Pearls Around the White Continent Part IV: Home, Sweet Home
In Part IV of this five-part series, Deborah Shapiro and Rolf Bjelke, on board their 40-foot steel ketch, Northern Light, return to places on the Antarctic Peninsula that they first visited in 1984. Their pleasure turns to dismay, however, when they become witnesses to the profound affects brought to the region by climate change. Click here for previous installments.
Nature in the Balance
When we were here in 1984, we found no holding close to the glacier wall. Back then, the bottom was rocks and boulders of varying sizes. The anchor chain made terrible scraping noises as it moved against them. Today, in contrast, there’s no noise because the bottom has been covered in clay. During our visit to a station on King George, a glaciologist gave us this explanation: Sediment layers in the glacial-walled bays have increased due to the recent acceleration in glacial melting.
After six weeks in the South Shetlands, we’re ready to proceed southward along the Antarctic Peninsula. We wait for the Antarctic Bellows to pick up, the northeasterly wind that was predominant along the peninsula during our previous visits. We wait some more. It never makes an appearance. We leave against a headwind. It’s just as well. The Bellows, an inertial jet that’s set in motion by a high over the Weddell Sea, never shows up this season. It’s a major weather change most likely caused by the ice disappearing in the Weddell Sea. No ice means no stationary high. No high, no Bellows.
Going south, we anchor in places we know well. Some we can compare to pictures we took in 1984. Elsewhere, we compare the places to what we remember of them. Wherever we look, we see less glacial ice and snow cover. Finally, a bit of good news: We find Port Lockroy cleaned up. A British Antarctic Survey dog-sledder, unemployed when dogs were banned from Antarctica, came up with the idea of restoring the buildings in Port Lockroy. The site, abandoned in 1962 after 14 years of use as a British spy outpost disguised as a meteorological station, is now a museum, gift shop, and post office.
A major tourist destination, the museum attracts up to three cruise-ship visits a day. In response to the increased traffic, penguin behavior has changed here, too. Neither adults nor chicks pay the slightest attention to humans strolling past their nests. Leopard seals aren’t as accommodating. In the 1980s, leopard seals started puncturing the pontoons of inflatables moored outside Palmer Station. At Port Lockroy today, a huge female has taken to swimming after cruise-ship inflatables and biting holes in them. One day, she attacked three. Much worse, another leopard seal recently pinned a diver, then pushed her deeper until she drowned. This is the first time a leopard seal has killed a human.