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AUGUST-SEPTEMBER 2013.  FRANZ JOSEF LAND, RUSSIAN ARCTIC

 

     (This post was written for the National Geographic website and can be found here.  At the same site, you can also read other posts from the 2013 Pristine Seas Expedition to Franz Josef Land.)

 

            Five weeks is a long time to spend on a boat, even if it happens to be a vessel as comfortable as the Polaris, amid company as fascinating, various, congenial, and purposeful as the members of the 2013 Pristine Seas Expedition to Franz Josef Land.  Don’t remind me, please, that Charles Darwin was out for four years, nine months, and five days with the Beagle voyage, and that he slept on a hammock in a shared cabin so tiny he had to pull out a bureau drawer each night to make room for his feet.  Don’t tell me about the intrepid survivors of the whaling ship Essex, or the Bounty mutineers making their way to Tahiti, or that guy who soloed around the world in the Gypsy Moth.  Don’t tell me about Shackleton and the Endurance because, inspirational as it may be, that’s a South Pole story, half a world away from us up here in the far North.  Just trust me: Thirty-five days gets to be a longish time, bobbing around on the Arctic Ocean, especially after the wireless internet goes down, the freshwater rationing begins, and the vodka runs out.

 

The survey ship Polaris on the 2013 Pristine Seas Expedition to Franz Josef Land.

 

           So we have devised some ways of coping.  We drink a lot of coffee and tea.  We share an endless supply of stories from previous adventures.  We edit photographs, by the hour, on our computers and phones.  We pose head-breaking riddles to the group, like that one about walking south a mile, east a mile, then north a mile and ending up exactly where you started.  (It works from the North Pole, yes, but where else?)  We take picnic lunches ashore, in the form of salami and cheese and brown bread, of which there seems to be no shortage, and eat them cheerily amid the rocks and the ice during pauses from the day’s walking and work.  When unable to go ashore, in desperation for exercise, we resort to the “Fittnes Center,” a cabin thus labeled on the lowest deck, containing one treadmill machine and a set of barbells.  We have a meeting each morning to discuss what we’re going to do and another each evening to recap what we’ve done.

After the evening confab, we take turns giving programs: Forest Rohwer on viruses, Alan Friedlander on fishes, Sergey Grebelny on benthic invertebrates, Andy Mann playing guitar, Maria Gavrilo on the history of meteorological research in Franz Josef Land, Cory Richards showing a selection of his stunning photos and making everyone laugh with his goofy self-deprecating humor.  We are a floating Chautauqua.

            On the nights without live programs, we watch movies and cable shows, sometimes together, more often on laptops in the privacy of our cabins.  (Personal disclosure: I’m carrying Season 1 of “Justified” and also early episodes of “The Sopranos,” which I’d never seen.)  But the movie-watching together, in the ship’s lounge, is more festive.  One night we screen “The Life Aquatic, with Steve Zissou” and feel that its evocation of idiotic shipboard camaraderie speaks very specially to us.  In place of the orange hats and blue shirts of Team Zissou, we have blue hats and orange jackets, part of complete kits of Arctic clothing supplied to us generously by Patagonia.  In lieu of Steve Zissou we have Enric Sala, a dapper Spaniard with a pony tail and a deep commitment to marine conservation, as our expedition leader.  Enric is a visionary young marine ecologist, founder of Pristine Seas and an Explorer in Residence of the National Geographic Society.  On this voyage he plays many important leadership roles, such as deciding (in consultation with the captain and with Maria Gavrilo, scientific co-leader) on the route of the ship, drawing pictures of our position on the whiteboard, breaking the news as we run short of water, and remonstrating when the American and Spanish expedition members drink up an undue portion of the evening beer, leaving an insufficiency for the Russians.  Enric bears little resemblance to Bill Murray, but by stretching our imaginations while watching “The Life Aquatic,” we can begin to see him in that role.

 

Cory Richards and Paul Rose enjoy tea-time ashore.

 

            And of course, being serious people, we read.  Reading helps the hours and days on ship to fly by.  Charles Darwin, aboard the Beagle, had volume 2 of Lyell’s Principles of Geology, a revolutionary new work (in 1834) that catalyzed his early thinking about evolution.  We enjoy the postmodern luxury of carrying many more options than Mr. Darwin did, thanks to our various electronic devices, and though we don’t put our reading time to such profoundly good use as he, still the flipping of electronic pages eases our journey.  On my own Kindle, for instance, I’ve been reading Cullen Murphy’s excellent book on the Inquisition, God’s Jury, and Tom Hornbein’s classic account of his Everest climb in 1963, The West Ridge, and H. L. Mencken’s lively selection of his own work, A Mencken Chrestomathy, as well as David McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman.  As backup on the Kindle I have Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, all six volumes, as well as War and Peace and Emma for rereading, in case our ship becomes trapped in the Arctic pack ice and we’re forced to ride it out through the winter, as Fridtjof Nansen did.  But I’m hoping that won’t become necessary.

            Beyond our own personal libraries, electronic or otherwise, there’s a ship’s library downstairs, assembled for this voyage, mainly by Enric, with a rich selection of practical and historical works: The Norwegian North Pole Expedition 1893-1896: Scientific Results, in six volumes, edited by Nansen; New Lands within the Arctic, an account by Julius Payer, co-leader of the Austro-Hungarian expedition of 1872-1874 that discovered Franz Josef Land and named it for the Hapsburg emperor; A Thousand Days in the Arctic, by Frederick G. Jackson, another of the earlier Arctic pioneers; Polar Microbiology, a tome supplied for our diversion by Forest Rohwer; A Complete Guide to Arctic Wildlife, by Richard Sale; and quite a few other guidebooks, monographs, and expeditionary sagas in both English and Russian.  I’ve had a dip into the Payer book myself and found some interesting bits about how this place appeared in 1874.  It was even colder and icier then—although, notwithstanding the presumptive impacts of climate change, which we see in the form of retreating glaciers, and which we discuss and ponder continually, it’s pretty cold and icy now too.

Whether it’s still cold and icy enough to keep the entire ecosystem from turning upside down, like the iceberg that cracked suddenly a few days ago and nearly clobbered several of our divers, including Forest: That’s the question.

 

Mike Fay, a long way from Central African forests.

 

          I wouldn’t want to give the impression that our only use of energy and wit on this journey is finding ways to kill time.  On the contrary, most of our hours and days are industriously spent.  Making dive after dive in the freezing water, Alan Friedlander has identified 10 species of shallow-zone Arctic fishes and begun pondering the reasons why diversity here seems to be low.  Kike Ballesteros, likewise spending his days in a dry suit, with numbed fingers and reddened cheeks, has made a thorough inventory of the marine algae, something never before done.  Maria and her team have censused and banded kittiwakes, guillemots, skuas, little auks, eider ducks, and glaucous gulls.  Forest and his graduate student, Steve Quistad, have captured billions of viruses, from a variety of hospitable media such as beach slime and bird shit, and will learn interesting things from their DNA.  Mike Fay has collected thirty-some species of flowering plants, using both classic methods (pressing specimens in newspaper) and new ones (GPS-referenced photographs).  And even this list does not exhaust the science that’s being done.

The 2013 Pristine Seas Expedition will take the measure of Franz Josef Land—at this moment in time, for purposes of comparison against the past and the future—in ways and to a degree such as it has never before been measured.  Cory Richards and I, for our part, will do our best to give some sense of this heroic effort to readers of National Geographic Magazine.  Others are working to perform a parallel function with video and sound.

            As for the leftover hours, once our shore hikes and our dives are completed, or if especially bad weather prevents us from diving, or hungry polar bears on the prowl make it inadvisable to go ashore, or as the days and the weeks seem lengthened inordinately by the fact that the sun never sets—we have our ways of coping, as I said.  When all else fails, we write blogs.

 

 

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  • LITTLE THINGS

    August 16, 2022

          Here's an interesting fact that you might want to swirl around in your head, along with a sip of the morning coffee: Scientists have now assembled and archived more than 12 million genome sequences of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

    Novel Coronavirus SARS CoV 2 50047466323
          Each of those sequences is derived from a sample of saliva or other material drawn from an individual patient. Each consists of almost thirty thousand genomic letters in the alphabet of DNA (as translated, for stability during lab work, from the less stable alphabet of the virus’s RNA genome). Together they constitute data points reflecting the evolutionary history of SARS-CoV-2, from its earliest form as detected in Wuhan to its latest variants. Scientists have assembled those data points into a family tree, depicting the divergence and evolution of viral lineages as branches and limbs and twigs. (Actually, there are multiple versions of the tree, differing slightly from one another based on differences in the subset of data used and in the interpretation of ambiguities.) From the details of that family tree and its ongoing growth, disease experts and public health officials draw insights helpful to understanding and containing the spread of the virus. That field of science is called genomic epidemiology.

          Last week I published an Op Ed in The New York Times on this subject:
     https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/10/opinion/
    coronavirus-evolution-vaccines.html

          The Op Ed took about eight days of work, writing and revising, then editing and correcting, with help from a fine editor and a crackerjack fact-checker at the Times. It drew also on my two years of effort toward a new book, Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus, which will be published by Simon & Schuster on October 4. (See the main post, left of this column.) And that book itself drew on—in addition to 95 interviews with scientists and other experts around the world, during early 2021—my twenty years of intermittently following and writing about the subject of emerging viruses.

          I never foresaw, back in the days when I was a young man writing fiction, or during the decades I worked as a journalist and author focused on ecology, evolutionary biology, and conservation, that I would spend so much of my elder years as an explainer of viruses. But it didn’t seem illogical, once I realized that a) all science writing needs to be storytelling, and b) the stories of emerging viruses are all tales of ecology and evolutionary biology.

          Darwin would have understood. But Darwin never had the gruesome satisfaction of pondering viral evolution, its strange turns and its awesome speed, because viruses weren’t known to exist in his era. Too small to see, too weird to imagine. Edward O. Wilson (who died last Christmas and is much missed) did understand, even though he didn’t study viruses himself. Ed recognized that viruses account for a vast portion of what he cared about most, the biological diversity of planet Earth. And he wrote an influential essay titled “The Little Things that Run the World.” He never mistook size for importance.

          Anyway, that’s what I did with my summer “vacation”: literary virology. So as not to sound like a drudge, I’ll add that there has also been time for a vast amount of dog-walking, a bit of cycling, a bit of gardening, and hours of diverse reading (including biographies of Khrushchev, Buster Keaton, and James Angleton) in the backyard. Plus, a continuing gambol across the green and unforgiving fields of golf. I hope your summer has been verdant and rich also.

         Did I say golf? Oh, yeah, sorry. It’s one of the things you do when you’re 74 years old and on your second pair of knees. Golf is healthy because it’s forever humbling, I’ve found, and you walk a lot. It’s interesting because it’s so hard. I suppose that’s the only thing it has in common with molecular evolutionary virology.

     

     

     

  • SPRINGTIME IN THE ROCKIES

    Douglas, Wyoming

    April 23, 2022

         It seemed like a good idea at the time: I would drive to Cincinnati, for an unmissable event at my old high school, making it a leisurely road trip, taking along a bag of golf clubs, stopping to golf with my friend Whisperin' Jack (the famous medical researcher and bon vivant) in Aurora, Coloeado, then across Kansas etc. to Cincinnati, and see more of my oldest pals while I'm in town. Lunches at Skyline Chili. Departing on April 22. Should I take a warm coat? Aw, sure, just in case.

         And then the vagaries of Western springtime asserted themselves. Now I'm holed up at a Holiday Inn Express in Douglas, Wyoming, which was as far as I could get in the blzzard, after spending last night in Casper. Insterstate 25 became impassable. Semis in the ditch. Low visibility, temperates at 32-33 F., horizontal snow, gusts of the force and sweep that are familiar to people who know Wyoming. Still, I've never seen quite such a hilariously (but dangerously, for travelers) nasty April morning. Who knew it was even possible: wind-driven slush.

         So I won't make it to Aurora tonight, and I won't play golf tomorrow with Whisperin' Jack. Maybe I'll be there in time for dinner. But I'm not restless or frustrated, I'm lucky: warm and dry, in this very decent motel room, and I've got plenty to do: I'm still reading and correcting the page proofs of this new book on the coronavirus and the pandemic. Finally, we have a settled title. It will appear in October, from Simon & Schuster, as BREATHLESS: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus. My account, informed by extended Zoom interviews with 95 experts, including some of the world's most brilliant and respected evolutionary virologists, of the origins, evolution, and fierce journey of the virus technically known as SARS-CoV-2. Reviewing the page proofs with great care, tweaking a word here and a phrase there, trying hard to make it both accurate and graceful: this is what we do when we make a book. Breathless will be my 17th, and I very much hope that you give it a look and find it interesting. There are many, many angles and facts and personalities and considerations to this story that haven't yet been put together in one place.

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EBOLA: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus

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SPILLOVER: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic

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THE CHIMP AND THE RIVER: How AIDS Emerged from an African Forest