Antarctica is losing its ice. That's the finding of a study published by British scientists this week in the Journal Nature Geoscience. Researchers attribute the loss to warmer waters ringing the island continent, a sign of climate change. For a closer look at what this change could mean for the frozen continent, VOA caught up with a team of adventurers exploring the Antarctic coast by kayak.
Jon Bowermaster is kayaking in one of the most remote regions on earth, but he is certainly not out of touch with the rest of the planet. Bowermaster posts daily updates about his 800-kilometer expedition down the Antarctic coastline on the Internet www.jonbowermaster.com. "Hello, on another beautiful blue-sky day in Antarctica, our fourth in a row," he explains to his Internet followers. "Usually when the skies are blue here it's accompanied by lots of wind, but we've got a very calm couple of days, including this morning that started out with a big humpback whale swimming alongside us."
Bowermaster's eight-person crew includes a navigator, videographers, photographers, and renowned polar explorer Will Steger. They paddle 2-person kayaks, each 7 meters long.
"We're using kayaks as a kind of a lure," he says and adds, "We draw people in with adventurer and then we hit people over the head with our stories about environment, culture and history."
The expedition begins at Tierra del Fuego on the southernmost tip of South America, where the team straps the kayaks on the bow of a sailboat. Three days — and 965 kilometers later — they anchor off the Antarctic coast at King George Island, home to an international research community where Bowermaster meets Chileans, Russians, Uruguayans, Argentines, Poles and North Koreans.
Bowermaster scouts his route from the air in a Twin Otter aircraft. Of special concern is the ice, which rings the continent in winter and disappears in the summer. Bowermaster must be able to read the changing ice to decide where it is safe to go. "If ice is moving around you and it is quite windy, it is something that you have to be quite conscious of, but that is where experience and patience come in. If the weather is really crummy we don't go out."
The team navigates broad expanses of open water dotted with pancakes of ice and glides through narrow passages with majestic mountains on one side and wind-sculpted icebergs on the other. Bowermaster says every day brings its share of stark beauty and wildlife. "From humpback whales to orca whales to leopard seals and yesterday we were in the kayaks and four crab-eater seals came underneath and were brushing against the bottom and looking at us, and of course thousands, and thousands and thousands of penguins."
Humans are told to keep three meters from the penguins, a rule that Bowermaster says the penguins ignore. "As soon as you pull your kayak up there they are walking right along side you. Pretty quickly you are surrounded by them," he adds. "They don't seem to be worried about us at all."
The team paddles down the edge of the Antarctic Peninsula, near the spot where, in 2002, the Larsen Ice Shelf broke into thousands of tiny icebergs. A recent report from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that ice melt could raise sea levels and swamp coastlines around the globe. Bowermaster — a filmmaker and writer — says that's a worry among all the researchers he meets along the way. "The fact that air temperatures have risen by five degrees [Fahrenheit] over the last decade along the Peninsula is clear to them." He says that researchers tell him that the temperature is warm enough in the summer for rainstorms, something they had never experienced before.
Bowermaster calls himself a "floating ambassador" because in a kayak he can get to places to which no one else has ever been. He hopes the documentary that emerges from the expedition will encourage people to consider the steps they can take to help protect Antarctica and the planet. "I'll keep you posted. Over and out for now," he signs off for the day from his website.