I spent part of this early Antarctic morning on the back deck of the ship reading a summary of the past eleven day’s events in Copenhagen, a long story downloaded at very slow rate from the New York Times. Between readings I looked up, to remind myself where I was, surrounded in a narrow bay by miles of glaciers running down to the ocean’s edge; icebergs calved off the glaciers littered the blue-black sea. It is this very calving and melting of the glaciers which should have been on the mind of everyone who participated in the climate talks in Denmark, because if they continue to dissipate at the current rate due to warming air and sea temperatures along the Peninsula, it will help raise sea levels around the world by ten feet or so.
A now typical summer day in Antarctica: Melting ice + Rain
Rather than being filled with optimism after this long-trumpeted confab, without much reading between the lines it’s clear that not a lot was accomplished in Copenhagen other than the expulsion of a lot more hot air. Some highlights from the Times summary:
· “A grudging agreement to ‘take note’ … not a blinding pledge ….”
· “A compromise seen to represent a flawed but essential step forward many of the delegates of the 193 countries that had gathered here left Copenhagen in a sour mood, disappointed that the pact lacked so many elements they considered crucial …”
· “President Obama called it a ‘modest step.’
· “… The chaos and contentiousness of the talks may signal the end of reliance on a process that for almost two decades had been viewed as the best approach to tackling global warming.”
· “… Virtually impossible to forge consensus among disparate blocs of countries fighting over environmental guilt, future costs and who should referee the results.”
· “… Even if countries live up to their commitments on emissions, a stark gap remains between nations’ combined pledges and what would be required to reliably avert the risks of disruptive change in rainfall and drought, ecosystems and polar ice cover from global warming …”
· “The Copenhagen accord … hardly moved the treaty process from where it was in 2007.”
· “Speaker after speaker from the developing world denounced the deal as a sham process fashioned behind closed doors …”
· “As his motorcade idled in front of the conference center, Mr. Obama took to a rostrum …”
(Per an earlier promise, I tried to search out some figures on the carbon footprint of the event, but found few specific numbers, though I did find others, i.e 1,200 limousines, 140 private jets, 15,000 delegates, 10,000 environmental activists and lobbyists, over 100 world leaders and 5,000 journalists. According to summit organizers the 11-day conference, including the participants’ travel, created a total of 41,000 tons of “carbon dioxide equivalent,” equal to the amount produced over the same period by a U.S. city, population 225,000. Next time, perhaps, try tele-conferencing?)
It’s interesting to ponder all this debate, which seems very far away from where I sit, from a place that is pretty successfully governed by international treaty. The Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959 by 49 nations, was and is clearly less complex than any international climate change agreement. But, amended in 1991 to exclude any exploitation of oil or minerals until 2041, the Antarctic Treaty is proof that countries can come together to try and protect a place. Whether or not they’ll ever do that regarding climate change also seems a long way off.
My first footsteps on Terra Antarctic this season were taken on Barrientos, one of the tiny Aitcho islands, part of the South Shetlands, still one hundred miles off the continent. (It was just twenty miles from here, on King George Island, that we dropped – and then picked up – our kayaks two years ago.) Those first steps each austral summer are always fantastic, memorable, a reminder of why I keep coming back year after year. The sky this morning is grey-green, the sun striving hard to burn through; the smell of the penguin colonies as powerful as ever. A recent snowstorm had buried many of the penguin nests, which have now been mostly unburied by their inhabitants. While the South Shetlands are not the most prolific wildlife spots in Antarctica, within a ten-minute walk I see three species of penguin (Gentoo, Chinstrap and a stand-alone, way-out-of-his-way King) and three different kinds of seal (Weddell, Elephant and Leopard).
Bailey Head, Deception Island, Antarctica
The tall King – visible from the shore standing on the crest of a small hill, silhouetted – stands out distinctly because he is literally five times the size of the other birds. What he is doing here is a mystery; at some point he obviously made a wrong turn somewhere because his home is most likely South Georgia, 660 miles to the east. Apparently he’s been here for a couple seasons, so though he looks out of place, towering above the other penguins, he’s obviously decided to stay put. There are rumors he may have tried to breed while here, though unsuccessfully.
The afternoon’s walk is at one of my favorite stops, Deception Island. Landing on the beach at Bailey Head, with its steep and fast fall-off, is always a challenge. The reward? Somewhere between 120,000-160,000 breeding Chinstraps (even the penguin experts among us have a hard time counting them all). Walk off the black sand beach, beneath a heavily snow-capped volcano, and a wide valley opens up exposing a mile-long line of marching penguins, three, four, five abreast, making their way back and forth from the sea and up a gently-sloping, five-hundred-foot tall hill. Those coming from the cold Southern Ocean, stomachs swollen from several hours of fishing, many can barely stand or waddle. Those heading the other direction, towards the sea, are easily identifiable by their filthy stomachs, streaked in mud and guano from a long day spent nurturing a pair of eggs (chicks are coming within the next couple weeks).
From a seat on a chunk of ice atop the hill I watch the comings and goings for an hour. Below, on either side of the steep hill, plays out the whole lasciviousness of life: Flirtation. Sex. Birth. Loving. Feuding. Friendship. Feeding. Youth. Middle age. Impairment. Death.
What surprises most on their first visit to a colony – after they get used to the guano-tinged smell that will linger in their nose hairs for a couple weeks, even after they’ve left Antarctica – is the reality that everything in a penguin’s life takes place in this one place. Especially real is the dying. Skeletal remains in every form litter the black sand, from seashore to the top of the hill. Black-and-white wings attached to a Skua-cleaned skeleton; a solitary, perfectly intact foot; blood-filled bodies, just beginning to be pecked by scavengers; long, thin vertebrae. Elegiac, each is both art and a reminder that life often ends not far from where it began.
By eight p.m. a warmish breeze has blown up, the sun come … and gone, now hidden by clouds. In this season of course, it never gets completely dark – sunrise tomorrow is expected at 02:33.
Bailey Head, Deception Island, Antarctica
Someone emailed a very good question the other day, regarding my own carbon footprint, especially when traveling to such remote places as Antarctica. It’s both a legitimate question and one we should all ponder.
I’ve tried to work out my own carbon footprint online a couple times in the past, but as soon as I start to respond to Question 2 – “How often do you fly?” – the computer starts blinking red and smoking. Flying is a sizable contributor to CO2 in the atmosphere; I do it constantly and around the world. My only rationale is that by bringing back-stories from the places I fly to, and sharing them — especially with classrooms – I’m a bit absolved, though not completely. An option would be to stay home; I guess … one I will continue to ponder.
I traveled a couple years ago in the high Arctic with Richard Branson, who – as an airline company owner – knows a few things about the environmental impact of flying. His company, he explained, was experimenting with less-polluting fuels. As for his own personal carbon footprint, when it came to all the flying he does he rationalized … as all of us frequent fliers do. He was off the next month, for example, to South Africa, to meet with Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu and another nine peacemakers. “We could all walk there, I guess,” he said. “But I don’t think we’d get much accomplished. It doesn’t mean we don’t think about, or realize, the environmental impact of our actions.”
I’m out of the loop news-wise; has anyone published a story about the carbon contributions of the thousands who have gathered for eleven days in Copenhagen to debate the future of climate change?
Hello from Santiago, Chile, where the summertime temperature should be close to ninety degrees today; tomorrow it gets colder for me, heading across the Drake Passage in the early evening. As I’ve traveled for the past twenty-four hours of course the climate summit in Copenhagen is all over the news. While I am hardly a ‘climate skeptic’ – I firmly believe that the presence of 6.8 billion people on the planet and the pollutions we generate are adding to warming temperatures around the globe – I am skeptical of representatives of two hundred nations joining together to talk the subject to death having any immediate or even long-term effect. We have to hope, of course, but does anyone remember the modest goals espoused at Kyoto, none of which were ever met? From the start it’s been announced that anything agreed to in Copenhagen is … non-binding … which means what we may expect most from the confab is a lot of hot air.
Melting Arctic Ice
Since I’m heading to the iciest continent, it’s reasonable to start thinking about how Antarctica is changing and how it’s future impacts all of the world, particularly its ocean.
It is clear that the world’s ice is melting. Across the world more than 90 per cent of glaciers are retreating and thinning, mostly at an accelerating rate. (The exceptions are mostly in places where the melting has been compensated by increased snowfall – also a result of warming). In the tropics numerous glaciers have disappeared altogether. Most of the Himalayan glaciers could be gone by 2035, according to the IPCC, which is chaired by an Indian, though the forecast is contested by the Indian government.
The rapid melting is increasing summer river flows – but it raises the prospect that when the glaciers are gone, flows will diminish and depend entirely on the rains.
The same forces are at work on the planet’s giant continental ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica, which together hold enough ice to raise sea levels by one hundred and eight feet. Greenland is losing around 250 billion tons of ice a year, enough to raise sea levels by three inches a decade. Antarctica is losing nearly as much, mostly from its vulnerable west side, which is perched on top of submerged mountains. Together, these ice sheets are currently responsible for less than half of sea level rise, which is currently at about eight inches a decade. (The rest is due to the expansion of effect of warmer ocean waters.)
Many glaciologists believe that within a few decades, the Greenland ice sheet may reach a point of no return, after which its near-total meltdown becomes inevitable. This is because as the ice sheet melts, its surface will be at ever lower altitudes, where the air will be progressively warmer, even if global warming ceases.
This melting process would take a thousand years or more. But there is growing evidence that things could happen more swiftly. Warming is creating giant waterfalls within the ice and rivers of water between the ice and bedrock beneath. Under this pressure, they say, the ice sheets could break up physically.
The dire predictions remain conjecture, but they explain why a series of studies in the past two years predict sea level rise could exceed a meter in the coming century – up to five times faster than previously estimated. Historical evidence shows that sea levels have risen this fast before – notably during the dying days of the last ice age. However there was a lot more ice around then.
Economists say rising sea levels are likely to be one of the most expensive consequences of global warming, requiring annual expenditure of $10 billion or more on sea defenses. Such estimates form the backdrop to Copenhagen talks on how much rich nations should contribute to help poor countries adapt to a changing climate.
With fish darting amongst them in a blue lagoon, the Maldivian president and his cabinet staged an elaborate stunt to publicize climate change. Billed as the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting, President Mohamed Nasheed and 11 ministers, decked in scuba gear, held a meeting thirteen feet underwater.
While officials said the event itself was light-hearted, the idea is to focus on the plight of the Maldives, where rising sea levels threaten to make the nation uninhabitable by the end of the century. Reported by the BBC’s Olivia Lang, the event reminded the world that Nasheed, the country’s first democratically elected president, has become an important global voice for climate change since he won in polls last October.
“We have to get the message across through a course of action which resonates with ordinary people,” the president said, as the boat neared our destination. “What we are trying to tell the people is that we hope there is a better deal at Copenhagen.”
The presidential speedboat took 20 minutes to arrive in the turquoise lagoon off Girifushi, in North Male atoll. The cabinet – minus two members, who begged off citing health concerns – then zipped themselves into diving suits and donned goggles and tanks of compressed air before jumping in the water.
Major Ahmed Ghiyaz, the co-ordinator from the Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF), said all measures had been taken to protect the president, which included checking the coral for dangerous creatures.
“I am 99.9% sure there will be no harmful creatures,” he told the BBC before the dive. “I’m sure there won’t be any sharks. The nastiest thing would be a moray eel, but we have checked the reef”.
A horseshoe-shaped table was set up around a dark green coral reef with blue tips and home to an array of sea creatures in one of the world’s most famed diving spots.
The president and his team took their seats at 10 a.m. at the bottom of the lagoon, sitting at desks with name tags while colorful parrot fish and black and white damsel fish darted around them. Using hand signals to gesture that they were OK, ministers then passed round an “SOS” to be signed – an agreement calling for carbon emission cuts.
“We must unite in a global effort to halt further temperature rises,” the message reads.
President of the Maldives
“Climate change is happening and it threatens the rights and security of everyone on Earth.”
Meanwhile, a handful of journalists kitted out in snorkel gear and swimming around on the surface tried to get a glimpse of the action below.
Emerging out of the water, a dripping President Nasheed removed his mask to answer questions from reporters and photographers crowded around on the shore.
“We are trying to send a message to the world about what is happening and what would happen to the Maldives if climate change isn’t checked,” he said, bobbing around in the water with his team of ministers.
“If the Maldives is not saved, today we do not feel there is much chance for the rest of the world.”
After the dive, the president told the BBC he had seen a stingray swim nearby during the meeting. “There was a sergeant fish that was particularly interested in what was going on,” he said during a typically Maldivian lunch of fish curry and coconut juice.
“I’ve never been worried about reef sharks and I’ve been diving for a long time,” the 42-year-old added. He says other Maldivians had heard about the event and wanted to get involved in some way. On the island of Kuda Huvadhoo, some islanders reportedly created a sealed box and put their TV in it so they could watch the footage of the meeting underwater.
“They told me, ‘if the president is under water, then they want to be too’,” Nasheed said.
But he was keen to push the need for action.
The 1,192-island chain is at severe threat from rising sea levels, with 80 percent of its islands less than a metre above sea level. “What do we hope to achieve? We hope not to die. I hope I can live in the Maldives and raise my grandchildren here,” says Nasheed.
I went for a swim this morning in deep water in the middle of the South Pacific. Twelve-thousand-feet deep. The sea was lumpy, with six-foot swells running towards Hawaii, a couple thousand miles to the northeast. Using just a mask and snorkel, no fins, peering into the depths I tried to imagine what was below. It gets dark fast just below the surface despite the bright sunlight, which leaves everything to the imagination. That’s the wonder of the ocean; even its most expert fans have very little idea what lies two miles below. When it’s suggested that everything’s been “explored” or “discovered,” I put on a mask and try and see into the deep ocean. There’s a lot down there we have no idea about and I wonder if we ever will.
Photo, Pete McBride
Swimming in a wild ocean without fins is eye opening. A little scary. It made me wonder how long I could last out here on my own and have to admit I got out of the water not feeling superbly confident. An hour, maybe? Bobbing about, treading water, maybe taking a few strokes? It’s not how I would choose to go … but whenever I’m out in it I have to admit to the same thought running through my head. What would it be like to never climb out of the ocean, to truly be lost at sea?
I also thought about just how warm the middle of the ocean feels, empirically speaking. But it’s true, the ocean is warming and there are statistics to back that up. My colleague Alex Nelson sent this note this morning: According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the temperature of the world’s oceans reached a new high in July. The ocean’s surface temperature peaked at 63.1 degrees Fahrenheit, besting the old record — set just the month before.
The implications are enormous. Ocean surface temperatures affect the size and power of hurricanes. This year’s hurricane forecast is optimistic, with Colorado State University predicting 11 named storms, only five of them hurricanes. NOAA expects 9 to 14 storms, providing marginal relief from last season’s anomalous 16 storms.
The greatest impact of this worldwide warming is on the polar ice caps. Last September, for the first time in recorded history the North Pole became an island. Ever-rising water temperatures melted the ice that has always connected the landmass to northern Canada and Russia. The agency also said that, on average, Arctic sea ice covered 3.4 million square miles in July, 12.7 percent below the 1979-2000 average and the third lowest on record – after 2006 and 2007. While this development was an unexpected boon for shipping companies eager to cut down on travel time, it represented a grave manifestation of the effects of global warming. Sea levels have been rising 50% faster than the United Nations predicted in 2007 and are expected to gain at least a full 39 inches by 2100.
The UN is holding a summit in December in Copenhagen to draft a treaty addressing climate change issues. The 180 countries expected to attend will set limits for gas emissions and deforestation in an effort to combat the effects of global warming.