Notes From Antarctica, Part 2

And now for the sobering aspect of my trip to the Antarctic. The naturalists on board our ship told us that the water temperature in the region has increased a few degrees over the past 50 years. This change seemed trivial at first, but I gradually learned that it was actually quite dramatic. They believe the higher temperature increases the amount of snowfall, causes ice sheets to break loose, and ultimately wreaks havoc on many of the animals.

On our last stop, we visited a colony of Gentoos, shown here.


Apparently these little guys got a very late start on breeding. We hardly saw any chicks, and we were told that most of the ones we did see would not survive very long. Penguins have to wait until the snow melts off their rocky nests before they start breeding. But if there are increased amounts of snow, which our naturalists have noticed over the years, the penguins fall behind schedule. A late start is often fatal for the chicks because they don’t get big enough to survive on their own; their parents, who need to molt and stock up on food for their own survival during the rapidly approaching winter, are forced to abandon them. Penguins have a very narrow summer window in which they can breed, and I worry that their window will someday close.

It was a very sad sight. Now I must stress that our naturalists are quick to not to blame these occurrences strictly on global warming, but I think they are being diplomatic.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been covering this issue for some time.

I recently read its 2001 report on “Impacts, Adaptation

and Vulnerability.” The section on the polar regions notes:

  • In the Antarctic, over the past half-century, there has been a marked warming trend in the Antarctic Peninsula.
  • Precipitation in the Antarctic has increased.
  • Surface waters of the Southern Ocean have warmed and become less saline.

What does this all mean? Here are the impacts noted in the report:

Substantial warming and increases in precipitation are projected for polar regions over the 21st century by almost all climate models. There are eight key concerns related to the impact of this climate change in the Arctic and Antarctic. Associated with these concerns will be changes to the atmosphere and the oceans that will propagate to other regions of the world:

  1. Changes in ice sheets and polar glaciers: Increased melting is expected on Arctic glaciers and the Greenland ice sheet, and they will retreat and thin close to their margins. Most of the Antarctic ice sheet is likely to thicken as a result of increased precipitation. There is a small risk, however, that the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets will retreat in coming centuries. Together, these cryospheric changes may make a significant contribution to sea-level rise.
  2. Changes around the Antarctic Peninsula: This region has experienced spectacular retreat and collapse of ice shelves, which has been related to a southerly migration of the January 0°C isotherm resulting from regional warming. The loss of these ice shelves has few direct impacts. Projected warming is likely, however, to break up ice shelves further south on the Antarctic Peninsula, expose more bare ground, and cause changes in terrestrial biology, such as introduction of exotic plants and animals.
  3. Changes in the Southern Ocean and impacts on its life: Climate change is likely to produce long-term—perhaps irreversible—changes in the physical oceanography and ecology of the Southern Ocean. Projected reductions in sea-ice extent will alter under-ice biota and spring bloom in the sea-ice marginal zone and will cause profound impacts at all levels in the food chain, from algae to krill to the great whales. Marine mammals and birds, which have life histories that tie them to specific breeding sites, will be severely affected by shifts in their foraging habitats and migration of prey species. Warmer water will potentially intensify biological activity and growth rates of fish. Ultimately, this should lead to an increase in the catch of marketable fish, and retreat of sea ice will provide easier access to southern fisheries.
  4. Changes in sea ice: There will be substantial loss of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. Predictions for summer ice indicate that its extent could shrink by 60% for a doubling of carbon dioxide (CO2), opening new sea routes. This will have major trading and strategic implications. With more open water, there will be a moderation of temperatures and an increase in precipitation in Arctic lands. Antarctic sea-ice volume is predicted to decrease by 25% or more for a doubling of CO2, with sea ice retreating about 2 degrees of latitude.
  5. Changes in permafrost: Thickening of the seasonally thawed layer above permafrost (active layer) is expected. Modeling studies indicate that large areas of permafrost terrain will begin to thaw, leading to changes in drainage, increased mass movements, thermal erosion, and altered landscapes in much of the Arctic and subarctic. Warming of permafrost, thawing of ground ice, and development of thermokarst terrain have been documented over the past several decades. In developed areas of the Arctic, continuation of such changes may lead to costly damage to human infrastructure.
  6. Changes in Arctic hydrology: The hydrology of the Arctic is particularly susceptible to warming because small rises in temperature will result in increased melting of snow and ice, with consequent impacts on the water cycle. There will be a shift to a runoff regime that is driven increasingly by rainfall, with less seasonal variation in runoff. There will be more ponding of water in some areas, but peatlands may dry out because of increased evaporation and transpiration from plants. In some areas, thawing of permafrost will improve infiltration. An expected reduction in ice-jam flooding will have serious impacts on riverbank ecosystems and aquatic ecology, particularly in the highly productive Arctic river deltas. Changes in Arctic runoff will affect sea-ice production, deepwater formation in the North Atlantic, and regional climate. A major impact would result from a weakening of the global thermohaline circulation as a result of a net increase in river flow and the resulting increased flux of freshwater from the Arctic Ocean.
  7. Changes in Arctic biota: Warming should increase biological production; however, the effects of increased precipitation on biological production are unclear. As warming occurs, there will be changes in species compositions on land and in the sea, with a tendency for poleward shifts in species assemblages and loss of some polar species. Changes in sea ice will alter the seasonal distributions, geographic ranges, patterns of migration, nutritional status, reproductive success, and ultimately the abundance and balance of species. Animals that are dependent on sea ice—such as seals, walrus, and polar bears—will be disadvantaged. High-arctic plants will show a strong growth response to summer warming. It is unlikely that elevated CO2 levels will increase carbon accumulation in plants, but they may be damaged by higher ultraviolet-B radiation. Biological production in lakes and ponds will increase.
  8. Impacts on human communities: Climate change, in combination with other stresses, will affect human communities in the Arctic. The impacts may be particularly disruptive for communities of indigenous peoples following traditional lifestyles. Changes in sea ice, seasonality of snow, and habitat and diversity of food species will affect hunting and gathering practices and could threaten longstanding traditions and ways of life. On the other hand, communities that practice these lifestyles may be sufficiently resilient to cope with these changes. Increased economic costs are expected to affect infrastructure, in response to thawing of permafrost and reduced transportation capabilities across frozen ground and water. However, there will be economic benefits—including new opportunities for trade and shipping across the Arctic Ocean, lower operational costs for the oil and gas industry, lower heating costs, and easier access for ship-based tourism.

I agree that you can’t blame the death of a penguin chick purely on an SUV, but I also believe that extra pollution in one part of the world does have an effect on other parts of the world. In America, we make a very big deal about second-hand smoke; we still have a ways to go before we make global second-hand smoke a priority.

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