Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Polar Warming: Fact

Probably the greatest thing that distinguishes we humans from other species is not our opposing thumbs as much as our proclivity for arguing---about anything. It is this reason that has had me wrestling for several days over how to present this topic. This is not about politics, although many tend to make anything political. This is about nature and our planet---enjoying it and protecting it.

One of the topics most likely to get an argument going is global warming. Whether you want to blame the issue on political agenda, seasonal or cyclic fluctuation, a conspiracy, mere attempts to gain funding, apocalyptic hysterics, or whatever, with the accumulated evidence built over time, we have to appear insane to deny facts that are as obvious as the sun rising in the east. To find answers to the global warming issue, we need only go to the polar caps. The polar regions are to the earth what physical vital signs are to us and our overall health. For the truth, rather than rely on groups that visit the polar regions for a couple months and leave, or politicians who can gather information and statistics that can be selectively slanted to prove any given point of view, we need to seek out those that have observed polar trends in weather and nature for decades. They are the ones in the position to give the best unbiased report on conditions, trends, and apparent consequences. While scientists and politicians will still argue over the ultimate long-term consequences of global warming, like the sun rising in the east, the obvious facts should be---well, obvious.

In their Oct.,2010, issue, Cruising World printed an article by one of their favorite cruising and writing teams, Deborah Shapiro and Rolf Bjelke, of the 40-foot ketch Northern Light. The article, “Home, Sweet Home,” was about their return to a peninsula on Antarctica that had been home for an entire winter a decade before. Their observations on the changes that have occurred there, which are on-going, are clear, indisputable, and scary, and their words need to reach as wide an audience as possible. When I wrote Cruising World for permission to reprint just the last couple columns of the article, I made the point that I felt paddlers are probably even more closely tied to nature than sailors, and that you too would be interesting in this report. Cruising World sent my inquiry directly to Shapiro and Bjelke, who graciously consented to the reprint.

Rolf Bjelke

Deborah Shapiro

To give you an idea of their credentials, Deborah Shapiro and Rolf Bjelke have sailed Northern Light since 1976. They have done several circumnavigations, and have spent extended periods in high latitudes, both Arctic and Antarctic, covering 230,400 miles. Between 1982 and 84, they sailed to both the Arctic and Antarctic. In 1992 they wintered-over in Antarctica, and then in 1994-95, they wintered-over in the Arctic. Between 2000 and 2010 they completed two circumnavigations while again visitng numerous parts of Antarctica and the islands of the Southern Ocean. They have written several books, including Letters from the Sea, Northern Light, Time On Ice, and the latest, Pearls Around the White Continent, is nearing completion.

With their permission:
“On a windy, snowy, low-visibility day, we finally reach Hovgaard Island. Standing on a hill next to our winter-over anchorage, I turn 360-degrees to reacquaint myself with the magnificent alpine scenery. As the exhilaration of arrival wears off, it dawns on us how dramatically the landscape has changed. There’s a lot less snow and ice than when we left in 1992. And the snow line is much higher. “Look, Rolf,” I say pointing across the bare rocks. “That pool over there stayed frozen when we were here. And the area around it was always snow covered. We skied here year-round!”

“Rolf doesn’t answer me right away. He closes his eyes and shakes his head slowly in disbelief. Then he remarks softly, “Remember what an issue drinking water was for us? Well, no one needs to melt snow or ice any more?” I touch his arm, and we both turn our gaze to the melt water running in rivulets and streams down the rocks.”

“Neighboring Pleneau Island is also remarkably different. Its south side used to slant toward sea level, and the slant provided ice caves to examine and ice walls to climb. That face is now vertical. Our playground has evaporated, as have the snowcaps on the small adjacent islets. Two ice tongues that slanted away from the top and had provided ski access are now gone. These changes represent the loss of millions of cubic yards of snow.”

“After scouting around the island group, we realize that both animal and bird life have changed substantially. The gentoo-penguin population” (preferring ice-free areas and nesting on bare stone, grass or moss-covered areas) “has exploded. The rookery that covered a corner of the island now rings 50 percent of the coast. And due to less snow cover, gentoos now nest on rocky areas and at higher altitudes than before. In contrast, the cormorant colony has dwindled, and although the few remaining adult birds look healthy, their nests are of remarkably poor quality, compared with those we saw last time. And their chicks are in poor shape. No surprise, they beg and beg for food, yet remain unfed. And the biggest surprise: There’s moss growing on the islands’ northern slopes! It hits us that the Antarctic Peninsula has started to resemble the South Shetlands of 15 years ago.”

“Back then, when we wintered at Hovgaard, we sent observations to various scientists working at Palmer Station. When we now send an email to ecologist Bill Fraser describing the changes in bird populations, he replied that our observations parallel theirs and that, indeed the recent changes in the state of the peninsula are staggering. He sums them up: glaciers retreating, ice shelves disappearing, air and water temperatures up, krill biomass” (the foundation of the food chain) “down, Adelie penguin populations collapsing, cormorant and chin-strap penguin populations down, but gentoo penguin numbers increasing---up to 6,000 percent near Palmer Station. The conclusion? The entire ecosystem along the Antarctic Peninsula is being transformed---from a polar to a subpolar one.”

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