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Sierra Magazine
Inside Sierra: Politics and Penguins

By Editor-in-chief Joan Hamilton

The political reporter was out of his element. His new beat was populated with congregations of penguins, which seemed to regard him as an odd-shaped cousin. Huge, smelly elephant seals ignored him, while gull-like skuas used him for dive-bombing practice. It was warmer than he'd expected-0 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit-but at times gale-force winds and snowstorms engulfed him. There was even a "Melville moment" when his little rubber boat accidentally bumped into a peaceable minke whale.

David Helvarg went to Antarctica for a firsthand look at one of the planet's biggest stories—climate change—and was soon immersed in a rugged scientific adventure. On a six-week trip organized by the National Science Foundation, he joined the 35-person research team at Palmer Station, an able mix of scientists and adventurers, including parachutists, rafters, and climbers. Even as the team celebrated the warmest days by drinking iceberg cocktails and donning Hawaiian shirts, a serious question loomed: Can life in the Antarctic adapt to the changes humans have imposed?

Helvarg admired the community the team members had built. "Palmer Station had all the best aspects of a war zone," he says. "There was a camaraderie, a commitment. There were even survival rituals." Instead of flak jackets, they wore "float coats" to go out among the sea creatures, storms, and glaciers.

War is more than a metaphor for Helvarg. He has covered conflicts in Northern Ireland, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador for the Associated Press and Pacific News Service. In 1984, when he returned to the United States after five years in Central America, he earned a private investigator's license. Armed with the research skills required for legal investigations, he looked around and decided that the biggest, most underreported story was the state of the environment. "It is so encompassing," he says. "It takes in politics, culture, and social equity." Environmental problems are poorly understood, yet "they have more serious consequences than a lot of the conflicts and wars going on in the world."

Helvarg has been on the environmental beat ever since, producing TV documentaries and radio commentaries, as well as articles for Sierra, Smithsonian, Mother Jones, Wired, and The Nation. His first book, The War Against the Greens (Sierra Club Books, 1994), looked at extremist attacks on environmentalists. Lately he's turned to oceans, and is writing Blue Frontier, a book on saltwater politics and adventure for publisher W. H. Freeman.

"The environment will be the major conflict of the twenty-first century," Helvarg says. "I'm getting accurate information to people so they can take action."


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