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.
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.
We had big, choppy seas yesterday, churned by strong gale force winds and twenty-five to thirty foot swells. Classified on the Beaufort Scale as class 9, if measured on land these same winds would “break larger branches off trees and blow small trees over, blow over construction signs and barricades and do (considerable) damage to circus tents and canopies.” Made me glad I wasn’t out in a kayak.
A wild Southern Ocean
Today we woke to a completely different, nearly windless sea, surrounded by a sizable group of humpback whales. On their way further south this time of year to feed, we found them doing exactly that. Stopped in almost one place, circling, lunching. There were so many it was hard to count, but many tens were breaking the surface simultaneously. At any one point you could easily see the backs, fins or tails of twenty big animals, all under a glorious-if-cold morning light.
• Forty-five-year-old Pennsylvania businessman Todd Carmichael is the first of what will most likely be half-dozen adventurers to reach the South Pole under their own steam this season. He covered 700 miles from the coast at Hercules Inlet to the U.S.’s Scott-Amundsen base fast – 39 days, 7 hours, 49 minutes – some kind of new speed record, reportedly an hour or so quicker than the last record … though I find speed in Antarctica to be extremely irrelevant. It’s such a tough place that physical feats down here are all successful; as long as you accomplish what you set out to do. Along his route he described the snow as a combination of “talcum powder, moon dust and laundry detergent.” In regard to solo travel in Antarctica, I will always bow down to my friend Borge Ousland, who skied across the continent alone and unsupported in 1996-97, from Berkner Island on the Weddell Sea to the U.S. McMurdo base on the Ross Sea. It took him 64 days to cover 1,764 miles.
• It’s not just tourist ships that get in trouble down south. The vaunted British Naval Ship HMS Endurance – the Royal navy’s Sole ice patrol ship – which works Antarctica each season, had to be towed back to Chile during the past few days after her engine room flooded, leaving her without power and propulsion in the Magellan Strait. A cruise liner, the Norwegian Sun, stood by, ready to evacuate the one hundred people on board. Eventually a few passengers were offloaded from the Endurance by helicopter and Chilean Navy missile boat; meanwhile a Chilean Navy helicopter made an emergency landing on the Norwegian Sun to uplift a 47-year-old California woman suffering from an encephalic hemorrhage.
The British Navy ship – which last January “discovered” the exact location of the sunken tourist boat Explorer, 4,200 feet below the cold surface – has been towed to dry dock in Punta Arenas, Chile, where it will undergo inspection for damage alongside the tourist boat Ushuaia, which ran aground along the Antarctic Peninsula earlier in the season.
A PROUD DAY
Though I’ve been in Antarctica since before Thanksgiving, I’ve had the good fortune in recent days of gaining a couple media distinctions. The New York Times included my account of travels in Vietnam (“Descending the Dragon”) on its ‘best of list’ … and yesterday Fox News honored me as one of 2008’s ten “liberal loons.”
I’m not sure if it’s yet an annual list, but Fox.com put together a top ten of what it regards as the year’s “wackiest” takes on global warming, including my National Geographic report from the Antarctic Peninsula last January of penguin chicks dying thanks to a new combination of daytime rains and freezing nights. Headlined “No Matter What Happens, Someone Will Blame Global Warming …”, and the blogosphere has quickly picked up the story, with several publicly missing Al Gore’s inclusion. “10 Liberal Loon Lies Blaming Everything and Anything …” is typical of the rest.
On the left, a healthy and dry chick; on the right, a wet and freezing chick.
So, as the year winds down, time a little reflection. Praise by the New York Times, derision from Fox News. Keeps me in pretty good company, I imagine.
SPEAKING OF PENGUINS …
It’s clear from my mail that blonde penguins definitely have more fun … so … a few more photographs of some of Antarctica’s more unusual pengies … (compliments of my friend John Carlson and his Antarctic wildlife surveying friends at Oceanites).
An odd bird ...
Dalmatian ... or penguin?
A true albino.
A rare, nearly all-black Emperor
Photos, Fiona Stewart