Tag Archives: Antarctica

A quick update from Earth

In the past two weeks, the results of three surveys and studies about the Earth’s climate have been released: a paper on a possible dramatic climate shift, a survey of coral bleaching at the Great Barrier Reef, and a study on the West Antarctic ice sheet. All three investigations tell the story of climate change happening quicker than was previously anticipated.  In short the earth isn’t doing well.

From the paper published last week by former NASA climate scientist James Hansen:

The nations of the world agreed years ago to try to limit global warming to a level they hoped would prove somewhat tolerable. But leading climate scientists warned on Tuesday that permitting a warming of that magnitude would actually be quite dangerous.

The likely consequences would include killer storms stronger than any in modern times, the disintegration of large parts of the polar ice sheets and a rise of the sea sufficient to begin drowning the world’s coastal cities before the end of this century, the scientists declared.

“We’re in danger of handing young people a situation that’s out of their control,” said James E. Hansen, the retired NASA climate scientist who led the new research. The findings were released Tuesday morning by a European science journal, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.

A draft version of the paper was released last year, and it provoked a roiling debate among climate scientists. The main conclusions have not changed, and that debate seems likely to be replayed in the coming weeks.

The basic claim of the paper is that by burning fossil fuels at a prodigious pace and pouring heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, humanity is about to provoke an abrupt climate shift.

Specifically, the authors believe that fresh water pouring into the oceans from melting land ice will set off a feedback loop that will cause parts of the great ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica to disintegrate rapidly.

The paper, written by Dr. Hansen and 18 other authors, dwells on the last time Earth warmed naturally, about 120,000 years ago, when the temperature reached a level estimated to have been only slightly higher than today. Large chunks of the polar ice disintegrated then, and scientists have established that the sea level rose 20 to 30 feet.

Climate scientists agree that humanity is about to cause an equal or greater rise in sea level, but they have tended to assume that such a large increase would take centuries, at least. The new paper argues that it could happen far more rapidly, with the worst case being several feet of sea-level rise over the next 50 years, followed by increases so precipitous that they would force humanity to beat a hasty retreat from the coasts.

In Australia, more than 40% of the Great Barrier Reef has been damaged by coral bleaching.

Scientists who have dedicated their careers to studying the reef and its ecosystem say the current bleaching is unprecedented, and perhaps unrecoverable. The emotion in their responses so far have been palpable.

“I witnessed a sight underwater that no marine biologist, and no person with a love and appreciation for the natural world for that matter, wants to see,” said Australian coral scientist Jodie Rummer in a statement, after spending more than a month at a monitoring station in the Great Barrier Reef.

Though corals comprise only about 0.2 percent of the global oceans, they support perhaps a quarter of all marine species. There’s about 400 years of coral growth rings in the Great Barrier Reef, though no evidence of widespread bleaching before 1998. The current bleaching is the third major episode since then, and the worst yet—driven by the record-setting El Niño and steadily increasing ocean temperatures triggered by human-caused climate change.

“What we’re seeing now is unequivocally to do with climate change,” Justin Marshall, a reef scientist from the University of Queensland, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Nick Heath, a representative of the World Wildlife Fund in Brisbane, Australia, lamented that “we have been so complacent on this issue for so long” in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. He added that he hopes the current mass bleaching would “trigger us out of our complacency.”

“This will change the Great Barrier Reef forever,” Terry Hughes, the Australian coral scientist who has been conducting the aerial survey, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Hughes said the bleaching was his “worst nightmare” and expects about half the affected coral to die in the coming months. “This has been the saddest research trip of my life,” he said in a statement. More than sadness, though, Hughes said he feels anger at the Australian government, who he thinks should have acted sooner to prevent the current situation.

And just yesterday, a study on the West Antarctic ice sheet was released that says the ice sheet could melt much faster than previously thought, raising global sea levels by 3 feet in less than 90 years. Even the normally staid NY Times is getting really nervous.

For half a century, climate scientists have seen the West Antarctic ice sheet, a remnant of the last ice age, as a sword of Damocles hanging over human civilization.

The great ice sheet, larger than Mexico, is thought to be potentially vulnerable to disintegration from a relatively small amount of global warming, and capable of raising the sea level by 12 feet or more should it break up. But researchers long assumed the worst effects would take hundreds — if not thousands — of years to occur.

Now, new research suggests the disaster scenario could play out much sooner.

Continued high emissions of heat-trapping gases could launch a disintegration of the ice sheet within decades, according to a studypublished Wednesday, heaving enough water into the ocean to raise the sea level as much as three feet by the end of this century.

With ice melting in other regions, too, the total rise of the sea could reach five or six feet by 2100, the researchers found. That is roughly twice the increase reported as a plausible worst-case scenario by a United Nations panel just three years ago, and so high it would likely provoke a profound crisis within the lifetimes of children being born today.

Of course there has been a bunch of stories lately that Miami might not make it to the end of the century.

In major East Coast cities, where land is sinking at the same time that seas are rising, an independent analysis by Climate Central shows that the rapid Antarctic melting described by the new modeling effort would push tide levels up by between five and six feet this century alone.

Climate Central’s analysis combined mid-range values from the new projections for Antarctic melting with previous mid-range projections regarding global sea level rise, along with local factors such as sinking that naturally occurs in some areas. It illuminated the dangerous collective impacts of the different ways that climate change is expected to affect sea levels.

If climate pollution is quickly and dramatically reined in, the analysis shows sea level rise in major East Coast cities, including New York, Boston and Baltimore, could be kept to less than two feet — which could nonetheless see developed stretches of shorelines regularly or permanently flooded.

Problems associated with sea level rise are expected to be worse in Louisiana, where stretches of land are being lost to erosion caused by flood control projects and gas and oil exploration. New Orleans could see more than seven feet of sea level rise by 2100, Climate Central’s analysis of the new findings showed.

West Coast cities would experience four to five feet of sea level rise by 2100, Climate Central found.

Oh and BTW, the maximum extent of sea ice in the Arctic was a record low in 2016, February was an outlier in terms of how unusually hot it was, March, while not as warm, will still be the hottest March ever, and just look at the 2016 trend in the first chart here.

The reality is that most of the world’s leaders are still making half assed attempts of change or in the case of our Premier, wants all climate change proposals to pass an economic test.  Miami is going to disappear, there is a drought so bad in California that the land is actually sinking and Saskatchewan has no climate plan other than a carbon capture program whose main goal is to enable fracking. 

When do we realize we are all in this together and that is going to sacrifices on all of our part.  Technology isn’t going to save us.  Innovation isn’t going to save us.  It’s going to be all of us changing the way we live.  What are the chances of that happening?  Sadly about zero.

You think it is easy to walk to the South Pole? Read this:

Amazing story by Ben Saunders of the hardships they face coming back from the South Pole unassisted.

Our near-empty sledges still felt heavy and the energy that carried us up the Beardmore, and indeed to the Pole itself in record time despite dragging more than anyone in history, started to wane dramatically in the last few days. What’s more, we’ve been running lower on food as we failed to meet our mileage targets. Six days ago we started to eat half rations, and I’ve felt shattered every day since, aware that I was depleting my body at a rate that might have been reckless. My stomach growled permanently, my ribs became more prominent by the day, my legs were painfully weak and my mind and thoughts and decision-making grew foggy and dim. On our second day of half-rations I got dangerously cold when I had to remove my outer jacket in the middle of a storm to add more insulating layers, and it was only Tarka’s help -zipping up my jackets like I was a toddler while my cold hands hung useless by my side- that got me out of trouble and through a very dark day indeed.

I’ve been reluctant to say so (sorry mum!) but we’ve both been on the ragged edge for a while now, and on New Year’s Eve, we set out on what was to prove the hardest day of the expedition. It was Tarka’s turn this time to struggle, and I’d reached a state where I was barely able to realise it. The windchill was -45 degrees centigrade when I recorded it, and we stayed outside for more than 13 hours, on fifty percent of the food I’d intended and wearing almost all the clothes we had with us. At breaks we would eat halved energy bars and our normally-sweet drinks tasted like lukewarm dishwater with a hint of lemon. Towards the eighth or ninth hour Tarka’s normally rock-steady metronomic pace started to become erratic and he seemed to stagger and stumble more than usual on ridges and divots in the snow surface. He stopped mid-session, in a howling blizzard, to remove his outer gilet (the Primaloft-insulated Mountain Equipment Compressor vests that have served us so well here) and flipped back his hood as if he were too hot. I know -as a professional leader of expeditions to the coldest places on the planet- that these are tell-tale signs of hypothermia, yet I was on the limit myself and failed to react. All I can remember from that afternoon that drifted into evening, with the dim sun slowly wheeling around us and the horizon erasing itself and reappearing again in the whirling fog of spindrift, was being unable to think of anything more than the battle raging in my head against the part of me that wanted so desperately to stop. Just to lean my shoulders on my ski poles and slump forwards against the resistance of my harness and rest, and to hell with the consequences. I wondered at times if I fell over whether I’d have the strength to stand up again, the energy to yell for Tarka, or whether he’d even notice me calling over the noise of the wind.

When I took over the lead I kept turning back to see Tarka -normally right on my heels- drifting further behind me. I stopped a few times to let him catch up, but it was too cold for me to wait for more than a minute or two before I started shivering, so I raised a single ski pole, he raised his in reply -a signal we’ve often used here- and I shuffled on. After doing this a few times, with Tarka receding as if the horizon was sucking him backward like quicksand, he stopped raising his pole. I waited, but by now he was a tiny dark speck in the white that took forever to grow. I unclipped my harness and started to put the tent up, feeling dizzy and breathless myself, and taking what seemed like ages to match the poles to their corresponding fabric sleeves, like a drunk taking some sort of coordination test. “Sorry I’m late”, said Tarka as he arrived, but it sounded like someone else entirely, his words mumbled and slow.

As we finished slowly setting up camp, I saw he was fumbling in his giant outer mittens with the plastic buckles that strap our sledges closed. “I can’t feel my hands”, he said through a mask encrusted with ice, his shoulders slumped forwards. As we zipped ourselves into the porch of the tent to take our boots and outer layers off before climbing into our sleeping bags, we saw that the tips of his thumbs were at least badly frostnipped, if not lost entirely to frostbite. I remember feeling a mixture of fear and anger, both at him and at myself for letting this happen. I pulled up my jacket and fleece so he could warm his hands in my armpits, and to my relief the colour and circulation started to return. We ate our watery half-dinners in near-silence and fell asleep exhausted and cold, knowing we would have to match the same distance the next day.

Our depot was still 74km away and we had barely more than half a day’s food to reach it; eight energy bars each, half a breakfast and half an evening meal. 16km into the following day Tarka started to slow again as he led, before stopping entirely and waving me forward to talk. “I feel really weak in the legs again”, he said. “OK. What do you want to do?” I answered snappily, before realising this was on me. I came here to be challenged and tested, to give my all to the hardest task I have ever set myself and to the biggest dream I have ever had. And here was the crux. This was the moment that mattered, not standing by the Pole having my photograph taken, but standing next to my friend, in a howling gale, miles away from anyone or anything. “Let’s put the tent up”, I said, “I’ve got an idea”.

My idea was to call for a resupply. To have more food and fuel flown to our position so that we could rest and recover before finishing this journey. A decision that changes the status of this expedition from “unsupported” or “unassisted” or whatever semantics you wish to choose to the opposite. Part of me also feels it inevitable that we and this journey would face critics even if we’d done it in period clothing eating pemmican and pony meat. Yet in an instant I realised that my and Tarka’s lives are not something I wanted to gamble with, and that we had given our all. We were lucky that neither of us had collapsed the day before, and I knew we couldn’t possibly have hoped to recover on our meagre rations from the physical holes we’d dug ourselves into.

At the other end of the world, on the other end of a crackling and hissing satellite phone line, our expedition manager Andy Ward sprang into action, and things happened incredibly quickly, with a ski-plane carrying eight days’ of rations landing twelve hours later. The weather worsened as we waited and I feared the flight would be aborted, or that a bag would be air-dropped at speed and lost in the blizzard, but in a beautiful twist of what some might call fate, the pilot was Troy, the same man that picked me up from the Arctic Ocean after my 72-day solo expedition nearly ten years ago, and in my eyes the finest polar pilot in the world. The Twin Otter appeared through a tiny hole in the rolling cloud and swang over us once before landing on the ridged and uneven snow surface and taxiing right up to our tent, its wing-tip almost above our roof. The wind was still blasting and the plane’s skis were almost hidden under the blowing snow. “I’m sorry about the weather”, I said to Troy, amazed that he’d been able to land. “Oh, it was fine”, he replied modestly.

The hours we spent waiting were, I fear, dark ones for Tarka. He seemed a broken man. “It’ll look like my fault”, he said, “and that’s a good thing for you.” This was Tarka through and through. Weeks ago he said humbly, “If there are media at the airport when we get back, I’m happy to help with the bags while you talk to them.” He finally admitted last night that when I was struggling (and if I’m honest now, on the verge of wanting to quit) a few weeks ago he’d taken food bags from my sledge while I was in the tent to help lighten my load without telling me, so he’d been pulling more weight than me for weeks.

Tarka is the hero here, and the irony of our situation is that I would never have made it to this point without his herculean efforts; his giving everything he has to this goal. I’m proud of how deep we have each dug, and I am amazed and humbled by Tarka’s sacrifice. He has pushed (or indeed pulled) himself until he dropped, and I’m also as exhausted as I’ve ever been. For weeks now I have slept fitfully and woken up cold. We are both alarmingly lean, and we have both struggled for a while to maintain trains of thought or decent conversations. I suspect my writing has been going downhill too.

And now we are lying here resting, like two new men after ten hours’ sleep, full-bellied and warm again for the first time in weeks, before we move north again to complete this unfinished journey. Our status has changed, but how little that means to me now. Scott didn’t wear his harness until the Beardmore and would have been “supported” in modern polar parlance. I don’t think we made any mistakes, and I don’t think we could have done anything more, or pulled any more food up here. We travelled 5.6km per day at the start with 200kg per man, greater loads than each of Scott’s weakest ponies hauled.

Heck of a trip regardless of the outcome.  Make sure you read the entire post.

The Scott Expedition

In the last 100 years, twelve people have stood on the moon, more than 500 have been into space, and more than five thousand have climbed Everest. Yet the journey Captain Scott and his team died trying to complete a century ago remains unrealised. No one has ever walked from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back again.

In 2013, Ben Saunders and his team mates Alastair Humphreys and Martin Hartley take on arguably the most ambitious polar expedition in the last century: the four-month Scott Expedition – the first return journey to the South Pole on foot, and at 1,800 miles, the longest unsupported polar journey in history.

Here is a video of one of their training trips to Greenland.

Ben Saunders on Vimeo

I was checking out Ben Saunders blog today and saw this great video profile on his site.  Here is a list of his expeditions, both the successful ones and the ones where he didn’t make it.  Ben is currently preparing for three expeditions between 2010 and 2012: solo and unsupported speed record attempts on both Poles and the 2011/12 Scott Antarctic Expedition, the first return journey to the South Pole on foot, and the longest unsupported polar journey in history. Ben and his team mate Alastair Humphreys depart for Antarctica in late October 2011.