March 9, 2017:
So when am I actually stepping foot on continental Antarctica? Technically, the political border of Antarctica starts below the latitude of 60 degrees, so I theoretically took my first steps in Antarctica yesterday on the South Shetland Islands. But I think the physical boundary of Antarctica is a more legitimate lens to use — so today was the day I finally took my first steps on the seventh continent.
We woke up early in the morning to some stunning tabular icebergs, pieces of an ice shelf that has broken off and floated out into the ocean. They get their name for their rectangular structure. These icebergs are enormous, our ship dwarfed by these towering sapphire-white backdrops.
One of these tabular icebergs is a remnant of the famous Larsen B ice shelf — a structure that became a case study of climate change. The ice shelf had an unexpected and quick disintegration, one which stunned scientists. It became a scientific anomaly that pointed to more significant forces at play. The iceberg we were seeing was not supposed to be there, and it had traveled 100 miles in 10 years. To put the magnitude of what we saw in perspective, the iceberg by volume contained enough water to sustain the average person for the entire lifetime of the Earth — 4.5 billion years.
Let’s pause for a second and think about that. Ice from an ice shelf does not raise the sea level because it is already floating in the water. But when this ice breaks off, it acts like a cork in a bottle, and opens up ice flows from the Antarctic to start melting into the ocean — that would raise sea levels. Knowing that, should it not be concerning that over 13 billion liters of water unexpectedly fractured in a matter of a few years and are now floating in the middle of the ocean?
We gathered on the bridge of the ship and watched in awe as the iceberg passed by. Other parts of Antarctica are already in the process of breaking off in similar fashion. Merely 150 miles away, the Larsen C ice shelf has been in the process of fracturing, and it is only a matter of time before that too comes off. Robert Swan made an impassioned call to action — “If this continues, and other parts of Antarctica break off, then the sea level definitely will rise.”
There are very few circumstances in which you get visual proof that completely turns how you interpret charts and data points upside down. In many ways, it was a sobering reminder of the sheer magnitude of what we are dealing with, but also an empowering moment to stand there in soak it up. One of my main objectives for coming to Antarctica was to cut through the political bickering and see the truth for myself. And here the truth floated in front of me — all 13 billion liters of it.
My first steps on the Antarctic continent took place on Brown Bluff, a site at the base of a towering mountain, surrounded by huge ice shelves. I jumped off the zodiac onto the pebbly shoreline, and stared down at my feet which were in gray muck boots. It was a moment of many firsts: steps on Antarctica, first time arriving on a continent not via airplane, and first time not having to hold a passport, clear customs, or border patrol. It’s a funny reminder of how humans have complicated our lives, not allowing ourselves to exist in arbitrary places without identification or clear controls. But here is this vast continent at the bottom of the world, that could care less about my nationality, origin, or what financial instruments I carry.
This time we found ourselves among a group of Gentoo penguins loitering by the shoreline. Similar to yesterday, many of them were in the process of molting their coats in preparation for the harsh winter ahead. I stood staring out at the vista around, the towering ice shelf on the perimeter of an expansive ice field. We subsequently hopped in a zodiac and navigated the ice field — getting close-up views of icebergs, many of which had leopard and crab eater seals lazily basking in the afternoon sun.
That sunlight didn’t last long. Part of one of the most active weather systems on the planet, the Antarctic is known for instant weather changes, which can occur in a matter of minutes. This was certainly the case on this day, as gray clouds rolled in and harsh winds began to blow. Sitting on a zodiac traveling at 30 miles per hour certainly doesn’t help with the cold. The air bites at any exposed skin and would even nip through my gloves. As most of my friends know at this point, I generally partake in the “lighter” side of winter clothing, and relative to my peers on the expedition, this was no exception. But to be fair, I think this was the most layering I have ever worn for cold weather, so I would say that this was a personal sign of progress.
Back on the ship, we raised anchor and set out for Mikkelson Bay, our destination for tomorrow. Once the weather turned again, the bow of the ship was opened up, and many of us gathered to get fantastic views of the seas ahead. Those views included a pod of Type B killer whales, notable for the diatoms that give them a yellowish tint. The killer whales exhibited a curiosity towards our ship, often trailing us at a close distance and cutting across our path. It was a unique and humbling moment, standing out there and internalizing that we humans can only tangentially experience the other universe that exists beneath our feet.