Climate change - up close and personal

Photos from UAB in Antarctica group on Flickr, related to this post
By Jim
Posted on 03/06/07

The resounding crack of glacial ice calving off the Marr Glacier behind our station is perhaps a bell weather of the things that have come to be. I am struck by the raw beauty of the deep blue-green of the translucent glacial ice left exposed by these calving events. These are breathtaking wounds.

I am also struck, whist living here on the western Antarctic Peninsula in what may be appropriately termed the “canary cage” of Antarctica (only the Arctic and Greenland currently have ice sheets with greater levels of accelerated melting), that the past five years have been remarkably transitional in our collective acknowledgement of climate change, not only in its very existence but in its roots.

I recently returned from a research sabbatical with my family at the University of Otago in New Zealand. Here, our visit was coincidentally timed with the remarkable passage of massive Antarctic ice bergs drifting past our south island home town of Dunedin. Experts were able to deduce that these ice bergs had originated from the Ronne Ice Shelf, just on the other side of the Antarctic Peninsular from where I sit at this moment writing. These colossal bergs visiting the shores of New Zealand were indeed unprecedented.

My experiencing Antarctic icebergs in the temperate waters of New Zealand was the latest in a growing list of personal observations related to global climate change. I have experienced many manifestations of climate change here in Antarctica over my two decades of visiting and working in Antarctica. First is the dramatic recession of the Marr Glacier at the head of Arthur Harbor next to Palmer Research Station. Forty years ago the tongue of this glacier licked the back of our station. Now, as a result of warming air temperatures, when I went for a hike yesterday, I had to walk almost a kilometer to reach its base.

Then there are the fur seals. These seals used to be quite rare near Palmer Station, choosing rather to live farther to the north in the sub- Antarctic where temperatures were milder. Over the past decade, as air and sea temperatures have warmed, they have migrated farther south, and in recent years their numbers have increased near the station.

Finally, there are the penguins. Adelie penguins arrive near Palmer Station in the summer months to lay their eggs and raise their chicks on neighboring islands. Just a few years ago, Bill Fraser, a world authority on Adelie penguins, brought to my attention that females nesting on their eggs were being buried by heavy snowfall. To view the nesting female you actually had to peer down a hole in the snow, and then, only the very tops of their heads were visible. Unfortunately, while the adult birds survived, most of their eggs did not. A year’s chicks lost. Ironically, this is caused by the warming air temperatures that have raised levels of humidity and resulted in greater amounts of snowfall in this once drier region of Antarctica.

And snow fall is not the only climate related change assaulting penguins. On our way to Palmer Station our ship stopped at Copa, a small field station on King George Island where ornithologists Wayne and Sue Trivelpiece have devoted their lives to studying penguins. They are now convinced that climate warming related declines in sea ice cover are reducing the juvenile nursery grounds for krill, the small shrimp-like animals that are key in penguin diets. Based on their observations of penguin stomach contents over the past two decades, they have concluded that there is a growing shortage of krill, a key component of Antarctic oceanic and coastal food webs

The icebergs I experienced recently in New Zealand seemingly catalyzed the New Zealand government to take a more serious look at developing strategies to curb CO2 emissions, including the further development of alternate sources of energy such as an already impressive hydroelectric grid and, especially, new wind generated sources of energy. Hardly a day passed without the local newspapers featuring editorials on global climate change as well as letters to the editor from concerned citizens forming grass roots organizations and offering up advice on energy conservation. Indeed, it was as if the icebergs had spoken a collective call to action.

Similarly, in the United States there is now for the first time a corporate response to climate change. I know this personally, as I have recently been recruited by a major American corporation to lead a thematic cruise to the western Antarctic Peninsula entitled “The Climate Change Challenge”. Hopefully, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

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