Author Tags: Travel
In his self-published South of Sixty: Life on an Antarctic Base (Antarctic Memories $24.95), Michael Warr of Prince George recalls his return visit Antarctic in 2005 during which he learned husky dogs were no longer welcomed as an alien species. Since then tourism has increased to 32,000 humans per year.
Born in 1943, Warr agrees with ex-Vice President Al Gore’s assertion that when it comes to global warming, Antarctica is a proverbial canary in the coalmine. Trouble is, you need to be a scientist to see the problem.
“In a few places along the Antarctic Peninsula there is a bit more rock showing, but mostly one has to rely on scientific information,” he says. “For example, 87% of the Antarctic Peninsula glaciers are receding and the only two flowering Antarctic plants are spreading southwards.
“Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth showed Antarctic ice cores that indicated that the temperature and CO2 levels had risen most strongly in the last 200 years out of the last 600,000. More recent ice cores now can go back 900,000 years, and still the only exceptional rise in temperature and CO2 is in the industrial age of the last 200 hundred years.”
A member of the British Antarctic Club, the American Polar Society and the New Zealand Antarctic Society, Warr first worked in the Antarctic for two years as a meteorologist in the early 1960s—for one year at Deception Island and one year at Adelaide Island. Having returned to Antarctica as a cruise ship historian in 2006, Warr is currently preparing a touring slide show exhibit.
[0-9738504-0-X. $24.95 Antarctic Memories Publishing, 2640 Ewert Crescent, Prince George, B.C. V2M 2S2]
[BCBW 2006] "Travel"
Pertinent Changes in the Antarctic
from Michael Warr
As one cruises by the Antarctic Peninsula the mountains and glaciers stretch southwards. Icefalls overhang cliffs and plunge into the sea. White ice abounds on land and floats in the water. Only by comparing maps of fifty years earlier can one see any changes in the local glaciers and ice shelves. The northern part of the Larsen Ice Shelf on the east side of the peninsula has gone. It is no longer possible to travel on the ice shelf south from James Ross Island. 87% of glaciers in the Antarctic Peninsula and associated islands have retreated in the last fifty years. The temperature of the region has increased by 2.5 º C, five times the average of the rest of the Antarctic. Ice cores drilled in the Antarctic ice show that in the last 900,000 years the last two hundred years have had the greatest increase in temperature and carbon dioxide.
Much of the Western Antarctic, the smaller and less land-based part of Antarctica, is losing ice. Though parts of the larger Eastern Antarctic are accumulating more snow due to increasing temperatures, overall the Antarctic has diminished in sea ice and continent ice. The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment of 2002 to 2005 employed two satellites in tandem to measure variations in the Antarctic’s mass and gravitational pull; the ice mass has decreased. Recent climate change has affected Antarctica.
The decreasing sea ice results in a decline in available krill, a shrimp like crustacean; the krill larvae spawn under the sea ice. There is less food for emperor penguins, and a decrease in their numbers. At present the numbers for most other Southern Ocean wildlife remain stable.
The three other Antarctic penguins, the gentoo, the chinstrap and the Adélie, have maintained their populations. There has been some movement south for breeding of the three smaller penguin groups as sea ice decreases further north. Unfortunately, with warmer summers penguins suffer heat stress once the temperature is over 8 º C. On the other hand, receding glaciers mean more available breeding beaches for the penguins.
The number of whales has changed due to the decrease in whaling. In 1963 at Grytviken in South Georgia I saw a 60’ foot fin whale being ‘processed.’ Within thirty minutes the whale was ‘gone.’ The blubber was removed, the flesh packaged, the bones sawn up, and the offal was turned into fertilizer. With a ban on most whaling since that time the decimated whale populations have started to increase. In my two years living in the Antarctic in the 1960s I saw only two live whales. On my return in February 2005 as an Antarctic tourist the passengers saw thirty sightings of six different whales in less than three weeks. The numbers are, however, nowhere near that of a hundred and fifty years ago.
During the 1960s some 200 fur seals bred on Signy Island in the South Orkneys. At present the number of fur seals on the narrow coast of this 6.5 km by 5 km mostly ice-covered island is 20,000. Fur seals are now seen as far south as 68 º C in Marguerite Bay. In the Antarctic regions in the nineteenth century fur seals had been slaughtered almost to extinction for their pelts. Protection of the fur seals and the decline in whale numbers has helped raise the fur seal population to several million. The population of other seals such as the crab and Weddell are holding firm.
There have been changes for the human populations in the Antarctic. The cost of maintaining scientists in the Antarctic is high; governments control most of the funding so the number of people wintering has been kept between 1500 and 2000. There is an increase in the austral summer with easier temperatures and transportation. But tourists have produced the greatest change in Antarctic human numbers. In the 1960s summers only a few hundred visitors ventured down from South America. During the mid-1990s the number of Antarctic visitors rose to 9000. Russian ice-strengthened ships, no longer affordable in the Arctic, headed south, there was an increase in disposable income, and there was a desire to experience the less traveled parts of the world. Ten years later the number of Antarctic visitors had risen to 27,000. It is estimated that the 2006/7 summer will have 32,000 tourists. The majority of people leave from South America. From Ushuaia in Argentina it is two days sea travel to the Antarctic Peninsula. It takes a minimum of five days to reach the Antarctic from Australia and New Zealand. Many from these two countries will head to South America to benefit from a shorter distance and lower expenses. In December 2006, I arrived back at Ushuaia after an Antarctic cruise as an historian. That evening there were seven vessels ready to take tourists to the Antarctic.
The numbers of Antarctic visitors is not diminishing, and as it is the most accessible part of the Antarctic, the Antarctic Peninsula receives the vast majority of tourists. There is a concern that the increased traffic will put environmental stress on the landing sites where many of the 100 passenger ships land their visitors. The sheer number of ships could also pollute the seas. One vessel of 2600 passengers cruised along the peninsula at the end of January 2006; fortunately the passengers did not land. Though some gentoo penguin chicks at Port Lockroy benefit by being nearer to the hut where visitors enter; other studies elsewhere have shown that humans can cause stress on wildlife sites.
At this time most tourist companies belong to the International Association of Antarctic Tourist Operators, (I.A.A.T.O.). But more companies are heading south, and not all belong to I.A.A.T.O. It is left up to each country as to which Antarctic rules are enforced; for example the size of vessels that are allowed into the fragile environment. In the future cheap plane trips that land in the Antarctic could be a cause for concern. How much pressure would this put on the wildlife. Meanwhile, the climate is changing as is the Antarctic.
Michael Warr © April 15, 2007