Travelogue: Argentina & Antarctica! Ice & Islands

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Argentina & Antarctica

I’m so sorry — I wrote this post way back, but got distracted and didn’t realize it didn’t go live. Let’s talk about ice in Antarctica!

Today, let’s sail through the waters of Antarctica and learn a little.

Ice, Ice, Baby

We entered the Southern Ocean and reached the Antarctic peninsula, sailing through the Gerlache Stait into the Schollart Channel. We had an additional ice pilot with us, a former captain of an Argentine icebreaker ship, now retired and assisting summer vessels.

And it wasn’t long before we sighted our first iceberg.

We were supposed to sail into Paradise Bay, but the copious ice prevented us. Rather, our ice pilot was sure we could get in, but he thought there was a fair chance we couldn’t then get out. So we stayed at the mouth of the bay and just absorbed the scenery.

Ice across entrance and bay
Ice across entrance and bay

The scenery was just astounding. Jaw-dropping. Lemme just leave some of my favorite shots here for you. (Click to enlarge and flip through.)

It’s amazingly quiet, with no leaves to rustle in the wind and few animals to call (only the seals and penguins call above water, and the only land animal is a single species of midge). The effect is surreal.

The scale is impossible to convey. We saw icebergs on the horizon taller than our ship, so that’s more than 150′ (50 meters) above the water — and remember the phrase “the tip of the iceberg.” Ice along western and peninsular Antarctica is breaking away faster and faster — a 40% increase in the last five years — and the ice fields are coming away in mind-boggling chunks. This beautiful berg reflecting the sunrise is a jaw-dropping 18 miles long (29 kilometers).

enormous iceberg by light of sunrise
enormous iceberg by light of sunrise

That’s amazing. It’s incredible. It’s also scary.

Climate Change

This is going to be the sciency-soapboxy part of the show, so just be warned.

Polar amplification is the fancy name for seeing climate effects in the polar regions more quickly and dramatically than, say, at the equator. There are a lot of reasons for this which are readily available elsewhere, so I’ll save the space and cut to the chase: We can clearly see effects when we don’t choose to ignore.

We’ve all heard people argue that climate change isn’t real, often justified with “It snowed last week!” Aside from the obvious differentiation between weather and climate, this ignores not only all the science, but all the signs an ordinary layperson can observe by paying attention.

My family went to Alaska when I was 8 years old. We’ve gone several times in the decades since. Even our vacation photos show how far those glaciers have receded.

I’ve talked to Alaskan native peoples who grew up in traditional native housing, with a ladder and door through the roof. “When I was a child,” a woman told me, “we always had five feet of snow on the roof in winter. Always. Now there is no snow.” They have given up their traditional seal hunts, because the seals have retreated along with the ice.

In Antarctica, accelerated change is also visible. Our interpreter on the ship pointed out that a few years ago the ship would have drawn closer to Endurance Glacier, but because it has receded so much and left moraine debris where it’s melted, the glacier is now further from the safe channel. You can actually see this in the photos: the color change in the water is partly glacier silt runoff, but also an indicator of water depth change.

whale spout in front of Endurance Glacier, Elephant Island
whale spout in front of Endurance Glacier, Elephant Island

“But Laura, I heard someone say Antarctica really isn’t melting!” Well, in the past, sort of. Years ago, there was less data available on eastern Antarctica, and the limited data from the fewer probes and pictures indicated that ice was not melting or was even accumulating on that side of the continent. Recently, however, increased data from better imagery and more probes shows a different picture, in that ice is indeed building in some areas but is also melting faster overall. It’s true that some people like to selectively cite old data to argue against climate change, but they’re willfully ignoring newer and more plentiful data. Ice retreat in western Antarctica and elsewhere on the globe is extremely well documented.

Polar ice is one of the great defenders against global warming, because of the albedo effect (reflecting solar energy back into space instead of letting it stay in the atmospheric greenhouse). Seawater reflects about 5% of solar radiation, while ice reflects 50-70% — as anyone who has ever wanted sunglasses on a snowfield can attest. Sea ice covered with snow reflects up to 90%! (source)

This means that melting our polar ice is not only a symptom of global warming, but a step toward accelerating it. We should be preserving it.

“But don’t you remember how cold it was in January? We set new cold records because of the polar vortex! How would that happen if climate was getting warmer?”

That happens because of warming climate — but this isn’t really taught in school, so a lot of people don’t understand how warming polar regions causes cold snaps in the American midwest.

The polar vortex is not, despite popular vernacular, a spiral of cold that rushes down into the continental US. It’s the constant whirl of cold air at the pole, in our January case the Arctic, growing ever colder as it circles over ice. The polar jet stream traps it within a fairly circular orbit.

The polar jet stream, however, becomes variable when the factors which create it change — factors like, oh, how much sea ice it flows over. Then the jet stream starts to run lower and slower, and its neat circle turns into a wavy track, and frigid polar air begins to “leak” (a highly technical term for us laypeople) out of its proper place in the Arctic and flow down over Canada into the United States.

Warmer climate causes polar air to move south. A record-setting polar vortex event does not disprove climate change, it supports it.

And even with record cold, the overall trend is very clear: there were 733% more heat records set than cold records in the last year, if we look at the planet as a whole — and five times more heat records even if we focus only on the upper US. (It’s all available free from government tracking data and you can find a lovely summary here.)

In short, don’t drop a “Sure would be nice to have some global warming about now!” weather comment at me unless you’re prepared to show that your backyard is in a different climate system than the planet you live on.

Right now, Ushuaia is worrying about their water supply, because all their water comes from glacier melt and their glaciers are disappearing. Glaciers in Patagonia are retreating faster than anywhere else in the world.

But glaciers are in trouble all over the world. New Zealand’s Southern Alps have lost 34% of ice coverage since 1976. Jon and I were planning some ice climbing on the South Island in 2016. As I was speaking with the guide, I pointed to an aerial photo of Fox Glacier. “Oh, no, not there,” he said, “everything has to happen up here. This photo is from a few years ago, there’s no ice there now.” (Fox Glacier is one of the few still showing intermittent advancement between larger retreats.)

In the northern Andes, Chacaltaya Glacier has lost 90% of its mass since 1940, and its rate of retreat has been increasing since the 1980s. Jump over to Greenland, where the Greenland Ice Sheet’s rate of loss more than doubled from 22 cubic miles/year to 53 cubic miles/year (90 cubic km to 220 cubic km) in just ten years.

Here in the United States, Glacier National Park is increasingly at risk of being misnamed. When the park was founded in 1910, it had at least 150 glaciers. Now it has 26, and they’re shrinking fast — of those 26, ten have lost more than half their area in the last 50 years, and some have shrunk by 80% or more. Oh, and it’s actually worse than that, as those numbers only address range, not volume.

“I’ve been going there since 1991 and remember having to choose carefully how to climb up onto the glacier. It was 20 to 30 feet high at the edge. Now it comes only up to your shins.”

Dr. Daniel Fagre, USGS, of Grinnell glacier

“But I don’t know that I care about glaciers, really, and I’m not convinced climate change is a real issue. What about normal people, right now?”

Right now, in my city, a school in a low-income neighborhood has been shut down, because the air quality around the school was so bad it was deemed unsafe for the kids to spend school days there. So the kids were sent to other schools, adding a burden of time on them and their parents, a burden of resources for buses on the school system, and putting the strain of larger classes on teachers and on kids who are already struggling to catch up in life.

Of course, this solution of closing down the school did nothing at all to address the fact that the kids and their families still live in the neighborhood with the dangerous air quality and its accompanying health effects.

Power plants produce, along with the infamous greenhouse gases, tons — literally, thousands of tons — of toxic chemicals like mercury,
hydrochloric acid, aluminum, lead, cadmium, manganese, arsenic, and other stuff known to cause everything from cancer to asthma to neurological damage. Indiana counties with the highest air pollution from coal plants also show a 33% increase over average in special education needs for learning disabilities, autism, and mental retardation.

All those scary chemicals are also leeching into our groundwater from coal ash ponds, so that testing shows local water contaminant levels as high as 1.4 times the EPA’s health advisory. We’re drinking them too.

Poor environmental stewardship choices affect real people already. We don’t need climate predictions to see motivation to change our environmental habits.

We can all do something to reduce carbon emissions and plastic pollution. All of us, no matter our situation, can take steps to reduce fossil fuel use, to reduce carbon emissions, to reduce plastic use. But the efforts of a single person are not enough, not when corporations are subsidized for bringing in loads of plastic holiday retail trinkets that will be discarded into the waste stream (and the sea) within a few days. We also need to make smart buying choices, checking our consumerism, and elect smart people.

Well, that’s enough doom and gloom with a side of call to action. Let’s get back to photos. The next blog post is all about penguins!

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