Antarctica: a trip to the heart of global warming

An expedition of scientists investigates the impact of climate change in the Antarctic, home to 90% of the planet’s ice

On board the ❛Marinero Fuentealba❜ - 21 jun 2019 - 14:33 UTC

The Antarctic is the only continent in the world without any countries, borders or wars. But it is here, on a windy, lonely ‘island’ twice the size of Australia where 90% of the planet’s ice survives, that scientists are wrestling with the complexities of the impact of climate change on Earth.

On February 18, a team of scientists supported by military personnel made their way to the epicenter of global warming. The 55th Chilean Antarctic Expedition is the first Chilean expedition to get inside the polar circle without an icebreaker. Instead, they used the Navy ship Marinero Fuentealba to enter the area with the aim of collecting algae and marine life growing close to melting glaciers, and also to conduct studies to build three bases for scientific research. The furthest one will be located deep inside the Antarctic circle, at an all but abandoned military base that will make an ideal natural laboratory for understanding the connections between the world’s coldest, most arid continent and the rest of the planet.

If the whole of Antarctica were to melt, the sea level would rise by 60 meters, enough to submerge all of Europe. Scientists know that this will not happen in the next few centuries, but they are concerned about less dramatic developments that are already in progress.

“The Antarctic regulates natural processes on a global scale,” says Marcelo Leppe, director of the Chilean Antarctic Institute (INACH), and organizer of the expedition, which EL PAÍS joined. “This continent is the beating heart of the planet, and every year its surface changes across some 14 million square kilometers [more than the whole of Europe] due to ice fluctuation. The Antarctic is connected to almost all the seas on the planet. It influences the agricultural cycle in China, the monsoon flooding in Vietnam, the prevailing pattern of water flows in Australia, and also extreme weather events in South America.”

The enormous platform of ice that covers the continent is usually divided into three main areas: east, west and the peninsula, the tongue of land that is closest to South America and which hosts most of the scientific and military bases. It is on the peninsula, too, where the average temperatures have risen most dramatically and where most of the ice is being lost at a rate that has tripled in global terms in the last 30 years.

One of the places where the first signs of change may be appearing is the bank free of ice close to the glacier walls that rise 30 meters and are as a deeper blue than the sky. Wearing bulky orange suits that not only keep them warm but also allow them to float should they fall into the water, members of the team get the anchor cables ready. It is summer now and the temperature does not go below minus 5º C, although it can feel like minus 18º C. The biologists take samples of two types of algae that live on the coasts of Chile as well as in Antarctica,  in a habitat some 1,500 km long.

While the land team takes samples at surface level, divers plunge 10 meters down, wearing a number of layers under their wet suits that allow them to be submerged for up to half an hour. The sea here can reach minus 3º C due to the salinity of the water, which lowers the freezing point. It is a chilly business but the sea team is rewarded with a view of the Antarctic that few get to see first-hand, and which they might even find themselves sharing with a penguin or a sea lion.

“When there is a lot of ice melt, there are few mollusks and algae,” says Marcel Velásquez, a 31-year-old oceanographer and diver. “Fresh water together with the sediment from the glacier means that no organisms can adapt. This backs up our theory that the glacial retreat is affecting the marine ecosystems.”

Velásquez left his native Venezuela in 2011 with $30 in his pocket. A specialist in algae genetics, he worked at the Natural Science Museum in Paris and at the Smithsonian in the US and is now getting a PhD at Magallanes University in Chile.

Diving is a labor of love; in this case, love of science. Those involved on this expedition are young students who earn the equivalent of €325 for a 12-day stint with several spells underwater a day. “It’s worth it,” says Diego Henríquez, 28, who has two children and studies marine biology at the Austral University of Chile. “The experience is invaluable, both personal and professional.”

When the divers return to the ship, the scientists converge around the bags that hold the samples and the ship’s dining hall turns into an improvised laboratory complete with microscopes, pipettes and a wealth of marine flora and fauna. “Warming is more obvious in the sub-Antarctic region [south of Chile] where the glaciers are melting much faster and the water conditions are changing,” says Andrés Mansilla, head scientist of the project at Magallanes University. “Wherever there is a lot of glacier melt, the same seemingly adaptable species always appear while others disappear, partly because of the big drop in salt concentration.”

One of the types of algae they have found is apparently not native to the area, though this is to be confirmed with a DNA test. “Warming poses an additional danger because it can mean that foreign species are brought to the area by a ship or a tourist or simply by sea currents, and these may be better adapted to a range of temperatures or salinity than local species and usurp their niche,” adds Mansilla.

The Spanish biologist Andrés Barbosa is also familiar with the winners and losers of climate change. He has been studying chinstrap penguins since the 1990s on Deception Island in the South Shetland Islands archipelago and around the Juan Carlos I base on Livingston island, the two Spanish research bases in the Antarctic. His data suggests that the numbers of chinstrap penguins have dropped by 41% since he began his research. They feed on krill, a small shellfish that looks like a prawn, and which is also the basic food for certain types of whale and seal. According to some studies, the amount of krill in the waters around the peninsula has fallen by 80%. Krill is also fished by humans and used in food supplements for its Omega 3 content (a bottle of 120 tablets cost €50) and it is fed to fish-farmed salmon.

“Although warming affects the entire planet, the areas that are most affected are the Arctic, the Antarctic and the high mountain glaciers,” says Barbosa, a polar research coordinator for the State Research Agency in Spain. “Many of the species that have adapted to live in these environments don’t have the option of leaving for colder climes. Although the chinstrap penguin is not in danger of extinction, the drop in numbers is cause for concern. Gentoo penguins are another matter. They not only feed on krill but also squid and other fish and they are fanning out. This is the dynamic of any ecosystem in the process of change.”

On February 23, having crossed the Antarctic circle, the ship reaches the Carvajal base, its goal furthest to the south. From a distance, the remains of a British fuel-carrying De Havilland plane can be seen on the top of a glacier, where it crashed on an ice runway that was here in 1964. In 1984, the British gave this military enclave back to Chile. The last time it was used by the Chilean military was in 2014. Since then, it has briefly been used by scientists from INACH who use it as a refuge.

Everything in Carvajal seems wilder and more inhospitable. Several meters from the weather-beaten buildings, there are colonies of sea lions, thousands strong, whose fierce barks turn to whimpers as we approach. The elephant seals groan loudly, their voices echoing through the silence. A strong smell of fish rises from the excrement that stains large swathes of ice and rock brown.

The inside of the main building is reminiscent of a time capsule. The clock has stopped at 1.34. On a blackboard there is a list of chores that needed to be completed before closing the base. In the living space, there is a bar with board games and music cassettes from another era, as well as a pool table, dormitories, a kitchen and even a sauna. All that is missing is a laboratory. Outside, in an area of ice-free rock, a group of engineers and marines are drilling holes. The aim is to bring enough samples back to Chile to continue with geological and seismic research for the building of a new scientific base with a capacity for 60 experts. When completed, it will be the first civil base in this remote enclave.

But despite its remoteness, climate change has reached here with tragic consequences. In January 1999, INACH researcher Eduardo García and a student were riding up the Fuchs glacier on a snowmobile when the ice broke under them. They fell down a crack and the vehicle crushed García’s skull. A group set out to rescue them from the base. But when they looked down the crack in the ice, they could see it was continuing to open. They found the student on an ice shelf 50 meters down; he was still alive.

Several years later, Chilean glacier specialists warned that warming was increasing the size of the numerous cracks hidden just below the surface of the Fuchs glacier, ruling it out as a landing strip. It was some time before that the British had given it up completely, building another strip 30 km from Carvajal in what is now known as Rothera.

“Carjaval is the base of the future,” says Leppe. “It is inside Marguerite Bay and is the last place where there was an emperor penguin colony in what is known as Chilean Antarctic territory. That disappeared when the permanent ice sheet melted. They didn’t come back. It is an area of biological and climatic transition. And it is also our only coastal base within the Antarctic circle.”

The Antarctic Agreement, signed by 29 countries including Spain, bans any territorial claims on the continent and also any military activity or exploitation of natural resources for commercial ends. This last ban is largely due to the fact it would be enormously disruptive to exploit any resources under ice that is at times more than 4,000 meters thick. There is some concern that the terms of the agreement could change in 2048, which is the first year it can be modified. It is hard to imagine how the world will be then, but any decision needs the unanimous support of the 29 signatories.

The future of the Antarctic beyond 2048 is difficult to predict. “I think our grandchildren are going to be able to see the Antarctic as it is today; I don’t know about our great-grandchildren because scenarios 100 years into the future start to look grimmer,” says Leppe.

The trip

To get to the Antarctic from Punta Arenas in Chile, the ship has to cross Drake Passage: 1,000 km of open sea between the southern tip of South America and the northern tip of the Antarctica peninsula. It is considered by most seamen to be the most dangerous sea crossing there is. The Fuentealba made the voyage in what the crew agreed were “enviable” conditions. The waves were scarcely three meters high, crashing onto the sides of the ship and tossing its passengers around as though we were on a fairground attraction.

At one point we crossed an iceberg around 20km long and around 3 km wide that had split from a glacier. It had broken more or less in the center, leaving a gap of about one kilometer through which the Fuentealba sailed very slowly. On various occasions, pieces of ice fell away from the walls as high as a 10-story building with a loud crash that failed to frighten the penguins, seals and whales living on this floating island.

One morning the radar warned of the presence of a ship that was coming through the waves without any identification system or radio communication. It turned out to be an Icebird yacht coming from the Cayman Islands carrying tourists, which is apparently not an uncommon sight during the summer months.

In fact, 90% of people that set foot on the Antarctic are tourists, amounting to around 50,000 a year. Some come on small cruise ships and others fly from Chile or Argentina on the few airlines offering the service. They spend the day on a rubber dinghy doing a tour of the South Shetland Islands that act as the gateway to the continent, and they return on the same day for a fee of several thousand euros. Access to anywhere beyond this zone is reserved for researchers and their teams.

On board the Fuentealba, the regime is as follows: breakfast at 7 am, lunch at midday, tea at 5 pm and dinner at 7 pm. The crew of 44 is almost exclusively male (there are two women) and they rotate in a system of four-hour shifts. The ship itself was built in 2014 and it is one of the Chilean Navy’s fastest vessels if not its strongest: it would not withstand a collision with an iceberg, for example, which, according to Commander Iván Stenger is the equivalent of running into a rock.

The safety of the ship is in the hands of the crew who keep an eye out day and night from the control bridge. “When it comes to navigation, it doesn’t matter how much technology there is, there’s nothing to beat the human eye,” says Stenger. “Most of the accidents that have happened in the Antarctic have been due to putting too much trust in instruments. They are a help, but navigation here is the same as it was in days gone by, using sight and the stars, the coast and compass readings, in the same way that sailors did 100 years ago.”

The bases

The first stop is the Julio Escudero base that belongs to INACH on King George Island, a logistics center with an aerodrome that serves as a launch pad for more remote regions. The landscape is unimpressive: a grey sky, metallic grey sea and enormous rusting containers. At the gates of the base, you can still see the rubble of the Chile Maritime Governance building that was burned down in a fire due to an electrical accident. “It was leveled in less than an hour,” says Paulina Rojas, coordinator of the INACH expedition.

Any base offers free coffee and lunch. The currency here is barter, above all between different countries: you give me a couple of seats on your plane and I will take your scientific samples on my boat.

This year, 13 Czechs were stranded by the ice at the Gregorio Mendel base. Chile had the responsibility of rescuing them but had no ship that was up to the task. In the end, the Argentinian icebreaker Almirante Irizar scooped them up. At times, detailed note is taken of who owes who what, but if relations are good, the arrangement is somewhat looser.

Chile controls one of the main aerodromes in the northwest of Antarctica. The country is busily renovating its scientific bases. This year, rock samples from the Escudero, Yelcho and Carvajal bases are being analyzed prior to the construction of three new research bases, an endeavor that will cost around €70 million, according to INACH.

Living in one of the containers in Escudero is the biologist Renato Borrás who is completing his thesis with the help of the local sea lions; he spent some months stunning the females so that he could take samples of their milk to measure contamination levels. Now he is getting a sea tank ready with marine species taken from the waters around the peninsula, in what amounts to a pilot project for a massive aquarium due to be opened to the public in the Punta Arenas International Antarctic Center in 2022.

“People think that there is nothing under the water in the Antarctic,” he says. “It’s very interesting because you go inside an aquarium with all the fauna from here and you see that life is possible. The challenge is to explain how.”

Speaking about his day-to-day experience in this windy, lonely wasteland, he adds, “Living here is totally different from what you might think. Whatever you have conjured up, it won’t be like that. There is an almost complete absence of money, which is very significant on a social level. Things are done because you want to do them or because you are helping someone. When you are alone, there is a huge process of self-discovery. There is no internet or telephone. You are alone with yourself and you realize that time is not as short as we think it is: it doesn’t go as quickly as we think.”

Climate change

According to John Turner, a meteorologist from the British Antarctic Survey, predicting the impact of climate change in the Antarctic is “devilishly” difficult. The climate simulation models that predict the response to climate change and which are crucial to our understanding of the effects of global warming fail spectacularly on this continent. This is partly because of the incredibly complex math involved in describing what happens where the sea comes into contact with the fresh water ice covering most of the coast, as well as the calculations involved in reproducing the wild wind currents that do much to isolate this continent from the rest of the planet.

There are signs that the Antarctic is already affected by climate change, though the evidence is rather more subtle than in other regions. The Antarctic peninsula has the distinction of being one of the places where the temperatures have risen the most since the 1950s: around 2.5º, three times more than on the planet overall. For the first 15 years of this century, temperatures dropped due to local wind patterns but have risen again in the last few years. “There is no simple message in the Antarctic the way there is in the Arctic, where the effects of global warming are much clearer; the changes here are more subtle,” says Turner.

The advance or retreat of the glaciers on a global level is determined using satellites equipped with a laser altimeter. “The problem here is that the margin of error is around 15 cm which is more or less the same as what certain areas can lose or gain, and that makes it very hard to establish what is happening,” says Julian Dowdeswell, director of the Polar Scott Research Institute in the UK.

Since the start of this century, when records became more accurate, the Antarctic is said to have lost around 220 gigatons of ice every year. “Melted, all this ice would cover the Madrid region with 31 meters of water,” says Francisco Navarro, an expert in glaciers at the Polytechnic University of Madrid. “Or the whole of Spain would be under a sea 43 centimeters deep.”

The actual effect of all this melted ice is a rise in the global sea level of 0.6 millimeters a year. Meanwhile, all of Earth’s glaciers, minus those in the Antarctic and Greenland, lose around 335 gigatons a year, triggering a global sea level rise of 0.9 mm, adds Navarro. The Arctic and high mountain glaciers are more susceptible to climate change as they experience temperatures closer to 0º C, whereas average temperatures in the Antarctic vary from -10º C on the coast to -60º C inland.

The loss of ice in the Antarctic takes place mainly on the peninsula and in the west of the continent where enormous glaciers stretch from the land into the sea in vast barriers. These glaciers present the highest risk for the future as masses of warm water have been seeping for some years now below the ice and melting them from underneath. The Pine Island glacier, for example, has retreated by dozens of kilometers since records were first made, and this trend is accelerating.

The picture gets increasingly complicated in the east, where the glaciers on the mountains are far more stable. “For decades, an increase in ice was recorded but in the last few years, the first signs have emerged of some of the glaciers here are thinning down,” says Dowdeswell.

The lack of past records which could help determine if the Antarctic had experienced other periods of warming is problematic. Ten European countries have just launched a project called Beyond Epica to perforate a column of Antarctic ice almost three kilometers deep. The bubbles of trapped air in the ice will allow them to reconstruct a continuous climate record stretching back over the last million and a half years. Olaf Eisen, the project’s coordinator, says, “I believe we are already seeing a huge impact from climate change on this continent accelerated by human activity, and the main concern is that we don’t know if we have passed the point of no return.”

But it is still difficult to establish whether the ice melt in the Antarctic is due to human activity and the effects of emissions, or whether it is part of a natural cycle. This year, the UN’s climate change panel will publish a report on oceans and the Earth’s glaciers that will include forecasts based on predicted increases in temperatures.

According to Jerónimo López, an Antarctic researcher and geologist at Madrid’s Autonomous University, it is a combination of both. “The terrestrial ecosystem is complex and interconnected,” he says. “For processes on this scale, you can’t discount natural causes which in certain specific glaciers or certain developments could be the predominant factor. At the same time, human interference in natural cycles over the course of last century is generally undeniable.”

According to Dowdeswell, whatever the cause, there is no sign of the ice melt stopping. “It is very likely that the glaciers on the Antarctic peninsula and the west of the continent will continue to lose mass,” says Dowdeswell. “And there is also concern because the signs suggest the glaciers in the east will also lose ice.”

Meanwhile, Turner says that by the end of this century average temperatures could have risen by between 2º C and 4º C. “The good news is that the Antarctic’s big masses of ice will remain below zero in this scenario, which means we will not see the melting of 90% of all the ice on the planet and the 60-meter increase in sea level that this would entail,” he says. “The real danger is that liquid water will form under the ice platforms and melt them from underneath.”

English version by Heather Galloway.


Design: Fernando Hernández, Ana Isabel Fernández, Nelly Natalí Sánchez.

Graphics: Nelly Ragua, Eduardo Ortiz.

Video: Luis Almodóvar, Álvaro de la Rúa.

Text: Nuño Domínguez.

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