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.

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