Book Review: Lost Antarctica by James McClintock

As James McClintock points out in his enlightening book, Antarctica is often referred to as “the poster child” for global warming, a bellwether of climate change, the place where we see the most drastic results of a warming planet. McClintock’s Lost Antarctica: Adventures in a Disappearing Land offers a firsthand view of the challenges facing this magnificent continent and its creatures.

McClintock, a polar and marine biology expert who teaches at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and has been traveling to Antarctica for decades, writes in a straightforward, accessible way about his research in one of the most remote regions on earth. As a researcher who has been returning to Antarctica for so many years, he offers not only hard data on the changes happening on the continent but his own firsthand observations. He writes, for example, of one scientist’s recording of the loss of 12,000 to 15,000 breeding pairs of Adélie penguins over the past thirty-five years (an 80 percent loss), while observing on one of his visits how an early snowfall affected a nesting Adélie: “Dawn revealed a haunting scene on this miniscule island: the penguin still nested, although the was completely buried in the snow, with only a small opening in which to breathe. Sadly, her two unborn chicks would eventually, inevitably, drown in the meltwater of this unseasonable snowstorm, a storm fueled by an increasingly moist and warming climate.”

While Antarctica is known to most as the land of penguins, its ecosystem is vast and diverse, and the penguins are not the only creatures vulnerable to climate change. Lost Antarctica covers other and equally important aspects of the continent’s health, from the ice shelves to sea butterflies to krill, and McClintock points out not only how climate change is threatening the livelihood of certain species but how it’s making room for other species to disrupt Antarctic life, such as king crabs, which can now survive in the Antarctic’s warmer temperatures.

Also interesting are some of the details about research and traveling in Antarctica over the decades—from the days when McClintock had to communicate with family via $4/word telegrams to the white-knuckle adventures of ice-diving to the never-predictable voyage through the Drake Passage. Such personal details of McClintock’s travel and research will be fascinating to readers who are curious about what day-to-day life in Antarctica is like.

Building on each chapter, McClintock brings his travels and research together to show how climate change is slowly but surely taking its toll on this amazing region of the world. “By the end of the century the annual sea ice along the central and northern regions of the western Antarctic Peninsula will have vanished. Adélie penguins would have vanished with it; krill will have been replaced by salps; seafloor organisms will be threatened by rising temperatures, ocean acidification, and invading king crabs; the defensive chemicals that kill pathogens and warn off predators will be lost.” Lost Antarctica is not only a love letter to a magnificent place but a cautionary tale as well.

As Sylvia Earle points out in the book’s foreword, “Earth is not too big to fail.” McClintock’s book shows us why we need to pay attention—and why it needs to be right now. He asks: “What sort of a world, I wonder, will future generations of Antarctic scientists find when they come to this remarkable place? And when they gaze over this landscape, will they be reminded how this place, this peninsula, these ecosystems, served as a wake-up call to jump-start the technological, societal, and political paths to a sustainable planet?”

Visit McClintock’s website at to learn more and to see his stunning photographs of Antarctica.

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