This small cove at the end of a long, glacier-packed bay off the Gerlache Strait is one my favorite corners along the Peninsula. It is surrounded by tall peaks – including, on a brilliant day like today, the tallest along the Peninsula, 9,200-foot-tall Mt. Francais – and long glacier tongues leading to the sea. Standing onshore of continental Antarctica, rather than one of the thousands of frozen islands that dot the sea along the Peninsula, I study the far wall as small but powerful avalanches launch from up high. Just a few slivers of hard, dark granite peek out, reminding me there is land – a continent! – beneath all of this white.
The bay is lined by a two-mile-long glacier which, if it broke off a big chunk, would send eight foot waves surging across the beach where I stand; if that happened, I’d have to run fast uphill to where the penguins, wisely, make their nests. Across a narrow bay is a wall of glaciers, behind me is soft hills covered by deep snow. In the far distance in three directions are long lines of tall mountains covered by snow and ice, some of it tens of thousands of years old. (At Vostok, a Russian base on the eastern side of Antarctica, scientists have measured the ice to be 14,000 feet thick, nearly three miles.)
The snow is very deep this year, which often confuses people when I talk about how temperatures along the Antarctic Peninsula are warming. How can there be more snow if it’s getting hotter? Truth is, the fact there is more snow is a direct result of the warming temperatures: Less sea ice means more open water. More open water means more evaporation. More evaporation means more snow.
The deep snow is relevant when you’re camping, as I’ve done for many days in Antarctica (though this year I’m traveling by ship, the National Geographic Explorer, as a guide and lecturer). Tent life is not bad along the Peninsula, except when the temperatures hover in the mid-30s … which means that it is often wet and humid. It’s preferable when it’s cold and dry.
I’ve been to Antarctica many times over the past twenty years. Sometimes it is possible to get inured, occasionally blasé, about the incredible beauty that surrounds. I try to remind myself as often as possible to take a half hour each day and just sit and revel in the grandeur of the place. Words don’t suffice in detailing Antarctica’s physical beauty. The most powerful memories I collect here are not even visual, but aural.
You often hear Antarctica before you see it. For example, the splash of feeding penguins porpoising out of the sea, sometimes in pairs, sometimes by the hundreds. The blow of a humpback whale long before you catch sight of its arching back. The thunder crack of powerful movement from deep inside a glacier; there’s nothing to see on the surface, no visual change, just the loud report of the giant ice’s continual evolution. Today, most powerfully, I listened the ice moving fast through the channel in front of me: Brash ice, glacial chunks, sizable icebergs, groaning and cracking as they headed out of the channel towards faster-moving waters. I watched a playful crabeater seal play along the light-blue edge of a floating iceberg. They are one of the more curious and playful of Antarctica’s seals and, though we don’t see them everyday here, the most numerous big animal on the planet after man, some 30 million.
On a tall cliff across the bay I can make out streaks of blue-green malakite, a rich mineral vein, a reminder of just how much mineral wealth lies beneath all this ice. Like the deepening snows, this is something most people don’t think about when they ponder Antarctica: As its ice continues to lessen, one of the biggest changes in Antarctica will be nations fighting over who owns what. Copper, diamonds, oil … all will become new Antarctic commodities if warming trends continue.
It is hard to imagine this place without ice and snow, but of course it has been. Roughly 125 million years ago what we know as South America and Africa began to separate; then, the Antarctic Peninsula where I stand was still connected to South America. From 38 to 29 million years ago the Antarctic continent moved south. During that Cretaceous period, circa 144 to 65 million years ago, the continent was covered by forest, including tree ferns, cycads, palms, conifers and deciduous trees, and was home to freshwater fish, dinosaurs, reptiles and the predecessors of the penguins we see here now, though they were somewhat different. In that they were the size of an average man and weighed 300 pounds.
The continent has frozen and thawed since, but has been completely covered by ice and snow since the last Ice Age, about 11,000 years ago. Today, even at the height of summer, only two percent of Antarctica is ice-free; the continent contains 75 percent of the fresh water on earth.
It is clear the Peninsula is evolving, changing … warming. Analysis suggests the rapidity of warming in the northern Peninsula is unmatched over the last 2,000 years. Temperatures along the Peninsula during summer have climbed on average five degrees in the past 50 years; its average winter temperatures have risen by ten degrees, twice as fast as anywhere on Earth in the past century.
If even a small part of the ice Cap were to melt, world sea levels would rise from several feet to several yards, inundating most coasts. If the whole Ice cap were to melt, as it has in past ages, sea levels around the world would rise an estimated 260 feet, destroying a number of low-lying countries. Since sea levels have risen only 8.6 inches in the past century, the three-foot rise projected by the year 2080 is serious. Many millions will become refugees, depopulating the long U.s. coasts up to 50 miles inland, including all of southern Florida and the Mississippi Delta, also much of Bangladesh, the Philippines, Southeast Asia, the coasts of Africa and innumerable Pacific atolls.
Antarctica without snow and ice? Seems impossible, right?
Click HERE for more dispatches from Antarctica!
Click HERE for more dispatches from Antarctica!