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 http://www.polarview.aq/and 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.

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