Hello … from … Antarctica! More specifically, it’s Peninsula, which juts like a 600-mile-long finger from the seventh continent, stretching towards the southern tip of the Americas. Surrounded on either side by frozen sea ice and open ocean, this is the most dynamic, the most changing region of Antarctica and a place I have been coming to for nearly twenty years. My first experience? With dog sleds, in 1989, the last of the great sledding expeditions to explore the continent. More recently, last year I brought a small team and sea kayaks and we traveled from the tip of the Peninsula to 120 miles south of the Antarctic Circle.
What keeps me coming back are a variety of things, but particularly that the place is changing so fast. While Antarctica seems remote, an icy, impenetrable fortress – and admittedly, much of the continent, especially its high, dry, cold interior lives up to that reputation – the Peninsula is where many of the impacts of global climate change are most evidenced. Average temperatures here have climbed more than anywhere else on the planet during the past fifty years.
Ironically, the Peninsula is simultaneously witnessing another boom: Tourism! It’s hard to fathom until you’re down here and see, on occasion, several big tourists boats in one day, but Antarctica has become one of the hottest tourist destinations on the planet. Each year sets new records for visitors; last season, more than 46,000. The upside is that such visits create new ambassadors for one of the few places on the planet successfully governed by international treaty.
The downside is something we witnessed just last month, when a tourist boat, the “M/V Ushuaia,” ran aground about fifty miles from where I write. While all the passengers and crew were safely transported by Chilean Naval ship to nearby King George Island, then flown back to South America, the ship was still on the rocks for days. With a hole in it, which has leaked fuel oil into what are otherwise pristine waters. The concern was that even if the ship is pulled off the rocks, given the damage, it may not have been able to navigate or even be towed back to Argentina. Luckily, the ship made it back safely.
I also come for the sheer beauty of the place. Nowhere on the planet can match Antarctica for grandeur. It’s like Alaska piled on top of another Alaska piled on top of another Alaska and then dropped at the edge of the Himalaya. This morning I hiked 1,500 feet up a hill on Cuverville Island. Out of the wind, it was warm, just about the freezing mark. Gusting winds dropped the temps to 17, 18 degrees. The higher I got, the more the expanse grew. In the bay below a dozen icebergs bigger than small apartment buildings – blue and white, shining under a bright blue sky – were stuck in the shallows. Across a narrow channel, tongues of ancient glaciers fall to the sea. Along the way I passed a half-dozen colonies of Gentoo penguins nesting; they will have chicks to take care of within a matter of days. It was a brilliantly clear day and as far as I could see – a dozen miles — everything was deep blue and bright white, marred by the occasional exposed rocky cliff.
I like to think of Antarctica as the beating heart of Planet Earth and this morning, despite any and all concerns, it seemed to be very, very healthy.
I’m here for two months and will be reporting in every week or so, so please stay tuned.
Click HERE for more dispatches from Antarctica!