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.
Home Is Where the Heart Is
On a windy, snowy, low-visibility day, we finally reach Hovgaard Island. Standing on a hill next to our winter-over anchorage, I turn 360 degrees to reacquaint myself with the magnificent alpine scenery. As the exhilaration of arrival wears off, it dawns on us how dramatically the landscape has changed. There’s a lot less snow and ice than when we left in the summer of 1992. And the snow line is much higher. “Look, Rolf,” I say pointing across the bare rocks. “That pool over there stayed frozen when we were here. And the area around it was always snow covered. We skied here year-round!”
Rolf doesn’t answer me right away. He closes his eyes and shakes his head slowly in disbelief. Then he remarks softly, “Remember what an issue drinking water was for us? Well, no one needs to melt snow or ice any more.” I touch his arm, and we both turn our gaze to the melt water running in rivulets and streams down the rocks.
Neighboring Pléneau Island is also remarkably different. Its south side used to slant toward sea level, and the slant provided ice caves to examine and ice walls to climb. That face is now vertical. Our playground has evaporated, as have the snowcaps on the small adjacent islets. Ditto on the west side of Pléneau. Two ice tongues that slanted away from the top and had provided ski access are now gone. These changes represent the loss of millions of cubic yards of snow.
After scouting around the island group, we realize that both animal and bird life have changed substantially. The gentoo-penguin population has exploded. The rookery that covered a corner of the island now rings 50 percent of the coast. And due to less snow cover, gentoos now nest on rocky areas and at higher altitudes than before. In contrast, the cormorant colony has dwindled, and although the few remaining adult birds look healthy, their nests are of remarkably poor quality, compared with those we saw last time. And their chicks are in poor shape. No surprise; they beg and beg for food, yet remain unfed. The skua population must have quadrupled; they nest all over the newly exposed rocks. Additionally, there are fewer elephant seals hauled out, but more fur seals. And the biggest surprise: There’s moss growing on the islands’ northern slopes! It hits us that the Antarctic Peninsula has started to resemble the South Shetlands of 15 years ago.
Back then, when we wintered at Hovgaard, we sent observations to various scientists working at Palmer Station. When we now send an email to ecologist Bill Fraser describing the changes in bird populations, he replies that our observations parallel theirs and that, indeed, the recent changes in the state of the peninsula are staggering. He sums them up: glaciers retreating, ice shelves disappearing, air and water temperatures up, krill biomass down, Adélie penguin populations collapsing, cormorant and chinstrap penguin populations down, but gentoo penguin numbers increasing—up 6,000 percent near Palmer Station. The conclusion? The entire ecosystem along the Antarctic Peninsula is being transformed—from a polar to a subpolar one.
This voyage south, to a place we love, started as pure serendipity, an impulsive and precious gift from Rolf to me. On our last morning at Hovgaard, I’m awakened by a trilling noise, just as I was every winter’s day when this place was really my home. It’s a Weddell seal, just on the other side of Northern Light’s steel hull. I don’t know if it’s a call or just echo location. I do know that I find the trill, which starts high and ends low, hauntingly beautiful. It used to make me happy. Today, it’s a different kind of wake-up call. I break into tears.
Deborah Shapiro and Rolf Bjelke have been cruising together since 1982 on Northern Light.
Click here to read more installments of Pearls Around the White Continent.