I recently completed a fascinating but challenging trip to Antarctica. As all of my readers know, I’m a warm weather Cloud-dweller but I visited the frozen continent to see the impact of climate change. Antarctica might seem like a faraway place but what happens on the bottom of the world impacts us all.
The history of Antarctica is short. While ice was long suspected to be at the bottom of the earth to match the ice cap in the Arctic, there were also rumours of a landmass at the South Pole. In 1775, Captain James Cook noted in his journal that there was a possible southern land and he thought he had viewed it. According to his ships charts, however, he had gone no closer than 120 kilometres (75 miles) from the first permanent ice shelves.
Antarctica was officially discovered in 1820 by a Russian expedition led by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev who sighted and charted the Fimbul ice shelf. The first landing on the continent was not until 1895 when the Norwegians were the first to reach the new continent.
Antarctic vistas are incredibly beautiful!
Antarctica is 14.2 Million square kilometres (5.5 Million square miles) of mostly undiscovered lands. That means Antarctica is twice the size of Australia and larger even than Europe! It is the coldest, driest continent on earth and has the highest average elevation. There has been no rain in the past 2 Million years but 80% of the world’s fresh water is locked in its ice. Today, between 1000-5000 people reside there throughout the year.
So, why should you care about this forbidding land and why did I visit it on your behalf? What happens in Antarctica directly affects us all. The polar regions (both North and South) are warming much faster than the rest of the world. When I was there in December, the temperature was high enough to sunbathe in a T-shirt! If the Antarctic ice cap was to melt entirely, sea levels would rise approximately 10 meters (33 feet) and almost every major city on a coast would be underwater. Cities like New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Shanghai, Bangkok, Mumbai, Dubai, Rome, Rio and London would be uninhabitable. This may sound far-fetched but I’ve seen first-hand the effects of climate change.
Expeditions require specialised equipment and transport
You may be wondering what it’s like at the bottom of the world. Here are some highlights:
- I didn’t see any aliens, any pyramids and I discovered no portals into the centre of the earth. I’m sorry if you are disappointed by this.
- There are “nunataks” in Antarctica that are oases where there is no ice or snow cover. Nunataks are where research bases are sited because it is easier to build.
- The sea ice looks exactly like frozen waves where the water has lapped up and frozen in layers that produce a rippling, frozen and beautiful vista.
- It is nearly impossible to judge distances without proper equipment in Antarctica because there are no trees, few buildings or other points of reference.
- Ice caves are forming and expanding quite rapidly as water under the ice caps melts and creates voids. This melting causes the glaciers to move more rapidly as the water reduces friction and the weighty ice slides more easily across the bedrock.
- Antarctica smells clean and of nothing because it is too cold to allow aromatic chemicals to reach your nose.
Yes, Ice caves are that blue!
Reaching Antarctica is difficult and expensive. I flew by jet from Cape Town with other expedition members into Wolf Fang, a camp with significant traffic. Once we arrived we took a specially equipped turboprop aircraft to a more forward position on the continent from which to explore. Once untethered from support, the most frequent form of transport is cross-country skis while you pull a “pulka” (a sled-like pallet) with all of your gear. This is a hard and laborious form of transport and you will pay dearly for testing your endurance.
Meals are best when communal!
Accommodations are very basic, even for the well-heeled that choose semi-permanent “eco-cabins” supplied by the few specialist expedition services that operate in Antarctica. I slept in a tent with another expedition member as our team explored far onto the ice. I enjoyed the warmth of a companion in my tent. Each day, we had to dig into the snow to provide a good base and protection from the frequently challenging weather. Once the tent is setup, snow is piled around the outside to partially cover the tent to anchor it and provide insulation from the harsh winds that rise suddenly.
Accommodations are basic and best shared for warmth!
The beauty of this forbidding continent makes the preparation, hardship and costs of the expedition well-worth expending! I remember seeing the frozen sea ice from a high vista and realising that such beauty is worth saving for future generations.
Let’s all pray that this fragile and unique environment remains unspoiled!