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.
I found myself mingling with kids and their parents, a smattering of friends and one six-foot-tall penguin at the American Museum of Natural History last Saturday. I showed clips from our new, high-def Antarctica film (“Terra Antarctica, Re-Discovering the Seventh Continent”) most of which we shot a year ago, during the course of three months traveling along the Peninsula by sea kayak, sailboat, foot and small plane. It was the first time I’d shown the clips in public and I snuck to the back of the room myself to see them on the big screen. So far … so good. The hour-long film will be finished next month, will start showing at festivals around the world soon after and on television hopefully in the fall.
During the course of AMNH’s “Polar Weekend” I learned a lot myself, particularly about the Polar Palooza project. Supported by the National Science Foundation and NASA’s Science Mission, with money from Apple, ASTC and science and natural history museum’s across the country it’s the hippest way I’ve seen yet to try and educate people, particularly kids, about the cold regions.
Dependent on ice researchers, geologists, oceanographers, climate scientists, biologists and Arctic residents the goal – via pod casts, blogs, vlogs and more – is to provide the simplest info about the poles (“Why do penguins live down South and polar bears only up North?”) for a wide audience. It’s even got it’s own rap song about climate change, which has to be a first.
As for the six-foot-tall penguin, I buddied up to him enough to query whether he was Adelie or Gentoo and all I got was a shoulder shrug, not a squawk out of him … very unusual for a penguin of any species.
Photo, Anne Sparkman
I saw South Georgia Island for the first time from about ten miles out, on a gusty, windy, blue-sky morning. Though we’d just sailed eight hundred miles east and north from the tip of Antarctica, giant tabular icebergs greeted us, nearly blocking the entryway to Cooper Bay. These big icebergs had broken off the Larsen Ice Shelf since 2002 and slowly made their way here, where they now sit grounded, sentinels placed as welcome mats or warning.
Antarctic icebergs rimming the southern tip of South Georgia have floated more than a thousand miles
I love seeing a place for the first time, convinced – like falling in love at first sight – that it is that very first glimpse that makes its biggest impression. My expectations were vast. While I’d heard about South Georgia for years – that its steep mountain peaks were covered by year-round snow, that more than one hundred and fifty glaciers filled its valleys, that tussock-covered fields spread up the hills from the sea, that it’s wildlife was out of this world – I had no mental images.
Now I have them. Big ones.
There are only a couple hundred volcanic islands in the South and Mid-Atlantic. Ascension, St. Helena, Tristan da Cunha, the Falklands and South Georgia are the best known.
South Georgia definitely has the most exotic reputation, in part thanks to Shackleton, in part due to its whaling history, but largely for its otherworldly menagerie.
Strong morning winds kept us trolling off the rocky coast for several hours searching for the appropriate approach. When we rounded the southeastern corner into Cooper Bay the gusts diminished as if with the snap of a finger. While the tall mountains and hanging glaciers were astonishing, the best part for me – after more than five weeks among the whiteness of Antarctica – was the green grass running down the hills to the sea. But it was when I raised binoculars to my eyes that I got the biggest jolt.
Something we haven't seen for awhile: Green grass
The beaches were, well, how do I put this. I’ve never seen such a mass of giant living, breathing sausage and blubber amassed in one place outside of a crowded East Coast beach on the 4th of July. Thousands of fur seals, hundreds of Weddell seals and hundreds more of the giant, two-ton female elephant seals, spread over the rock and sand beach … everywhere. And this is nothing. As I stare, mind-boggled, my friend Pete Pulesten tells me he first came here twenty-five years ago, and a couple months earlier in the breeding season, when thousands of horny, multi-ton male elephant seals line the beach like bratwurst. “That is when this place is truly wild,” says Pete.
South Georgia was first seen in 1675 by a Brit named Antoine de la Roche, who’d been blown far off course while rounding Cape Horn; the next time it was sighted was nearly one hundred years later, by the Spanish ship “Leon” who named it Ile de St. Pierre after the saint’s day (July 1) on which it was seen. It wasn’t until British explorer Captain James Cook, on his second voyage around the world in 1775, that South Georgia was mapped. Unfortunately for Cook, he thought he’d discovered the southern continent, Antarctica. When he rounded the southern tip of South Georgia, in the opposite direction than how we’d arrived this morning, and discovered he was looking due west, he named the point Cape Disappointment. He claimed the island for his homeland, sent home a report on the island’s “rich seas” and continued on his way.
Rich seas? That’s an understatement even today. In just a couple of hours, here’s what I saw: Penguins (Kings, chinstraps, Gentoo and Macaroni). Wandering and black-browed albatross. Southern and northern Giant petrels, as well as snow, white-chinned, the common diving and Wilson’s storm petrels. The South Georgia (Imperial) Shag. Hundreds of sheathbills and kelp gulls. Special terns and a pipit found nowhere else on earth. The south polar skua. Thousands and thousands of seals (fur and southern elephant). And, bizarrely, roaming in the background, sizable herds of reindeer (it’s a long story, but they were introduced by whalers more than one hundred years ago and they’ve not yet been exterminated).
Lounging female elephant seals
That’s all in just a couple hours. The sky was filled with flying critters, the shallows swimming with seals and the beaches chockablock with giant meat. (Lunching? Giant petrels literally disappear inside a dead fur seal, ripping its guts out with its sharp beak, such that the cadaver seemed to be flopping up and down on the beach on its own accord.)
My first impression? Walt Disney must have visited this place during his most productive years and created all of his magic kingdom’s based on South Georgia’s reality. Rugged mountains, covered by glacier and lush green tussock, rimmed by tens of thousands of flying, swimming, snorting, feeding, wrestling, playing critters. Everywhere.
A giant petrel, afloat
Photos, Fiona Stewart
You hear lots of talk among Antarctica scientists and cognoscenti about how the Peninsula is changing right before our eyes. Here’s the most dramatic satellite proof, showing how the Larsen Ice Shelf – the section known as Larsen B – has reduced in recent years:
On another amazingly warm blue-sky day I’m standing on a low hill looking out over Neko Harbor. Across a narrow bay is a wall of glaciers, behind me is soft hills covered by deep snow. In the far distance in three directions are long lines of tall mountains covered by snow and ice, some of it tens of thousands of years old. Just a few slivers of hard, dark granite peek out, reminding me there is land – a continent! – beneath all of this white. (At Vostok, a Russian base on the eastern side of Antarctica, scientists have measured the ice to be 14,000 feet thick, nearly three miles.)
It is hard to imagine this place without ice and snow, but of course it has been. Roughly 125 million years ago what we know as South America and Africa began to separate; then, the Antarctic Peninsula where I stand was still connected to South America. From 38 to 29 million years ago the Antarctic continent moved south. During that Cretaceous period, circa 144 to 65 million years ago, the continent was covered by forest, including tree ferns, cycads, palms, conifers and deciduous trees, and was home to freshwater fish, dinosaurs, reptiles and the predecessors of the penguins we see here now, though they were somewhat different. In that they were the size of an average man and weighed 300 pounds.
The continent has frozen and thawed since, but has been completely covered by ice and snow since the last Ice Age, about 11,000 years ago. Today, even at the height of summer, only two percent of Antarctica is ice-free; the continent contains 75 percent of the fresh water on earth.
It is clear the Peninsula is evolving, changing … warming. Analysis suggests the rapidity of warming in the northern Peninsula is unmatched over the last 2,000 years. Temperatures along the Peninsula during summer have climbed on average five degrees in the past 50 years; its average winter temperatures have risen by ten degrees, twice as fast as anywhere on Earth in the past century.
If even a small part of the Ice Cap were to melt, world sea levels would rise from several feet to several yards, inundating most coasts. If the whole Ice cap were to melt, as it has in past ages, sea levels around the world would rise an estimated 260 feet, destroying a number of low-lying countries. Since sea levels have risen only 8.6 inches in the past century, the three-foot rise projected by the year 2080 is serious. Many millions will become refugees, depopulating the long U.s. coasts up to 50 miles inland, including all of southern Florida and the Mississippi Delta, also much of Bangladesh, the Philippines, Southeast Asia, the coasts of Africa and innumerable Pacific atolls.
Antarctica without snow and ice? Seems impossible, right? Here’s what the continent would look like without ice. It has been weighed down by heavy ice for so long that part of it is submerged. They would gradually climb back above sea level if free of ice, though that would take tens – hundreds? – of thousands of years.
What Antarctica would look like without ice
The continent that lays beneath, much of it now submerged due to the weight of the ice
Photos, Fiona Stewart