email a friend iconprinter friendly iconAdventure Travel in Antarctica
Page [ 3 ] of 8

For now, however, we are alone. And standing on the bow of the Pelagic on a 20-degree morning, I tighten my grasp on a cold metal stay as we nudge past a three-foot-thick piece of ice, mindful of the one steadfast rule of sailing in 30-degree water: Fall off the boat and you’re dead. Tumble, trip, stumble, catch a toe, lose your balance, or for any other reason find yourself in the Southern Ocean, just raise a hand and wave goodbye because the boat will never return fast enough to save you before hypothermia sets in.

Change in the Air—and in the Sea

We take our first paddle strokes on a gray day, about 150 miles down the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, circumnavigating Enterprise Island. I measure the temperature of the ocean; it’s 30 degrees exactly. Air temperatures are in the low 20s. Aside from photographer Pete McBride and videographer John Armstrong, each armed with wet- and drysuits, no one is thinking of going in the water. The team—a group of seven adventurers, including Chilean mountaineer Rodrigo Jordan, Tasmanian naturalist Fiona Stewart, Orange County–based navigator Sean Farrell, Armstrong, McBride, Charles, and myself—will spend the next few weeks nudging our way southward in custom-built kayaks made of carbon fiber, Kevlar, and fiberglass. The boats, which are reinforced to withstand the ice, weigh 700 pounds when fully loaded and manned. Tipping one, and rolling upright again, would be a challenge. If we flipped, we’d have less than five minutes to get out of the water before the cold began to slow our hearts.

For now the sea is calm as we pull around the first corner to find the channel leading out to the Gerlache Strait, one of the Peninsula’s "Kodak Alleys," so called for their typical lineup of picture-perfect bergs. Near shore we thud the boats through thick brash ice. It’s like paddling in a pool of bucket-size ice cubes.

Each austral winter, a halo of sea ice forms around the continent, and each spring trillions of tons of fresh water are released into the ocean as it thaws. This is the Earth’s thermodynamic engine, the beating heart that drives the circulation of ocean currents, redistributing the sun’s heat, regulating climate, forcing the upwelling of deep ocean nutrients, setting the tempo of the planet’s weather. The Antarctic affects all our lives, but through forces so deep and elemental that we’re not even aware of them.

Climate change models from the early 1970s predicted that the effects of human greenhouse gas emissions would be felt first and most strongly here. Antarctica is essentially uninhabited and without industry, so any ecological and climate disturbances are caused by global forces. In the 1980s scientists prophesied that one of the first signs of human-influenced climate change would be the collapse of the Peninsula’s ice sheets. This is exactly what is happening now.

Page [ 3 ] of 8
Join the discussion

National Geographic Adventure is pleased to provide this opportunity for you to share your comments about this article. Thanks for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Recent Comments
  • No comments have been posted