segue into global warming. In Tennessee, I met this guy who wanted me to talk on his redneck radio station about climate change. The D.J. warned me that some of the callers might not be very nice, and he was right! I got this one phone call and the guy was just irate, screaming that global warming was a conspiracy of scientists. Finally the D.J. said, “Look, Joe, calm down. Weren’t you just telling me that your tomatoes have been fruiting three weeks earlier this year? And it was two weeks earlier last year? And the birds on your feeder are changing?” By the end of the discussion, this caller was all about climate change. Point being: You can’t always be a pointy-headed scientist; sometimes you have to speak to people in a language they can understand. 

You’ve spent a lot of time diving beneath the ice in Antarctica. What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever discovered?

The coolest by far is the story that I published in Nature, the most prestigious science journal in the world. I was out on the ice at McMurdo, looking down the dive hole, when I noticed a shrimplike amphipod swimming along with an orange backpack on its back. I dipped it out with a net and took it up to the marine lab. We teased the little backpack off the shrimp and it opened up and flew away: It was a sea butterfly. Interestingly, if you took the sea butterfly off the back of a shrimp and you offered the shrimp to a fish, it would eat it. But if you left the butterfly on the shrimp’s back, the fish would taste the shrimp and spit it back out. The butterfly emitted certain chemicals that tasted terrible and the shrimp had figured out that by capturing another species and hooking it onto its back, it could carry around something that would protect it from getting eaten. This was very unusual: one species protecting another. The discovery made National Geographic, the front page of the Chicago Times, the Los Angeles Times. . .  . This was cool science! 

What advice do you have for people who want to land a job like yours?

Start networking. Get to know the people who have programs that do research in Antarctica and see if you can get yourself invited. Or get down to Antarctica by working for contractors that support the Antarctic program. There are more Ph.D.s cleaning restaurant tables at McMurdo than any place on the planet. The competition is tough, but if you’re persistent you can always find a way in.