National Geographic : 1990 Jan
NATOIOAL GEOGR PHIIC AGAZE I I IPINC Antarctic Whales: Down in the Count P opulation figures for whales that feed in the Antarctic may be far lower than experts had thought, according to a study presented at the International Whaling Commission's 1989 meeting. One U. S. researcher calls the study's admittedly prelimi nary figures "alarmingly low." Two South African mathematicians based their estimates for populations of several species of whales on sightings made on IWC cruises over a six-year period. Those were incidental sight ings, made while scientists were trying to count minke whales below 60 de grees south latitude. The numbers for blue whales are the most startling: Sightings indicate that as few as 500 animals may feed in the region surveyed, just 0.2 percent of those thought to have existed before whaling began. The IWC has banned commercial whaling until after a re view to begin this year (GEOGRAPHIC, December 1988). The chief U. S. representative to the IWC, William E. Evans, cautions that data based on minke whale surveys may not accurately reflect the popula tion of other species. Still, he says, "we have to take the data seriously. We may have overestimated the recovery of fin, sei, blue, and sperm whales from commercial whaling." Steven L. Swartz, a marine mammal biologist, calls the estimates believable and says that some southern whale populations may be "so severely de pleted that they may never recover to their original size." Inuit Family Reunion, Thanks to Glasnost Soviet glasnost has opened the way for a family reunion on the roof of the world. A delegation of Eski mos from Siberia met last July for the first time with their Alaskan, Canadi an, and Greenlandic counterparts at the General Assembly of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC). The meeting in the Greenland town of Sisi miut realized a long-standing dream: bringing together the world's Inuit peoples (GEOGRAPHIC, February 1983). In 1987 Soviet leader Mikhail Gor bachev called for a comprehensive in ternational plan to protect the Arctic environment and to develop cultural links among the region's indigenous peoples. (The same policy shift led to a 1988 meeting between Alaskan and Siberian Eskimos, described in the October 1988 GEOGRAPHIC in "Air Bridge to Siberia," by Wilbur E. Gar rett and Steve Raymer.) Since 1977 the ICC has sought to be a unified voice for the 115,000 Inuit scattered over four nations along the Arctic's treeless shorelines. The ICC has consultative status in the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Only 1,600 to 2,000 Eskimos remain in the Soviet Union, where they are one of 26 northern ethnic groups. "A lot of their concerns are similar to ours," says ICC President Mary Si mon, from Kuujjuaq in northern Que bec. "They include the environment, living conditions in the Arctic, preserv ing one's culture." One of the key is sues, she says, remains protection of their homeland's fragile environment against careless exploitation. PETER TURNLEY(TOP) AND ANTHONYSUAU, BOTH BLACKSTAR Danger Still Stalks a Cameroon Lake ake Nyos, from which a cloud of car bon dioxide spewed in 1986, kill ing 1,700 villagers and 3,000 cattle (top) in the African nation of Cameroon (GEOGRAPHIC, September 1987), could produce a new disaster. American scientists who studied the lake found its bottom waters warming and its chemistry changing. George Kling of the Woods Hole Marine Bio logical Laboratory says that this indi cates Lake Nyos (above) is fed by a soda spring. Since other such springs in the area are high in carbon dioxide, that may be how carbon dioxide gets into the lake. The lake is markedly stratified, and the upper layer acts as a lid holding the gas-laden bottom water in place. But any force-an earth quake, a rockslide, strong winds- that roils the lake could have the effect of shaking a soda bottle, bringing the gas to the surface, where its release would again threaten life. Kling says there has been no major increase in the lake's carbon dioxide, but enough remains since the 1986 trag edy that the lake still is very dangerous. And there is another threat: A natural dam holding back the lake's top layer is eroding at an alarming rate. Not only would its collapse trigger the release of carbon dioxide, but, Kling says, there could be "a tremendous flood" endan gering villagers as far away as Nigeria, 65 miles distant.