Dallum Bay, New Year’s Day – Stopped off in this beautiful, ice-choked bay to say goodbye to Antarctica for this season. From here the route runs due north, across the Drake Passage, towards Cape Horn and the tip of Argentina. One of the beauties of traveling down south this time of year is that the sun barely sets. At midnight, like now, it is dusky … the official time of the sun’s rising is 2:20 a.m. This time of year it never truly gets dark.
Tonight could be the most beautiful I’ve ever seen the nearby Melchior Islands, bathed in the pink light of an Antarctic sunset. The blue-black sea is coated with grease ice, sea on the verge of freezing, giving it a coating like cellophane paper which undulates with the currents, and laden with small icebergs. The narrow, u-shaped bay off the Palmer Archipelago is lined with glaciers; the glaciers are thousands of years old and hundreds of feet tall. There’s no possible way any man has ever walked along this shoreline, which is what I love most about Antarctica. Still today, with 14 billion feet trodding the planet on a daily basis – headed fast towards 18 billion – much of this continent remains untrammeled, untouched.
The air is cold and clear; sucking it in burns my lungs but it feels good. There isn’t a place on the planet I’d rather be and I feel fortunate to be able to return, year after year. When we sail away from Dallman, I will be filled with both joy and regret. The former, because I know how lucky I am to keep coming back to this remote corner of the planet; the latter because I would prefer to stay longer, until the days here grow short, and dark.
Due to the sour global economy, tourism to Antarctica this season and last has dropped off. A couple years back it topped an all-time high of 45,000 arriving by cruise boat. This year I don’t think it will get much above 35,000. Maybe too, those with the economic wherewithal to come to Antarctica have already been. Until it becomes cheap to visit the seventh continent, maybe tourism numbers will continue to decline. We shall see. This season there are thirty ships bringing tourists to the Peninsula and I know that right now on the streets of Ushuaia, the Argentine port town where the big boats come and go from, there are “sales” in tourist agency windows advertising “last minute, cut rate” prices in order to fill empty cabins and beds on Antarctic-bound ships. What’s cut-rate? $3500, $4000. Which may seem like a lot for a ten-day to two-week trip … but then again … it’s Antarctica, the most remote place on earth.
It’s been thirty-three years since a New Zealand tourist plane crashed in Antarctica during a flyover, killing all 257 aboard. Today I read that a Qantas Airbus A380 – a “super jumbo” will make a twelve hour roundtrip flight from Melbourne, carrying 450 New Year’s eve revelers, for a glimpse of the ice. Birthday parties, anniversaries and wedding engagements will be celebrated in the air over the edge of the continent. Many bottles of champagne are part of the deal, for prices ranging from $999 to $6000 per person. “It’s a party flight and also an expedition,” the organizers boast. “Passengers are welcome to dance to the jazz band if that is what they want!”
Partying over Antarctica, 1.1.2010
What a long way we’ve come in the past fifty years, since the treaty that governs Antarctica was signed. Then, no one could have imagined tourism coming to Antarctica. Today, somehow the place seems to be on everyone’s “list.”
I pause and look around, turning 360 degrees in the cold dusk air. I see no one. A trio of humpbacks break the surface, their breathing sending spumes of vapor into the pink sky, heading towards the open ocean. I am privileged to be here, and I know it.
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.
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.
Both the New Scientist and Scientific American have rich reports today regarding the climate change conference that began in Copenhagen this week. The meeting is a run-up to December’s international climate talks, where officials are set to draft a successor to the Kyoto treaty to limit carbon dioxide emissions.
The highlight so far? Confirmation that the rise in the world’s sea level predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change two years ago was wrong. The IPCC estimated a rise by 2010 of eight inches to two feet; in Copenhagen the new estimate is more than three feet.
Why the new estimate? The glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica are melting faster than previously predicted.
“It is now clear that there are going to be massive flooding disasters around the globe,” said David Vaughan of the British Antarctic Survey. “Populations are shifting to the coast, which means that more and more people are going to be threatened by sea-level rises.”
Most at risk? Florida. The Netherlands. Bangladesh. And the Maldives … where I’m headed on Sunday …. and where recently-elected president Mohamed Nasheed has announced a plan to buy land elsewhere in the region – most likely Pakistan or India – to move his 386,000 citizens before sea level rise makes his island nation uninhabitable.