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White Thunder, Neko Harbour, Antarctica, Day 4

Sitting atop a bared brown rock on top of a thousand-foot hill looking out over a relatively ice-free harbor – Neko, one of the most beautiful along the Peninsula, though even as I write that I am reminded of how often I say this place or that is “the most beautiful along the Peninsula” – I’m struck by two things: How quiet it is and simultaneously how much ambient sound there is in the air if you just sit … quietly … and listen.

Neko Harbour, Antarctica Peninsula

Neko Harbour, Antarctica Peninsula

I have long said that one of my favorite things about Antarctica is that it is truly a place that you can get remote. Take a hundred foot walk from the shoreline virtually anywhere along the Peninsula and you can be assured no one has ever walked there before. Climb a short hill, as I’ve just done, and the predominant sound is the beating of your heart. It is a perfectly still, calm day, sunny, 38 degrees F at nine in the morning. By noon it will be in the mid-forties, now-typical for the Peninsula this time of year.

Across the narrow bay, black rocky mountain peaks jut out of deep snow. The opposing hills would be incredible ski runs if you could hike up them without disappearing down one of the dozens of crevasses marked by grey shadows on the snow. A pair of glacial tongues roll down towards the sea each a mile-wide, built up over a many tens of thousands of years. The two hundred foot tall glacier walls drop straight into the cold black sea, which is dotted by small icebergs and bergy bits calved off them.

I have been to this harbor a dozen times before and each time it looks different. Often the currents in front of the sand-and-rock beach are fast, filled with moving ice, threatening landings. Big calvings off the glacies have been known to create eight-foot waves, washing everything – Zodiacs, penguins, humans – off the beach. The sea is blue black, highlighted by icebergs and the rings of aqua blue that rim them, reflections of the ice below the surface. The sky scudded by high clouds. Thirty miles to the north, towards the Lemaire Channel and Anvers Island, the peak of Mt. Francais – the highest peak along the Peninsula – pokes through the clouds, a rare sight. To the south stretches dozens of miles of snowcapped peaks heading for the Didier Channel … followed by many more dozens of miles of snowcapped peaks.

Each season I carry back from Antarctica too many mental images to possibly download. They’re all up there in my head, jumbled, roaming, floating. Thankfully they are permanently lodged and pop up at the oddest times – driving along Manhattan’s West Side highway, climbing in the Catskills, just falling asleep – which I always like.

But often it’s not the visual memories from here that stick with me most powerfully, which strike me at the oddest times. It’s the aural ones, the sounds of Antarctica.

The plop-plop-plopping of porpoising penguins. The blow of humpbacks, often heard before you see them breaching. The squawk of new mother and father penguins as they attempt to imprint their voices on brand-new chicks. The wind under the wings of a soaring pintado petrel as it sweeps just overhead.

But as I sit on this short hill above Neko Harbour, I’m waiting for my favorite Antarctic sound, which the Native Americans in Alaska called “White Thunder.” It’s the thunderous calving of the glaciers that occurs deep inside them. Loud, rumbling, often frightening. Whenever you hear that sound, you jerk your head around. But often there’s nothing to be seen. It’s the sound of glaciers evolving, breaking-up, but deep inside. The sound is not followed by falling ice, just … silence.

This day I wait and wait for that sound, but … nothing. Just after noon, after nearly four hours surveying the landscape from atop this rock, I walk down the hill with my friend Richard White. Just as we step down off the peak … out of sight of the end of the narrow harbor and its ending glacier for the first time in hours … when CRACK! Something’s broken off. This time though, it’s not White Thunder but more like Black Thunder. Real ice ripping off the glacier, falling into the black sea. Rippling waves and small pieces of ice emanating from the end of the harbor suggest it was a big piece of glacier that has fallen into the sea. Despite the beauty of the moment, it is that sound that will stay with me far longer.

Tabular Heaven, Day 3

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

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.

Antarctica Without Ice?

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.)

Photo Credit: Fiona Stewart

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 Photo Credit: Fiona Stewart

What Antarctica would look like without ice

The continent that lays beneath, much of it now submerged due to the weight of the ice, Photo Credit: Fiona Stewart

The continent that lays beneath, much of it now submerged due to the weight of the ice

Photos, Fiona Stewart

Neko Harbor

This small cove at the end of a long, glacier-packed bay off the Gerlache Strait is one my favorite corners along the Peninsula. It is surrounded by tall peaks – including, on a brilliant day like today, the tallest along the Peninsula, 9,200-foot-tall Mt. Francais – and long glacier tongues leading to the sea. Standing onshore of continental Antarctica, rather than one of the thousands of frozen islands that dot the sea along the Peninsula, I study the far wall as small but powerful avalanches launch from up high. The bay is lined by a two-mile-long glacier which, if it broke off a big chunk, would send eight foot waves surging across the beach where I stand; if that happened, I’d have to run fast uphill to where the penguins, wisely, make their nests.

Neko Harbor

Neko Harbor

I’ve been to Antarctica a dozen times over the past twenty years. Sometimes it is possible to get inured, occasionally blasé, about the incredible beauty that surrounds. I try to remind myself as often as possible to take a half hour each day and just sit and revel in the grandeur of the place. Words don’t suffice in detailing Antarctica’s physical beauty. The most powerful memories I collect here are not even visual, but aural.

You often hear Antarctica before you see it. For example, the splash of feeding penguins porpoising out of the sea, sometimes in pairs, sometimes by the hundreds. The blow of a humpback whale long before you catch sight of its arching back. The thunder crack of powerful movement from deep inside a glacier; there’s nothing to see on the surface, no visual change, just the loud report of the giant ice’s continual evolution. Today, most powerfully, I listened the ice moving fast through the channel in front of me: Brash ice, glacial chunks, sizable icebergs, groaning and cracking as they headed out of the channel towards faster-moving waters.

Other highlights:

• On a rocky, north-facing slope we spied something today that is very new to Antarctica: Grass. About twenty feet off the sea, two small patches of just-greening herb, more evidence that the Peninsula is warming.
• On another tall cliff, streaks of blue-green malakite, a rich mineral vein, a reminder of just how much mineral wealth lies beneath all this ice. As the ice continues to lessen, one of the biggest changes in Antarctica will be nations fighting over who owns what. Copper, diamonds, oil … all will become new Antarctic commodities if warming trends continue.
• I watched a playful crabeater seal play along the light-blue edge of a floating iceberg. They are one of the more curious and playful of Antarctica’s seals and, though we don’t see them everyday here, the most numerous big animal on the planet after man, some 30 million.
• Update on the M/V Ushuaia: Nothing solid, just small radio chatter. A tugboat is on the way – perhaps has already arrived – to assess the possibility of pulling the ship off the rocks. Concerns are obvious: It’s got a hole in it. Dragging it off the rocks could worsen the gash. And once off the rocks, there’s no guarantee it will be able to self-navigate back to Argentina or even be able to be towed.