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 storiesclimate changeand 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
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."