Reading cracks in the dramatically shrinking glacial ice at Neko Harbour
The other day the Antarctic University Expedition 2011 had a quick landing at Neko Harbour, a glaciated spot on the Antarctic Peninsula. Rather than hanging out with the penguins at the shore, this time I hiked up a snow-covered hillside with the glaciology students who had come to collect samples from it. The snows of the glaciers all around us were riven with cracks running along and across their course — a sign, University of Ottawa glaciologist Luke Copland told us, that they are under pressure, highly active despite their apparent stillness. Our group stayed within a box of footprints laid out by the professors (a safe area from any such crevasses) as the students laboriously shovelled through 1.5 metres of snow to reach the solid ice at its base. From there, they could extract the cores: thick, translucent cylinders, bubbled with air that was trapped inside the ice as it formed. These surface-level cores only go a few years back; the record to be found in deeper cores reaches as far back as 800,000 years ago. Glaciologists are consummate analyzers of gradual change — but, as the occasional crackle or boom echoing out of the surrounding area reminded us, those changes can culminate in very sudden and serious results.
Just those kinds of results are happening (and are expected to continue) as Antarctica responds to the Earth’s changing climate. Olle Carlsson, a Swedish naturalist and guide now in his twenty-first season of extensive visits to Antarctica, has been to these sites every year since 1991. He has watched them change with his own eyes. He says these glaciers at Neko Harbour were not so crevassed, and came closer to the beach, when he first saw them; ten years ago, part of Brown Bluff that we’ve walked freely through was frozen and impassible; ice all around is thinning or disappearing. Our expedition kept hearing that the insufferably adorable adélie penguins should be at the sites we were visiting; but they have moved increasingly southward, and only showed up in handfuls among the gentoos, who thrive better in low sea ice conditions.
Studies have been somewhat ambiguous on whether Antarctica, taken as a whole, has warmed significantly since record-keeping began. But at the local level things look much scarier. While high-elevation, thickly iced-over east Antarctica has kept relatively stable, the warmer western parts of the continent — the Peninsula, where we have been, and the Amundsen Sea — are showing serious warming effects. Temperatures in the Peninsula have been going up about 1˚C per decade, one of the fastest rates of warming on the planet. (more…)
Of penguins, seals, and humpbacks: the scene in Brown Bluff, Antarctica
“I felt as if, all my life, I’d been mistaken about something important. I followed… in agreeably engrossed disbelief, as in a dream in which yellowthroats and redstarts and black-throated blue and black-throated green warblers had been placed like ornaments in urban foliage, and a film production unit had left behind tanagers and buntings like rolls of gaffer’s tape… as if these birds were just momentary bright litter, and the park would soon be cleaned up and made recognizable again.” — Jonathan Franzen, on being introduced to the world of birdwatching
After a couple of landings here in Antarctica, it is hard to shake a feeling like Franzen’s above: that the scenes I am witnessing are unreal, that the wild drama on open display before me could only be a contrivance, some tableau from a nature documentary. Maybe it shouldn’t be shocking, in the most hospitable parts of the world’s largest wilderness area, to see a couple of dozen penguins skipping across the water; fur seals basking, backs arched, on rocks; the occasional pair of whales breaching; a leopard seal cruising sleek and serpentine through the water around a great guano-plastered penguin rookery. Disbelief and detachment at seeing this kind of thing surely reflects the extent of the depletion we have created in our own surroundings, and it suggests that televised nature alone has made a poor substitute. But, regardless, the sights of the last couple of days have felt surreal.
Wildlife sightings thus far on the Antarctic University Expedition 2011 have largely taken place from the ship, but this morning our visit to Brown Bluff put us straight onto a rocky beach amongst a large, scattered crowd of fur seals, penguins, and a few shorebirds. Most of us without glaciers to examine or animal counts to complete wended our way past the grumpy seals and sat down on the rocks with our cameras, taking in the sleepy scene. It’s forbidden to approach the animals so closely as to disturb them, but with a sufficiently disarming visitor, penguins will sometimes get curious, wander up, and maybe take a peck — as one did to the hand of Fabrice, a student from Bordeaux. It was interesting to watch the seals barking, whining, challenging one another for good spots, and play-fighting in the surf, and the penguins dozing, squabbling, and pecking at their as-yet-un-moulted down; but we watched with anticipation, a certain focus in mind: a common desire to connect with a wild animal. (more…)