Standing at the foot of Sharp Peak, a 4,000-foot-tall snow-covered granite peak rising straight up from the sea, beneath a 360-degree indigo sky, today just might be the most beautiful I have ever seen in Antarctica. Though even as I write that, I knowingly admit it’s impossible to compare days, especially here, since I’ve witnessed so many beautiful ones here over the past twenty years.
But this one was a beauty with a Capital B. Sitting off Prospect Point I am surrounded by THE most spectacular wilderness on the planet. Running about in a Zodiac on a glass-calm black sea, snowcapped mountain ranges circle me marked every few miles by substantial towering glacier tongues. Thick new snow is piled up on the hills and six-foot-thick fast ice (frozen sea) extends from the continent. Dozens of penguins and seals swim and fish, then slide up onto the ice for a rest. Flat-topped tabular icebergs bigger than small apartment buildings – crystal blue and surreal white – sit grounded in the bay or frozen into the fast ice. The sun is high and air temperatures reach to nearly forty … (earlier in the day I heard it was -10 F in Minneapolis!). Aaaaah, Antarctica!
Last year we tried climbing Sharp Peak, but were forced to quit before we started due to too-soft snow and crevasses masked by flat, grey skies. On that day the bay was chock full of floating ice of all sizes; this year most of the winter ice has already been blown out. Though we wouldn’t have had much luck climbing it peak today either, due not to slushy snow, just way too much of it.
It is particularly hard on a day like this, surrounded by ice that is hundreds of years old and mountains covered by new-fallen snow, that one day much of this whiteness lining the Antarctic Peninsula could be gone. Though the air temperatures along the Peninsula have risen during the past fifty years by nine degrees Fahrenheit, the biggest increase on the planet, it is still easy for critics of climate change and its impacts to use this exact vista to suggest that no amount of warming, no matter who or what is responsible, will ever make a difference to this place.
But despite appearances, evidence is all around: All along the Peninsula average temperatures of air and surface water are way up. Eighty-seven percent of all of the continent’s glaciers are flowing faster then ever and have receded. Each year the frozen continent is losing enough ice mass to cause the world’s oceans to rise about .05 inches, adding about 40 trillion gallons of fresh water to the world’s ocean, equivalent to the amount of water used by all U.S. residents every three months. Estimates for sea level rise are on the order of eighteen to twenty feet over the next couple millennium, but we’re not sure if it all may arrive in the same one hundred years. Ice shelves the sizes of small states along the Peninsula are fracturing at alarming rates.
The best analogy I can make for what is happening down south will be familiar to anyone who lives in a cold weather, ice-and-snow climate. Serious scientists in Antarctica talk about a “critical point,” when the combination of warm temperatures, precipitation and loss of ice cover will encourage Antarctica to melt very, very quickly. Think of your own backyard on a warm day at the end of a long winter; your yard, your stoop has been covered in snow and ice for several months and then on early spring day, after a momentous day of rain and warm temperatures, the last remnants of winter disappear … just like that.
The very same could happen here, which is the worry. Though I will admit to understanding why, on a day like today surrounded on all sides by miles and miles of ice and snow, there are still some out there who doubt the globe is warming precipitously. I am not one of them.
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