Winds of Change Blowing at Both Poles

Much has been written in recent weeks about the causes behind the unusually cold, snowy winters in Europe and large parts of North America over the past two years. The immediate cause is clear, as explained in an excellent article by Justin Gillis of The New York Times. As Gillis wrote, "A pattern of atmospheric circulation that tends to keep frigid air penned in the Arctic has weakened during the past two winters, allowing big tongues of cold air to descend far to the south, while masses of warmer air have moved north." These topsy-turvy shifts were vividly depicted last week in a map created by NASA, which shows that temperatures in mid-January were as much as 30 degrees F above normal in some parts of the Arctic, while much of the U.S. has been beset with temperatures far below normal and loads of snow.

The big question is whether this oddball weather is related to the profound warming of the Arctic and the steady decline in the extent and thickness of Arctic Ocean sea ice. Gillis' balanced account says the jury is still out on that question, although experts cited in his story make a convincing case that this weather shift is related to global warming.

What has been missing from this discusson is that similar climate shifts, caused by changing wind patterns, have affected parts of Antarctica in recent decades. Considering that Antarctica is home to 90 percent of the ice on Earth - the Arctic looks like Copacabana by comparison - what's happening in the Far South is worth noting.

But first the Far North. As Gillis explains, some scientists believe that the tight vortex of cold air that normally keeps the Arctic's frigid temperatures from spilling too far south is changing. Traditionally, the strong air pressure difference between frigid Arctic regions and warmer temperate zones has created a  tight, whirling stream of cold air that generally confines polar air to polar regions. But, some scientists theorize, as the Arctic has rapidly warmed - in part because the loss of sea ice is causing the dark surface of the Arctic Ocean to absorb more heat - that temperature and pressure differential has weakened. That, in turn, has allowed cold air to stream south and warmer air to flow north. "The effect," writes Gillis, "is sometimes compared to leaving a refrigerator door open, with cold air flooding the kitchen even as warm air enters the refrigerator."

Antarctica has also been experiencing changes in its polar vortex in recent decades, which have caused some parts of the continent to warm precipitously, while others have gotten colder. As I explain in Fraser's Penguins, as air and ocean temperatures have warmed in the temperate zones north of Antarctica, that has increased the temperature and pressure difference between those temperate zones and ice-bound Antarctica. That, in turn, seems to have kicked into high gear a climatic pattern called the Southern Anular Mode, or SAM, which has strengthened the westerly winds around Antarctica, pulling in warmer, moister air from the north. As a result, the 900-mile Antarctic Peninsula has experienced precipitous warming, with winter temperature in the Palmer Station region - where I spent five months - increasing by 11 degrees F in the last 50 years and summer temperatures rising 5 degrees F. As in the Arctic, sea ice along the western Antarctic Peninsula is in sharp decline and now blankets the Southern Ocean nearly three fewer months a year than in 1979.

In contrast with the Arctic, Antarctica's polar vortex has actually strengthened, in part because the destruction of the ozone layer above the South Pole has led to a steep drop in temperatures high above the pole. (Ozone traps heat.) That, scientists theorize, has created a greater contrast between super-cold polar tempeatures and temperatures to the north, which has tightened the polar vortex and altered the continent's wind patterns. Those shifts have led to the rapid rise of temperatures along the Antarctic Peninsula while causing more cold air to be dragged off the polar plateau and onto the western Ross Sea, where temperatures have been falling and sea ice growing.

Comparisons between the two poles are difficult, in large measure because the two ends of the Earth are so different. The Arctic is (or was) a frozen ocean surrounded by continental land masses, which serve to moderate the Arctic's climate. The Antarctic is a continent of ice, three miles deep in places, surrounded by the Southern Ocean, which acts as a vast insulating barrier that has long kept warmer temperatures from the north away from the conintent. That insulating, moat-like effect may be changing somewhat now, just as climatic patterns in the Arctic may also be changing. This, unfortunately, is the new normal, with rising global temperatures worldwide starting to disrupt the relatively stable climate of the past 12,000 years, a period that has fostered the rise of human civilization.

A Large Antarctic Mountain Range in Need of A Name

The mountain range that forms the spine of the 900-mile Antarctic Peninsula is one of the most prominent geographical features on the continent and certainly one of the best known, given the many thousands of tourists who travel along the peninsula on cruise ships every year. During my nearly five months at Palmer Station, the peninsular range, as I came to call it, was the most dramatic and visible feature within sight at any given time. Framing the horizon to the west, the range was a saw-toothed line of sheer black rock faces enveloped in ice caps and glaciers. On a clear day, I could stand on top of the Marr Ice Piedmont and follow the progress of the mountain range as it extended in the direction of the South Pole, with 7,000-foot peaks visible 120 miles away.
Given the prominence of the peninsular range, it was only natural that I began asking scientists at the station what the mountains were called. No one seemed to know. I checked the National Geographic map on the wall near the station’s galley, and the map, too, left the name blank. Surely, I thought, when I return home and begin doing research, I would quickly discover the name of such an important geographical feature.
But when I began my looking into the issue, the mystery only deepened, leaving me with the so-far uncontested impression that, nearly two hundred years after the first explorers laid eyes on Antarctica, one of the continent’s largest mountain ranges remains unnamed.
First I checked several maps, and nowhere was there a label for this great uprising of basalt, granite, diorite, and other ancient rock. Then I went straight to the most authoritative source in the United States — the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, a federal body, affiliated with the United States Geological Survey (USGS), that is the ultimate arbiter on official place names in the U.S. and Antarctica.
I e-mailed the board on a Friday and received a response the next day, informing me that “the official name of the feature (mountain range) is Transantarctic Mountains.” But I knew that couldn’t be right — the Transantarctics lay far from the Antarctic Peninsula, to the south and east, and separated West and East Antarctica.
It didn’t take long for the Board on Geographic Names to realize its error, even on a Saturday. Within an hour-and-a-half, Scott Borg, the division director for Antarctic Sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF), wrote an e-mail to the Board of Geographic Names, which forwarded the note to me. Borg’s note said, “I’m not aware of any single name that applies to the mountain chain that forms the core of the Palmer Peninsula (Antarctic Peninsula).”
Ok. So Fen Montaigne, a lowly writer, discovered in short order that one of the most outstanding geographic features in Antarctica remained unnamed in the 21st century? Still not willing to let go of the topic, I e-mailed Borg and a host of officials at the NSF and USGS who had been copied on our growing e-mail exchange.
“This is no doubt presumptuous of me to suggest to an agency such as the U.S. Board on Geographic Names,” I wrote in the e-mail, “but given the prominence of this range, which runs — as you know — many hundreds of miles down the Antarctic Peninsula, isn’t it time that someone gave it a proper name?”
To that suggestion, I received the following reply from Roger Payne, secretary to Lou Yost, himself the executive secretary of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.
“If you have a name in mind and feel strongly about that name,” wrote Payne, “you can always propose it by completing an Antarctic Names Proposal Form. It’s not online yet (soon) but can be printed from:  The Board’s Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names will evaluate it.”
So there it is. The peninsular range, as I call it in my book, does not have a name, but the U.S. government is perfectly willing to consider one. Perhaps the Argentines or the Chileans, which both claim the Antarctic Peninsula (all territorial claims in Antarctica are in limbo as long as the Antarctic Treaty remains in force), have a name for this massive mountain chain. But the U.S. government does not.
So follow the link above and send in your suggestions.
Personally, I’m partial to the Montaigne Range, named not for the explorer who discovered the range, but for the man who discovered that it has stood there, unlabeled, for nearly 200 years.

The Lure of Antarctica

From the first moment I saw the Antarctic Peninsula, I was absolutely enthralled by the place. It was, in the true sense of the word, awesome — as in filling one with awe and wonder, not as in today's "awesome!", which can be applied to everything from a cheeseburger to a TV show. My first glimpse of the continent came in January 2004, the height of the Antarctic summer. The scene that day, however, was anything but summery. In fact, the continent first came into view as a foreboding mass of ice and rock rising out of the frigid, battleship gray Southern Ocean, which was dotted with icebergs. This glacier-covered mass, part of the South Shetland Islands at the northern tip of the 900-mile Antarctic Peninsula, rose into thick clouds, and cruising through those frigid waters, with the ice-covered islands looming in the mist, I was simultaneously elated and filled with a sense of foreboding. I was aboard the steel-hulled Laurence M. Gould, which was equipped with the very latest in radar, sonar, GPS equipment, etc., and I thought to myself: Imagine sailing through these waters 150 years ago in a small, wooden sailing vessel, without the slightest idea as to where the reefs, islands, and other hazards lay.

On that first visit to Antarctica, I was working on a story for National Geographic magazine and spent a month at Palmer Station observing the work of Bill Fraser and his birding team. When I first saw the Antarctic Peninsula in bright sunlight, under an enormous blue sky, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of it all. The great dome of the Marr Ice Piedmont behind the station, the glaciated ramparts of the mountain chain that formed the spine of the Antarctic Peninsula, the Southern Ocean stretching before me, full of icebergs of all shapes and sizes. This sight was also awesome, and I was thrilled by the grandeur of the landscape and my utter insignificance in it.

I returned to Antarctica in the summer of 2005-2006 to work on Fraser's field team for my book, and in the space of nearly five months I saw more beauty than I'd seen my entire life. When I returned to the U.S., I spent many months reading the diaries and memoirs of legendary Antarctic explorers such as Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, and Admiral Richard E. Byrd. For the most part, their books and journals were beautifully written and erudite, and I was moved by the accounts of how these men, too, were constantly overcome with the beauty of Antarctica — a beauty that they, far more than I, realized could quickly turn lethal. It was also a beauty that constantly kept pulling them back to Antarctica.

After reading the first draft of my book, my wonderful editor at Henry Holt, Jack Macrae — the kind of editor that writers imagine once populated the tweedy, gentile world of New York publishing —  politely told me that I had filled my book with far too many quotes from earlier Antarctic explorers. He was right, and I knew I had to cut quite a few of these passages, but it was tough to axe sentiments that I treasured and intuitively understood. Not that I, or anyone at Palmer Station, would ever liken our experiences in the relatively cosseted world of a U.S. Antarctic base to those of Ernest Shackleton. But the descriptions of the beauty, the wildlife, the exhilarating feeling that one experiences, day after day, in the wildest place on the planet — all of these had the pure ring of truth.

What follows is a random sampling of some bons mots from legendary Antarctic explorers about the lure of the continent. Some of these appear in my book. Some do not. I was gathering them as I prepared for my book tour, and thought I'd share them with readers of this blog. As random as they are, they nevertheless convey the mixture of wonder, ecstasy, dread, and longing that these men — and in that era they were all men — felt. I may add some more quotes later in another blog:

“We were now reveling in the indescribable freshness of the Antarctic that seems to permeate one’s being, and which must be responsible for that longing to go again which assails each returned explorer from polar regions.”
Ernest Shackleton,  from The Heart of the Antarctic, an account of the 1907-1909 Nimrod expedition, in which a team led by Shackleton nearly made it to the South Pole.

“The stark polar lands grip the hearts of the men who have lived on them in a manner that can hardly be understood by the people who have never got outside the pale of civilization.”
Ernest ShackletonThe Heart of the Antarctic.

“Once you have been to the white unknown, you can never escape the call of the little voices.”
Frank Wild, second in command of Shackleton's Endurance Expedition, 1914-1916.

“When to the beautiful tints in the sky and the deep delicate shading on the snow are added perhaps the deep colours of the open sea, with reflections from the ice foot and ice-cliffs in it, all brilliant blues and emerald greens, then indeed a man may realize how beautiful this world can be, and how clean.”
Apsley Cherry-Garrard, in The Worst Journey in the World, an account of Scott's ill-fated Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole, 1910-1913.

“One’s dear self becomes so miserably small in these mighty surroundings.”
Lt. Kristian Prestrud, a member of Amundsen’s successful South Pole expedition, 1910-1912.

"There was great beauty here, in the way that things which are also terrible can be beautiful.”
Adm. Richard E. Byrd, who explored Antarctica numerous times.

"To me those peaks always will and always did represent silent defiance. There were times when they made me shudder.”
Edgar Evans, a member of Scott’s last expedition.

“Approaching this sinister coast for the first time, on such a boisterous, cold and gloomy day, our decks covered with drift snow and frozen sea water, the rigging encased in ice, the heavens as black as death, was like approaching some unknown land of punishment, and struck into our hearts a feeling preciously akin to fear  . . . It was a scene, terrible in its austerity, that can only be witnessed at that extremity of the globe; truly a land of unsurpassed desolation.”
Louis Bernacchi, Southern Cross expedition, 1899.

“The will that gives man might to rule and dominate avails nothing here. The breeze which wafts the snowflake, the ripple which stirs the lead, the tiny crystals which in countless millions build this gleaming ice-world, are all indifferent to a man’s word or will.”
Frank Hurley, photographer on Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, 1914-1916.

 “From the distance at which we reviewed the lands every projection seemed a continuous mass of impenetrable crystal solitude. Could there be a place more desperately silent or more hopelessly deserted?”
Dr. Frederick Cook, member of the Belgica Expedition, 1897-1899.

“When you look upon such things there comes surging through the confusion of the mind an awareness of the dignity of the earth, of the unaccountable importance of being alive, and the thought comes out of nowhere that unhappiness rises not so much from lacking as from having too much . . .
“And you guess the end of the world will probably look like that, and the last men retreating from the cliffs will look out upon some such horizon, with all things at last in equilibrium, the winds quiet, the sea frozen, the sky composed and the earth in glacial quietude.”
Charles J.V. Murphy, 1933-35 Byrd expedition

Polar Warming and Politics

Late last week, Republican political guru Karl Rove told a gathering of people involved in the business of extracting natural gas from underground shale formations that "climate is gone." By that he seemed to mean that global warming will not be an issue of much concern to the new Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Indeed, Rove assured the trade group that the new House "sure as heck" won't pass legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, the last thing any climate scientist of repute would assert is that "climate is gone." Indeed, global warming is coming on strong, as researchers who work at the poles can tell you. Among the scientists who have studied the rapid loss of Arctic sea ice, the melting of Greenland's ice sheets, the precipitous warming of the Antarctic Peninsula, and the near-universal wasting-away of the world's mountain glaciers, you will find few, if any, global warming skeptics. Because the simple truth is this: the world's cryosphere, or ice zone, is melting. Polar scientists such as Bill Fraser are getting an advance look at what we'll all soon be experiencing -- the transformation of the environments, the backyards, that we have come to accept as immutable.

There are many reasons why a sizeable portion of people in the U.S. don't believe that the current warming of the planet is real or is being caused by human activity. Some people are indifferent or ignorant. But for others, skepticism is purely political. Some conservatives, opposed to government regulation, believe that the left will use global warming to impose more regulations on business, and so have been funding foundations and campaigns to cast doubt on global warming. science. This assault, well described by UC San Diego Prof. Naomi Oreskes in Merchants of Doubt, was also used in campaigns to discredit evidence that smoking caused cancer. These are cynical attempts to distort science, and those who peddle doubt about global warming now will, in a matter of a few decades -- when continued warming will have caused far greater disruption than today -- be widely held in contempt.

Then there are the skeptics who are convinced that global warming must be a hoax because it is being pushed by academics, environmentalists, left-leaning politicians, and other assorted undesirables

Other, well-meaning skeptics simply don't believe that human activity can alter the planet's climate, that what we are seeing now is a natural swing like those that have occurred over millions of years. I wish that were true, but the incontrovertible evidence -- supported by all of the world's academies of science -- is that rapidly rising atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are warming the planet. That CO2 and other greenhouse gases trap heat in the earth's atmosphere is a law of physics. And, yes, changes in the tilt of the earth's axis do account for our roughly 100,000 swings in cycles of glaciation, deglaciation, and inter-glacial periods. The problem, as deftly explained in Penn State geoscientist Richard Alley's book, The Two-Mile Time Machine, is that we should actually slowly be sliding into a cooler period, which we most assuredly are not, as evidenced by what's happening in the world's ice zones. As Alley points out, any natural cooling trend in the coming centuries or millennia will be swamped by warming from the greenhouse effect.

To those who don't believe man can effect a global process like climate, I raise two issues. First, have you seen the satellite photos of the world at night, and the way that we have lit up much of the planet? And second, what we're doing now is actually quite simple. In the space of a cenury or so, and especially in the past few decades, our rapidly industrializing world is digging up, drilling, and extracting huge stores of carbon that were laid down over many millions of years. Think dinosaurs, and the steamy earth, and all that vegetation that was buried underground and has now become the fossil fuels that run the world today. We're taking all that carbon -- tens, even hundreds, of millions of years of it -- and burning it in the blink of an eye. And that's warming our planet, which will soon have a population of 6.5 billion and is projected to hold 9 billion people by 2050.

Not a good time for the issue to be so politicized in the U.S., and so gridlocked.


Welcome to the Web site for Fraser’s Penguins. I hope you’ll take the time to explore. Through nearly 200 photos, seven videos, a New Yorker slideshow and podcast (produced in connection with the book’s excerpt in that magazine), and other features, Web designer Kate Caprari and I have tried to give visitors a vivid sense of what the Antarctic Peninsula is like. Even with this multi-media arsenal at our disposal, it is still difficult to convey the grandeur, wildness, and beauty of this part of the world. But I am hopeful that the book and the Web site, taken together, will transport readers to a place that is the most gorgeous I’ve ever seen. It’s also a region changing rapidly, with profound consequences for the Adélie penguin, the creature at the heart of this story.

The book was a long time in the making. I first traveled to Palmer Station, on the western Antarctic Peninsula, in January 2004 as I was researching an article on global warming for National Geographic magazine. I had been intrigued by reports that ecologist Bill Fraser had documented the steep decline of ice-dependent Adélie penguins in the face of soaring temperatures in the region. I spent a few weeks shadowing Fraser and his birding team as they zipped from island to island in Zodiac boats, studying the penguins, southern giant petrels, skuas, and other seabirds that nest in the environs of Palmer Station. I was hooked, and no sooner was I on my way home than I decided that I had to find a way back and write in greater depth about Fraser, his work, the remarkable Adélies, and the history of this place.

It took me nearly two years to return to Palmer, and this time I did so as a member of Fraser’s birding team. Bill and his wife, Donna Patterson, took a gamble bringing a journalist on board for the entire five-month field season. The National Science Foundation generously let me live at the tiny station as part of its Antarctic Artists and Writers program. And so, in October 2005, I arrived at Palmer Station and proceeded to spend what were among the most memorable months of my life.

After returning from Palmer Station in March 2006, I embarked on a long period of research, hoping to learn as much as possible about the natural history of the Adélies and other creatures around Palmer Station; the story of the exploration of the Antarctic Peninsula; the saga of Fraser’s 35 years in Antarctica; and the impact on the Palmer environment of temperatures that had soared over the course of 60 years.

From the beginning, I knew that in order to pull readers into this story, I had to bring the saga of the penguins — and Bill Fraser — to life, and to convey what it is like to spend months in the world’s coldest, most remote continent. Although global warming was a major element in this drama, I made the decision early on that climate change would not take center stage — not, at least, until the end of the book. Above all, I wanted to transport readers to Antarctica, to let them experience, through my eyes, what it was like, day after day, to work with these beloved penguins and these dedicated scientists, in a place whose epic beauty I never seemed quite capable of grasping. I was often overcome with an emotion described by Frank Hurley, the photographer on Ernest Shackleton’s famed Endurance expedition. “There were times,” he wrote, “when  . . . one’s very heart and soul cried out in rapture. `These things are not earthly: this is heaven.’”

Group Hunting by Killer Whales

In this remarkable video, taken by a German cameraman in Antarctic waters, a pod of killer whales, or orcas, demonstrates their sophisticated ability to hunt in a coordinated fashion. The killer whales’ quarry is a crabeater seal resting on an ice floe. As the videographer filmed, the killer whales repeatedly washed the crabeater seal off the floe by swimming in a line up to and under the floe, generating waves that swamped the floe and swept the seal off it. Remarkably, the seal managed to repeatedly crawl back onto the floe and was not eaten by the orcas. Scientists believe that this advanced, group-hunting behavior is passed down from older orcas to younger orcas.

Watch video here

Breakup of the Larsen B Ice Shelf

This time-lapse video, taken from a NASA satellite in January, February, and March 2002, shows the disintegration of the Larsen B Ice Shelf on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula, just across the peninsula from Palmer Station. The opening frame shows the shelf on January 31, 2002, with dark blue melt ponds – caused by high temperatures – clearly visible on the surface of the ice shelf. Water from the melt ponds trickled down into the ice shelf, weakening it and contributing to its collapse. In the middle frames, the ice shelf begins to retreat in advance of the catastrophic collapse of the shelf on March 6th, 7th, and 8th. The final frame shows that the ice shelf – once larger than Connecticut – has disintegrated into millions of pieces of blue slush. The Larsen B Ice Shelf, which scientists believe had existed along the eastern Antarctic Peninsula for at least 11,000 years, is one of eight ice shelves that has fully or partially collapsed on the Antarctic Peninsula in the past several decades because of rapidly rising temperatures.