Bowermaster’s Adventures: The winds of change in Antarctica

We spent the morning watching and following big groups of swimming/feeding penguins on the backside of Pleneau Island, about halfway down the Antarctic Peninsula.

It was one of the most prolific wildlife scenes I’ve ever witnessed here. The skies were dark, hinting snow, but the incredible beauty of the scene kept us out on deck all morning. Literally thousands of Gentoos swimming and porpoising surfaced in one big pack after another. In single file they would surface, jump one at a time onto a tiny piece of ice, which quickly disintegrated under their accumulated weight. Others seemed savvier, popping up onto bigger icebergs, which they scampered up and over, again in single file, before diving one at a time off the opposite side.

As well as gathering krill and small fish for their by-now two-month old chicks, I’m convinced whenever I see penguin action like this they’re also out horsing around, having some fun. It’s summertime, after all. In another month or two this scene will be dramatically different, frozen and iced-in, and all of Antarctica’s wildlife will be pushed to the ice edge.

It’s an interesting year to talk about ice along the Peninsula. Every year the sea around Antarctica freezes solid, essentially doubling the size of the continent. And every year with spring and summer most of that frozen sea either melts or breaks into smaller pieces and is blown away, offshore.

This year is different. Though summer is two-thirds over still-thick sea ice borders the coastline and encases many of its just offshore islands. It’s more ice than any of us who’ve been visiting the Peninsula for the past couple decades have seen in fifteen years or so.

After watching the penguins hunt for a couple hours we sailed south, to Petermann Island, a traditional summer stop, home to nesting Adelie, Gentoo and blue-eyed Cormorants. For several years the Washington, D.C.-based environmental group Oceanites had put up tents here, allowing its volunteers to come and live for an entire season, documenting wildlife. On an average day all season long one or two tourist ships would land passengers on Petermann for a walk around.

No one has visited the island this year. We attempted to chug through the two miles of thick, slushy ice separating the island from a clear channel. Several times our boat’s engine overheated due to the thick slush being sucked into the intake, requiring us to turn off the engine and plunge it out to prevent it from stopping for good.

%Gallery-147996%Through binoculars we could make out the fuel storage tank at the Ukrainian science base of Vernadsky in the Argentine Islands. We’ve stopped there many times in the past, to anchor in the calm creek that sits behind it and to share a meal and home-brewed vodka with the 14 scientists based there for 12 straight months. This year, thanks to all the ice, no one has been able to reach the base. The Ukrainians have been iced-in for nearly one year. We raise the base commander on the VHF and he assures us all is good; they had recently celebrated the Ukrainian New Year with a big dinner … but admitted they were anxiously hoping their 14 replacements would be able to reach the base in another month.

Sailing back to the north, heading towards a safe anchorage at Pt. Charcot, near where we’d watched the penguins — and leopard seals! — frolic earlier in the day the wind came up, the seas darkened and the ice that surrounded us began to move. It was pushing towards land, filling in any open gap in the sea.

As Skip Novak piloted the boat in, around and through the ice I sensed worry. If we were to anchor at Pt. Chacot and the wind kept blowing out of the west as it was predicted, it was very likely we’d be stuck, unable to move or get off the boat, for many days.

Standing outside in the blow we talked — actually shouted over the wind — about our options. It was actually a very short conversation. “Let’s get north, away from this ice,” said Skip. I agreed.

Now stories of too much ice along the Antarctic Peninsula may run contrary to those you’ve heard — many from me! — about how much the temperatures in this part of the continent are warming and ice melting.

That hasn’t changed: Both air and water temperatures along the Peninsula have gone up on average 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit in the past forty years, the biggest such change on the planet. The issue this season is not lack of warmth, but lack of wind.

During our adventure this year I’ve had two fascinating conversations with longtime Peninsula veterans about the changes they’ve seen. Each agreed the warming is creating big differences, though each focused on different impacts.

Bill Fraser, one of Antarctica’s premiere penguin scientists, has been visiting the American Palmer Station since the mid-1970s and is convinced the warming temps are changing wildlife patterns. He blames the changes specifically on the lack of sea ice due to warming air and sea temps.

Leif Skog is captain of the “National Geographic Explorer,” operated by Lindblad Expeditions, which has been bringing tourists to Antarctica since the mid-1960s. Skog has been coming here for nearly 40 years. We spoke on the bridge of his ship at Pt. Lockroy, the former British refuge hut known as ‘Camp A.’

For him, the biggest change has been the weather, specifically the wind. Or lack of it. “We used to get katabatic winds roaring down off the glaciers every three days or so. Gusts of over 100 miles per hour. We prepared for them, worried about them constantly. Now … we never see winds like that.” Changing weather patterns influenced by warming temperatures — and the lack of sea ice — makes perfect sense for what we’ve witnessed this season.

As we sailed the Pelagic Australisto safety, slowly pushing through the still-thick, slushy ice towards the backside of the beautiful Lemaire Channel, standing outside in blowing snow and cold Skip and I talked about just what an incredible part of the world Antarctica is. We sail past a sizable iceberg we had lingered near this morning, under far different conditions. Reminding us that every day — every hour — is different in Antarctica. Make that every 15 minutes.