Archive for January, 2009

“Green” Economic Recovery Plan More Important Than Ever

As a Massachusetts native and an environmental scientist, I listened to Boston Mayor Menino’s  State of the City Address last night with great interest.  Clearly, the economic crisis is as pervasive in Boston as it is anywhere else in the nation, and despite the optimism that comes with a new year and new presidential administration, any real relief from the financial pressure being felt by so many is still beyond immediate reach.  Given that grim reality, how encouraging to hear Mayor Menino recognize and highlight the city’s investment in green technology, green jobs and green businesses as a critical component of Boston’s economic future.

Where there’s clearly a need to address the economic crisis with tangible and immediate action, to ignore the potential benefits of perhaps less obvious efforts involving clean energy and sustainable development would be short-sighted.  President-elect Obama himself has pledged to double renewable energy production in an effort to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and put people back to work – a move that would most certainly contribute to the nation’s economic relief.

We need more visionary leaders like Mayor Menino and President-elect Obama to include environmentally-conscious thinking in their recovery plans … leaders of cities and states but also leaders of companies large and small.  Economic stability and environmental sustainability are part and parcel of our future success, but we’ve got to commit to that notion – and start purposefully incorporating energy efficiency, clean technology, renewable energy in our planning and operations. 

In last night’s speech, Mayor Menino called for “urgent action.”  Following his lead and embracing green ideas, programs and innovations will allow us to realize a more economically and environmentally sustainable future.  Who else out there is ready to meet the call? 

Betsy Blaisdell
Manager of Environmental Stewardship, Timberland

The Weddell Sea

We’ve moved to the other side of the Peninsula, the eastern edge of the five-hundred-mile long finger jutting out of the continent, into the Weddell Sea. We tried to get in here last year, by sailboat and kayak, but were shut out. The winter of 2007 had been a particularly cold one, even by Antarctic standards, and the entry to the Antarctic Sound had been blocked long into summer by a pair of giant icebergs, each tens of miles long. That blockage, combined with a lack of wind, meant that where we had hoped to paddle – circumnavigating Vega and James Ross islands – was choked by frozen sea, passes between the islands still filled by one and two year old ice.

This year is very, very different. The winter of 2008 was warmer and windier and even though we’re a day away from the official start of summer, much of the Weddell is already clear of the same kind of thick pack we saw last year.

That said, it is never a picnic over here. Though sunny and bright, I take a long walk today and nearly lost the tip of my nose to frostbite. The biggest worry here, this time of year? Sunburn. The combination of the atmospheric ozone hole and all the bright snow, ice and sea that surrounds means sun block is as necessary as Gore-tex.

 The landscape on this side of the Peninsula is very different. The islands are short-hilled and rust-colored, stark. Other than a solitary Argentine base, there’s no one around for one hundred miles, and you sense that remoteness. Only a couple of the dozens of tourist boats that prowl the Peninsula each austral summer comes here. More than 100,000 sizable bergs calve off the Antarctic continent each year, about one-third of them come from the glaciers lining the Weddell Sea. Remember in 2002, when a chunk of ice the size of Rhode Island dramatically broke off from the Larsen B ice shelf? The Larsen B is just south of where I am today and some of that ice and its brothers and sisters are still grounded here. As I write I’m standing alongside a flat-topped berg a few stories tall and at least two miles long.

Photo copyright Fiona Stewart

The ice here is different too. The sky is bright blue, the wind howling at thirty to forty miles an hour and I spend the better part of an hour looking through a spotting scope towards Seymour Island, following “the pack” being pushed by wind and current. It is miles wide, floating on the surface, exactly what you would not want to get caught in. Imagine being surrounded by a fast-moving pack tens of miles wide, unable to escape. You could be stuck for days, or worse.

The Weddell’s icebergs are mean and tough too, none of that soft, slushy stuff you might see at this time of year on the western side of the Peninsula. Hit one of these, and you’ll suffer. They are extremely hard, toughened by years of extreme cold and wind, often studded just below the surface by giant, sharp continental rock. Even the name of the water here is ominous – the Terror and Erebus Gulf – named for a pair of historical wooden sailing ships that first risked exploring the region.

At the north end of the channel, I take a longer walk on Paulet Island, known for its 100,000 pairs of nesting Adelies. There are so many birds it is nearly impossible to clamber up the boulder-strewn beach. Beneath many of the adult birds peek the first chicks I’ve seen this year. As the day goes on, the sky grows evermore blue, the winds stronger.

- Jon Bowermaster

 National Geographic writer, filmmaker and adventurer Jon Bowermaster has spent the last 20 years exploring remote corners of the globe and documenting his experiences for a variety of national and international magazines, as well as in his own books and documentary films.  Updates on Jon’s adventures around the globe can be found on his own blog.

Sharp Peak

Standing at the foot of Sharp Peak, a 4,000-foot-tall snow-covered granite peak rising straight up from the sea, beneath a 360-degree indigo sky, today just might be the most beautiful I have ever seen in Antarctica. Though even as I write that, I knowingly admit it’s impossible to compare days, especially here, since I’ve witnessed so many beautiful ones here over the past twenty years.

Photo copyright Fiona Stewart

But this one was a beauty with a Capital B. Sitting off Prospect Point I am surrounded by THE most spectacular wilderness on the planet. Running about in a Zodiac on a glass-calm black sea, snowcapped mountain ranges circle me marked every few miles by substantial towering glacier tongues. Thick new snow is piled up on the hills and six-foot-thick fast ice (frozen sea) extends from the continent. Dozens of penguins and seals swim and fish, then slide up onto the ice for a rest.  Flat-topped tabular icebergs bigger than small apartment buildings – crystal blue and surreal white – sit grounded in the bay or frozen into the fast ice. The sun is high and air temperatures reach to nearly forty … (earlier in the day I heard it was -10 F in Minneapolis!). Aaaaah, Antarctica!

Last year we tried climbing Sharp Peak, but were forced to quit before we started due to too soft snow and crevasses masked by flat, grey skies. On that day the bay was chock full of floating ice of all sizes; this year most of the winter ice has already been blown out. Though we wouldn’t have had much luck climbing it today either, due not to slushy snow, just way too much of it.

It is particularly hard on a day like this, surrounded by ice that is hundreds of years old and mountains covered by new-fallen snow, to believe that one day much of this whiteness lining the Antarctic Peninsula could be gone.  Though the air temperatures along the Peninsula have risen during the past fifty years by nine degrees Fahrenheit, the biggest increase on the planet, it is still easy for critics of climate change and its impacts to use this exact vista to suggest that no amount of warming, no matter who or what is responsible, will ever make a difference to this place.

Photo copyright Fiona Stewart

But despite appearances, evidence is all around: All along the Peninsula average temperatures of air and surface water are way up. Eighty-seven percent of all of the continent’s glaciers are flowing faster then ever and have receded. Each year the frozen continent is losing enough ice mass to cause the world’s oceans to rise about .05 inches, adding about 40 trillion gallons of fresh water to the world’s ocean, equivalent to the amount of water used by all U.S. residents every three months. Estimates for sea level rise are on the order of eighteen to twenty feet over the next couple millennium, but we’re not sure if it all may arrive in the same one hundred years. Ice shelves the sizes of small states along the Peninsula are fracturing at alarming rates.

The best analogy I can make for what is happening down south will be familiar to anyone who lives in a cold weather, ice-and-snow climate. Serious scientists in Antarctica talk about a “critical point,” when the combination of warm temperatures, precipitation and loss of ice cover will encourage Antarctica to melt very, very quickly. Think of your own backyard on a warm day at the end of a long winter; your yard, your stoop has been covered in snow and ice for several months and then one early spring day, after a momentous day of rain and warm temperatures, the last remnants of winter disappear …  just like that.

The very same could happen here, which is the worry. Though I will admit to understanding why, on a day like today surrounded on all sides by miles and miles of ice and snow, there are still some out there who doubt the globe is warming precipitously.  I am not one of them.

- Jon Bowermaster

 National Geographic writer, filmmaker and adventurer Jon Bowermaster has spent the last 20 years exploring remote corners of the globe and documenting his experiences for a variety of national and international magazines, as well as in his own books and documentary films.  Updates on Jon’s Antarctic adventures can be found on his own blog, and we’ll be following him here on Earthkeepers as well.

Science in Antarctica

Thanks to the 1959 treaty that governs Antarctica, the entire continent is supposed to be devoted to science (rather than military exercise, national claims or mineral exploitation). And no one does science with more conviviality than the Ukrainians at their base in the Argentine Islands called Vernadsky.

Photo copyright Fiona Stewart

I stopped in yesterday for a visit with the thirteen scientists and support crew who have been here non-stop since last February; only the cook remained from my visit of the year before, when we stopped a couple times during our kayak expedition … one night closing down the southernmost bar on the Peninsula and having to carry a couple team members back to our boat.

While the base’s reputation among Antarctic cognoscenti is for concocting the best home-brewed vodka in Antarctica, its 63-year meteorological record keeping is without compare along the Peninsula, perhaps the best on the continent. As I walked the halls of the base yesterday, one chart kept in the weatherman’s office jumped out at me: A slowly rising line from left to right, beginning in 1945 – when the Brits built the base, then known as Faraday – and ending in 2008, charting the rise in average temperatures here on this island. In 1945, the average annual temp was -5.5 C (-10 F); this year, -2.3 C (-4.25 F).

Six degrees Fahrenheit warmer over the past fifty years makes it one of the greatest average temperature increases on the planet. And it’s not just the thermometer that tells the story. During the last winter – roughly March to October – for the first time anyone can remember the sea around the Argentine Islands never froze solid. This past year they also had heavier than usual snowfalls, thanks to a combination of the decrease of frozen sea (more open ocean means more evaporation and more precipitation) and warmer temperatures.

In the narrow main hall I clamber up a wooden ladder, to revisit the machine the Brits initially used to discover the ozone hole, which opens up above Antarctica each year. The Ukrainians have kept up the monitoring of the atmospheric hole; the current Mr. Ozone at the base showed me another graph, illustrating how the ozone hole grows to its largest in August (25 million square kilometers) and shrinks to its smallest in December (12 million square kilometers). While the hole has been shrinking in recent years (thanks to an international ban on hole-causing CFCs) everyone at Vernadsky takes it very seriously. Everyday before they go outside they check its size and the sun’s strength … and on some days decide not to go out if the hole is big and sun penetrating, for fear of burning eyes and skin.

- Jon Bowermaster

Photo copyright Fiona Stewart

National Geographic writer, filmmaker and adventurer Jon Bowermaster has spent the last 20 years exploring remote corners of the globe and documenting his experiences for a variety of national and international magazines, as well as in his own books and documentary films.  Updates on Jon’s Antarctic adventures can be found on his own blog, and we’ll be following him here on Earthkeepers as well.

Grand Didier Channel, Antarctic Peninsula

I first came to Antarctica twenty years ago, as part of an international team intent on dog sledding across the continent. Since then, I’ve been back more than a dozen times; last season for nearly three months, much of that time traveling the length of the six hundred mile long Peninsula by sailboat and kayak, the rocky finger jutting into the Southern Ocean from the continent. Unlike many of the most veteran of Antarctic aficionados I’ve had the good fortune to get to know both the stark, forbidding interior of the continent, as well as parts of its glacier-lined coastline.

Photo copyright Fiona Stewart

What I’ve learned is that every summer season – roughly December through February – is vastly different here. And every day is vastly different too. What is not changing is that during the past fifty years, most noticeably during the past decade, air temperatures along the Peninsula have warmed more than anywhere on the planet. The impacts of warmer temperatures are evidenced everywhere, from loss of ice cover to changing wildlife habits. The ability to take a close-up look at that evolution is a great chance for me.

This morning I spent the morning among the Yalour Islands, near the northern end of the Grand Didier Channel, zipping by Zodiac around icebergs of a variety of shapes and sizes. Initially the skies were bright and blue, the first such we’ve seen in a few days. Actually, the last blue skies were accompanied by hurricane winds, which blew every cloud in the sky out of the way. But as is typical for Antarctica, things changed rapidly today as a fast-moving snow squall blotted the sun and turned the idyllic scene quickly more ominous, a whiteout, impossible to see the shoreline.

We passed through these islands eleven months ago by kayak and the difference today is dramatic. Because we were going to travel along the Peninsula by kayak last January, for many months I had started each morning checking out its satellite images of Antarctica’s ice.

Each year more than seven millions square miles of sea ice freezes around the continent, growing the continent to twice the size of the U.S. And each year that pack ice breaks up and melts in different patterns and stages dependent on how warm the temperatures are, how big are the winds. Thanks to a colder-than-usual winter last year the continent was ringed by frozen sea ice until late in January, even the Peninsula, which is generally the first Antarctic region to lose its ice.

By comparison, this season the Peninsula is amazingly clear of pack ice, less than anyone can remember seeing.

Perhaps most telling: Yesterday at Cuverville Island, on a rocky, north-facing slope we spied something very new to Antarctica: Grass. About twenty feet off the sea, two small patches of just-greening herb sprouted, fed by summer sun and warming air temperatures, clear evidence the Peninsula is warming.

- Jon Bowermaster

National Geographic writer, filmmaker and adventurer Jon Bowermaster has spent the last 20 years exploring remote corners of the globe and documenting his experiences for a variety of national and international magazines, as well as in his own books and documentary films.  Updates on Jon’s Antarctic adventures can be found on his own blog, and we’ll be following him here on Earthkeepers as well.