Photo: Antarctica Iceberg. Credit: IAATO. - Photo: 2019

End of The Antarctic Ice Cap In Sight If We Do Nothing

By Dr Palitha Kohona

The author is former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, and former Foreign Secretary. Dr Kohona visited Antarctica on board the expedition vessel Silver Cloud recently. This is the first of a two-part report .

COLOMBO (IDN) – The thick ice cap above the Antarctic continent will not disappear in our lifetime. It will continue to glisten disarmingly in the summer sun, its soft outlines concealing its unforgiving ferocity. But if we do nothing, it will disappear, over time. Sooner than later. This could spell catastrophe for life on Earth. Already there is convincing evidence of something unusual happening. Large chunks of the glaciers are breaking and floating away and the mammoth Antarctic glaciers are in observable retreat.

While some argue that climate change is not essentially anthropogenic, some with tremendous decision-making power have even equated it to the weather; the majority in the scientific community takes a different view. They have firmly suggested that human activity is contributing significantly to climate change and this has to be drastically modified. Climate change and global warming, inter alia, will spell disaster for the Antarctic ice cap with consequences too dreadful to envisage.

In recent years, researchers have warned that east Antarctica’s Totten Glacier, an enormous body of ice with enough ice, if melted, to raise sea levels by at least 11 feet (about 3.5 meters), appears to be retreating, due to warming ocean waters. Now, researchers have found that a group of four glaciers sitting to the west of Totten, plus a handful of smaller glaciers farther east, are also losing content.

Antarctica’s impotence to the global environmental balance is underlined by the fact that about 98% of the continent is covered by the Antarctic ice sheet, the average thickness of which is about 1.6 km. The ice sheet is twice the size of Australia and it locks in about 90% of the world’s ice and about 70% of the world’s fresh water. If global warming caused all this ice to melt, as many scientists expect, sea levels would rise by about 60 metres. In most of the continent, precipitation is around 20 millimetre per year. Antarctica is drier than most countries on Earth. 

Expeditions and cruises to Antarctica are increasing in number. There appears to be a yearning to visit this forbidding continent while it remains unchanged. It is the last manageable risk to many and the desperate journeys of discovery of just a hundred years ago can now be undertaken in relative safety. 40,000 tourists visit Antarctica annually, mostly by sea, and the numbers are likely to increase with better and sturdier vessels and even aircraft being used. Some of the visitors are of advanced years. The increasing numbers of humans trudging over the ice cap could pose greater risks to Antarctica’s fragile environment.

As the Antarctic expedition vessel, Silver Cloud, with 200 guests ploughs its way, the Drake Passage lives up to its unforgiving reputation. Threatening approaching vessels with raw ferocity, frenzied waves lash the vessel with a vengeance. The swirling currents of the Drake Passage play a role in protecting the unique environment of the largely unspoilt Antarctica that continues to be a magnet for those who have travelled everywhere else. Not much in nature seems to get past the Drake Passage. It certainly stopped humans from settling there. The vessel’s experienced captain takes all necessary precautions to minimize the discomfort caused to the expeditioners by the furious waves.

The visitors are well briefed by knowledgeable experts before leaving the expedition vessel to step on this far continent and are transported on Kodiaks, guided and closely monitored by staff conscious of their obligations to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), a self policing organisation.

The high level of responsibility that they demonstrate in minimising the human impact on the icy continent is an example for other tour operators elsewhere in the world. While the Antarctic is a source of revenue for the members of IAATO, employment for their highly qualified and informed staff and service personnel and an unparalleled experience for the visitors, all seem to acknowledge the need to respect and preserve this unique environment.

Photo: Penguins await the snow to melt so they can start nesting. Credit: IAATO.Visitors must disinfect their shoes prior to embarking on landing craft and must maintain a five-meter distance from any wildlife, which in the absence of natural predators demonstrate no fear of humans. Penguins nonchalantly waddle up to visitors to satisfy their curiosity. (Although it is recorded that Magellan on his circumnavigation of the globe filled up four ships with penguin meat obtained from the South American coast for his crew).

In recent years the composition of the visitors to Antarctica has changed visibly. They used to be mostly well-heeled Americans and Europeans, and some Australians. Now, reflecting the shift in global disposable wealth, significant numbers of sub continentals, Indians in particular, and East Asians – “Crazy Rich Asians” – have joined the passenger numbers. There is a sprinkling of Mainland Chinese as well spending big time in the duty free shop. One could overhear conversations in Hindi and Chinese.

The smells of Indian vegetarian curries and Chinese stir-fries have begun to waft around the posh dining rooms of the expedition ship. A curried venison dish was prepared on request, with no questions asked. The food on the expedition vessel was exceptional. Diners could order caviar, foie gras, grenouilles, quality champagne or Indian vegetarian. The champagne, and the wines were superb and the cellar seemed to have all the necessary wines to pair with the food.

It is possible to take a flight over the Antarctica but air tourism is strictly controlled. In 1979, Air New Zealand flight 901 crashed into Mount Erebus in a whiteout situation, killing 257. Mount Erebus has a lava lake at the top.

Against this background, the 24th Conference Of the Parties to the UN Framework Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC), hosted by Poland in Katowice, which intended to give effect to the Paris Accord on climate change, will have significant implications for the ice covered continent.

The warnings of many scientists, including an overwhelming majority of the members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that global warming will hasten the melting of the Antarctic ice cap with catastrophic consequences for life as we know it, echoed in the conference centre.

Today starkly and mysteriously attractive Antarctica could become a wasteland while the melting ice would raise sea levels inundating many coastal cities and settlements. The fate of cities like New York, London and Shanghai, the crowning achievements of human civilisation, hangs in the balance.

However lobbying for coal and fossil fuels on a scale that has rarely been witnessed during an annual UN conference on climate occurred in Katowice led by the U.S., Australia and Canada. The EU turned a disinterested blind eye to this push. Oil producers, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia made common cause with the vocal coal lobby. Developing countries, which are likely to be more affected by climate change, are still left largely to their inadequate devices to fund adaptation and mitigation measures.

Speculation about a Terra Australis (“Southern Land”) dates back to the time of the Greeks. Antarctica is the last region on Earth in recorded history to be discovered, unseen until 1820 when the Russian expedition of Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev on Vostok and Mirny sighted the Fimbul ice shelf. The continent, however, remained largely neglected for the rest of the 19th century because of its hostile environment, lack of easily accessible resources, and physical isolation. 

The first person to circumnavigate the Antarctic was Captain James Cook in 1773. Then in the 19th century came the sealers and whalers who did most of the early mapping. Fur seals were hunted for their pelts and almost wiped out. Ironically nations that decimated the seals and the whales for two centuries are now in the forefront of the conservation charge. Ernest Shakkleton led three British expeditions to the ice-covered continent. (He is reputed to have said, “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all”). Robert Scott from Britain raced to the South Pole in 1912 but reached it only 14 days after Roald Amundson from Denmark. 

The resources of the Antarctic, previously difficult to extract, may become accessible now due to the availability of advanced technology. The continent hosted plant life millions of years ago. Fossils of plant eating dinosaurs have been found. Antarctica could be rich in Coal. There are thermal vents that support life deep beneath the ocean surface. For example, Hof crabs, named after David Hadelhof, populate these vents.

However, thanks to the Protocol on Environment Protection to the Antarctic Treaty 1991, the development activity is suspended and the Antarctic environment protected through five annexes. All activities relating to mineral extraction is prohibited. [IDN-InDepthNews – 13 January 2019]

Photo 1: Antarctica Iceberg. Credit: IAATO.

Photo 2: Penguins await the snow to melt so they can start nesting. Credit: IAATO.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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