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A chilling addiction

My partner has a chilling addiction called ‘Antarctica’. Over the past twelve years he’s visited the continent and nearby islands four times. One voyage was into the southernmost parts of the Ross Sea; the others were to the Antarctic Peninsula (the part that points towards South America) and the remote island of South Georgia. He returned from each voyage with a few thousand photos of happy penguins, cheeky seal pups, incredibly rugged landscapes and mountainous seas studded with whales and icebergs.

It’s interesting to compare his early photos to places he’s revisited, especially the glaciers. Comparing this year’s with those taken just a few years ago confirms this.

Antarctica has a rich history of extraordinary human endurance. Perhaps the most amazing example was the journey of Ernest Shackleton’s party in 1914-1917. After their ship was crushed by ice in the Weddell Sea he led his 27 crew across the frozen sea. They then sailed in three small boats to Elephant Island where all but six camped at Point Wild for months on a tiny, unprotected “beach” that jutted out from the cliffs. Shackleton and five others sailed a six-metre boat across 1300 km of one of the wildest oceans on the planet to South Georgia, the only inhabited place they could possibly reach to find help. During a 2013 visit to Elephant Island my partner was able to wander around that beach and the low rocky peninsula that juts out from it, a home to hundreds of chinstrap penguins. This year, again at low tide, it was impossible: the peninsula was almost entirely underwater. The beach has disappeared and there were far fewer penguins.

With him on the ship were several highly experienced scientists who have been studying the status of birds in Antarctic and sub-Antarctic regions for decades. They explained that several penguin species were moving into previously colder areas they’d never used before, forcing the existing residents to find new breeding locations even further south and further from their former feeding grounds along the coast. The East Antarctica region, where winter temperatures can plunge to around -90°C, is getting cooler. This will cause more powerful temperature gradients, boosting the already extreme winds to further complicate the already complex systems near the poles, systems that have a strong influence on our weather patterns.

It’s amazing how many people have asked him “Did you see any polar bears?” Polar bears only live in the Arctic, though that’s no longer guaranteed. Greenland is melting. Fast. Over 250 billion tonnes of its ice melted in the past ten years and, on Arctic’s dwindling pack ice, the bears can’t hunt their food with the ease of past times. Many are starving, especially their young. In the past month dozens of lightning strikes have been recorded near the North Pole as the area warms up. About 2 billion tonnes of Greenland’s ice melted on one day in mid-June. That meltwater flows into the ocean.

Climate change isn’t something to “believe in”. It’s measurable. Its effects are visible. It’s hard to ignore, especially if you’re a penguin or polar bear—or someone who lives on a small island.

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