I’m beginning to feel like something of a jinx. I go to the Antarctic Peninsula every austral summer and invariably while I’m there ships run aground, or sink. I slink into the U.K. for an anticipated 48 hours and an erupting volcano shuts down 8 million travelers. And the very week that we are putting the finishing touches on a new film, two years in production, about the complex relationship between man and the sea in southern Louisiana … catastrophe strikes the Gulf of Mexico, impacting many of the fishermen, conservationists and activists featured in it. (Not to mention my several Chilean friends who are still leading efforts to clean up their coastline and get people back in homes before winter arrives down south.)
Just how bad are these recent seeming-catastrophes?
Even as Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano belches anew (yesterday its drifting ash shut down airspace over Ireland and Scotland, nothing like the damage done by cancellation of 100,000 flights while I was there) by comparison to past blasts it remains a small burp.
How small? In 1815, on the island of Sumbawa (in today’s Indonesia), a volcano named Tambora sputtered and coughed for nearly two weeks before blowing 24 cubic miles of lava into the sky, opening up a crater more than three miles wide and a mile deep. More than 120,000 people died, largely because everything around them – vegetation, marine life – was smothered by ash causing crop failures and epidemics.
Sixty-eight years later, Krakatoa spewed just 3.5 cubic miles of molten rock and ash; Vesuvius 1.4 cubic miles and Mt. St. Helens, in 1980, 0.3 cubic miles. Each of those was considered major; Iceland’s recent burp was just that. Yet it shut down all of Europe for six days, impacting the world’s economy to the tune of between $2 and $3 billion.
Similarly, as the Times reports this morning, the ongoing spillage in the Gulf of Mexico are – for the moment – far from record-setting. (Its list includes the 36 billion gallons of oil spilled by retreating Iraqis during their retreat from Kuwait in 1991 and the Ixtoc 1 blowout in the Bay of Campeche, Mexico, in 1979, which dumped 140 million gallons of crude oil before it was stopped. The Exxon Valdez’s 11 million gallons is the biggest spill since.) Of course we won’t know for some weeks/months to come just how much the Deepwater Horizon will leak into the ocean.
But as winds and currents for the moment are keeping much of the leaking oil from washing ashore in the Gulf States – though trade winds may very well carry the spillage around the southern tip of Florida and eventually up the Atlantic coastline – there is a kind of creeping “out of sight, out of mind” mentality in the mainstream press.
Not so dissimilar from the attitude towards offshore drilling itself, until a couple weeks ago. If you can’t see the rigs from shore, they must not be a problem. If the majority of the now-spilling oil doesn’t come ashore but stays out to sea, disaster has been averted. Unless of course you’re a dolphin, whale, mollusk, seabird or fishermen, whose lives and livelihoods depend on a clean, healthy ocean.
Two years ago on the Antarctic Peninsula we stopped off at a Chilean science base on a wet, muddy afternoon. We stopped purposely searching for an all-white penguin we’d heard about from scientists on King George Island. It took a couple hours, but we found it. Devoid of pigmentation, something like an albino, the penguin was rare though the soldiers stationed at the base for the summer months told us there were three of them scattered around the island. Now comes a report, by National Geographic reporter Andrew Evans, of an all-black penguin. He spotted and photographed the even more unusual King penguin at Fortuna Bay on the subantarctic island of South Georgia. When Nat Geo reached out to Toronto-based ornithologist Dr. Allan Baker for an explanation of the big bird, his professorial response was something along the lines of “Wow. That’s so bizarre I can’t even believe it. Wow.”
South Georgia All-Black
The all-white bird we spied at the Gonzalez-Videla base was leucistic, meaning without pigment. Where most penguins are black, it was all white. The bird photographed on South Georgia was apparently suffering from an overdose of melanin, turning its feathers all-black, extremely rare in penguins. (Thanks to a pair of friends – Naked Jim and Hollis B. – for the sighting!)
Antartic Peninsula All-White
In a report out yesterday the U.S. Geological Survey presents stats from a 62-year-long study that show that “every ice front in the southern part of the Antarctic Peninsula has been retreating from 1947 to 2009, with the most dramatic changes occurring since 1990.” While the hows and whys of global climate change can be argued ad infinitum, in my experience nowhere is the change more evident than along the Peninsula. The USGS report adds statistics to my empirical assessment.
I’m writing today from home in a very, very wet Hudson Valley; we’ve endured three straight days of falling snow and rain (temperature hovering at 31 degrees F), which means the outside world now resembles a slush swimming pool. I just came in from an investigative slosh and can report calf-deep mush. The relevance of this warm snowfall in New York State in a conversation about Antarctica? With both air and sea surface temperatures warming all along the 1,000-mile long Peninsula, on many austral summer days the ice along its edges resembles what’s just outside my door tonight: Wet. Slushy. Soft. And disappearing fast. Here in the Catskills the temperatures will get into the 40s in the next few days; flooding is already a major concern. Which is exactly what is happening along the Peninsula during these past two decades too: Warmer air and sea temperatures means less ice cover, thus more evaporation and more precipitation in the form of sleet and rain. And we all know what rain does to ice, makes it disappear very, very fast.
I’m fully expecting my basement to flood in the next few days, which will be a drag. I’m also fully expecting the ice along Antarctic’s Peninsula to disappear faster than most scientists believe, contributing to a minimum global sea level rise of twenty feet by the end of the century or before, which will be a major drag. Especially for the 200 million-plus people around the globe who currently live less than three feet above sea level.
In its press release the USGS explained that the area covered by its six-decade-long study contains five major ice shelves, the Wilkins, George VI, Bach, Stange and the southern portion of the Larsen Ice Shelf. “The ice lost since 1998 from the Wilkins Ice Shelf alone totals more than 4,000 square kilometers, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island,” reports the USGS.
But for me the most worrying part of its report is this: “Retreat along the southern part of the Peninsula is of particular interest because that area has the Peninsula’s coolest temperatures, demonstrating that global warming is affecting the entire length of the Peninsula.” Which means what in regard to the planet’s big picture? Everyone should do what I’m going to do later tonight in preparation for tomorrow, which is find the tallest pair of rubber boots I can.
Every place along the Antarctic Peninsula tends to be my favorite. Bailey Head. Neko Harbor. Paradise Bay. Cuverville. The Lemaire Channel. The Grand Didier Channel. Crystal Sound. The Fish Island Group. Marguerite Bay. And on and on and on.
Tabular Ice, Weddell Sea, Antarctica 2009
But in Antarctica places can tend to run together thanks to one commonality: Here it is truly all about just one thing, The Ice. Sure, we all know there’s rock and snow below (even petrified forests and most likely dinosaur bones). But for the moment still, I still come to the far south each austral summer for the ice.
I admit to having a favorite: The big, tabular icebergs that litter the Weddell Sea like giant white dominoes. Set free from their role as guardian of the coastline gives them an independence apparent in their grandness. Frozen sea built up over centuries of falling snow, these particular tabulars are broken off from, remnants of the Larsen Ice Shelf. They are drifting (very slowly) north through the Antarctic Sound, where they will eventually float (very slowly)from the Southern Ocean into the Atlantic where they will, in a decade or so?, melt.
Today they are significant for more than just their size. These were once the grand guardians of the glaciers lining the eastern side of the Peninsula. That they have broken off and drifted away means those glaciers are at risk of disappearing ever faster.
They are long (on average a mile, sometimes up to ten and twelve miles) and high (one hundred and fifty, two hundred feet) and barely on the move. At the moment most are grounded and lodged on the ocean floor, shearing it clean of all living things. Their role in Antarctica’s future is powerful. Free to roam, and to disappear with the assistance of wind, rain, and warming temperatures, they’ve given up their role as protectorate and taken on the role of floating idols, reflecting sky and sea in new patterns every single minute.
The sky is gray, the air filled with a brisk wind and salt spray. A perfect day just south of Cape Horn. We are halfway across the Drake Passage and what is frequently called the windiest-place-on-earth is amazingly – and thankfully – calm. The gray/black seas are lumpy, the peaks of the waves tinged by white, but hardly the six to twenty foot seas that are common out here. A couple dozen albatross and petrels soar just overhead. We are about a third of the way — two hundred miles — into the crossing from Ushuaia, Argentina to the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula and, fingers-crossed; it appears we have dodged a bullet weather-wise. I’ve crossed the Drake dozens of times, always with a fair amount of trepidation. While big seas often equal good adventure, and I have nothing against adventure, but they can also be more than a little intimidating. And living without intimidation is a new goal of mine!
By midday tomorrow we should be taking footsteps on an island off the tip of the Peninsula.
I’ve been to Antarctica a couple dozen times; this trip is momentous because my introduction to the seventh continent was exactly twenty years ago right now, as part of my friend Will Steger’s Transantarctic Expedition. TAE, the last expedition ever by dog on the continent, was a big one: An international team of six men and thirty-six sled dogs spent 221 days on the ice, traveling 3,741 miles across the continent, from the tip of the Peninsula to the South Pole, across the Area of Inaccessibility to the far eastern edge. Among the expeditions many firsts and lasts, the spot on the frozen sea ice where that it began, near small black peaks known as Seal Nunataks off the tip of the Peninsula, is today open ocean. The ice where a Twin Otter from King George Island dropped the team has broken up and drifted off towards South America. What was then frozen sea guarding and protecting Antarctica’s glaciers – part of the Larsen B ice shelf – largely disappeared in 2002.
When it comes to traveling along the Peninsula it’s all about the ice. Each season the ice here is different. As the air and sea temperatures have warmed along the Peninsula – on average by five to nine degrees Fahrenheit, the greatest increase on the planet — the ice freezes later, melts earlier. But as I say, each season is different and I’m very curious to see what it looks like this year. What I’ve been hearing from friends who’ve already been to the Peninsula this early austral summer, they report seeing more snow and less snow, colder air than usual and many blue-sky days.
We are about to cross the Antarctic Convergence, an invisible line on the map between South America and Antarctica that indicates you’ve crossed into true southern territory and air temperatures drop fast. Despite the cold I’m going to try and spend as many hours outside today as possible, basking under the gray skies and in the salt spray, both of which remind me – always – of closing in on Antarctica.
It’s that season again – the beginning of Antarctica’s tourist season – and already there’s report of a ship struggling to free itself from heavy ice. The Russian icebreaker “Captain Khlebnikov” has apparently been slowed – though the company that manages the ship is being careful to say it is not stuck nor aground – by typical heavy ice on the Weddell Sea side of the Antarctic Peninsula. According to company spokesperson the ship it is not in any danger; there are 100 passengers on board, most British.
According to the Associated Press the” Khlebnikov” will need to wait one or two days to resolve the situation. “The icebreaker’s crew is waiting for the weather to change and then the ship will resume its course. The passengers are in no need of assistance,” a spokesman told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti. A film crew from the BBC is also on board filming material for a documentary called Frozen Plane; the ship is reportedly continuing its helicopter tours while stymied.
The ship is currently moving slowly, searching ice-free water, near Snow Hill Island in the Weddell Sea, not far from where the Larsen B ice shelf famously collapsed in 2002. I was at Snow Hill twice last season, but not until about seven weeks later in the season when traditionally – but not always – more of the icebergs and pack ice have been blown out by big winds. Venturing into the Weddell Sea, even in an icebreaker, is always something of a crap shoot, no matter the time of year.
According to Argentine officials the “Khlebnikov” is trying to move slowly through the ice but the winds are too light to break up the ice pack, essentially suspending it in the ice and delaying its return to Ushuaia, Argentina, by three to six days.
“The icebreaker is trying to move and is waiting for more favorable winds,” said a ship’s spokesman. “After the winds get stronger, the ice grip will weaken … and it will break free.” Fingers crossed!
The cruise was advertised as a unique opportunity to watch Emperor Penguins in their natural habitat. The Finnish-built icebreaker has been used as a cruise ship for several years and carries two helicopters. Natalie Amos, a spokeswoman for the tour operator Exodus Travel, said 51 British tourists were among the ship’s 101 passengers. Paul Goldstein, a guide and photographer with Exodus, traveling on the ship, told the BBC News that the ship was trying to move. “We’re breaking ice,” he said Tuesday. “Obviously there’s frustration, but we’re going to get back perfectly safe.”
Rene Reibel, operations chief for the Argentine Coast Guard in Ushuaia, told The Associated Press that the icebreaker was moving amid floating ice and no one was in danger. “This ship was never stuck or run aground,” he said. “It’s floating, it has its engines and control.”
With tourism still growing along the Antarctic Peninsula groundings and tourist ships stuck in ice are becoming an annual happening. Last season it was the “Ocean Nova” and the “Ushuaia” which were stranded on rocks. In 2007 the Norweigan “Fram” lost power off the tip of the Peninsula and banged into a glacier. And of course in November 2007 the very first Antarctic tourist ship, the “Explorer,” sank off the tip of the Peninsula, spilling 185,000 gallons of diesel fuel and lubricants.