Newswise — A week ago when I stepped off the gangplank of the Antarctic Research and Support Vessel (ARSV) Laurence M. Gould, the ship that had delivered me to the station from Punta Arenas, Chile, I immediately sensed the change. Gazing across New Harbor at the face of the glacier, I detected that the ice had receded markedly since 2012 when I’d last lived at the station and that the leading face of the glacier had fractured into a multitude of gaping plates, those closest to the shore dangling seaward as if to defy gravity. Further scrutiny revealed a new island had been born from the ice, lit up by sunshine for the first time in millennia.
Undeniably, the Marr Glacier adjacent the U.S. Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula is disintegrating in ‘real time,’ not the pace of deconstruction rendered in time-lapse photography as in the award winning film Chasing Ice, but, rather, a ‘falling apart’ seen in the same time frame in which we live our daily lives.
Fifteen years ago, when I first worked at Palmer Station, about once-a-week my routine would be interrupted by the crack of glacial ice. Leaping up from our desks, my colleagues and I would run down the crowded hall to the window to view the waves churning down the harbor from the calving glacier. Five years ago, when the glacier roared daily, we no longer leapt up from our desks to watch the waves. We had become immune to a major bellwether of global climate change.
This year, the glacier is no longer still and calm, but rather, like a bull at a rodeo it can’t seem to quiet down. On my very first day at the station, I paused outside the Biology Laboratory to watch two of the largest glacial calving events in my thirty-five year polar career. Both calves occurred no more than ten minutes apart, each signaled by a gut-deep roar, followed by a slab of ice the size of a three-bedroom house crashing to the sea. Calving events followed frequently throughout the day, and since my arrival have kept pace, day after day.
We as a society cannot afford to become accustomed to these signs of global climate change: the record-breaking droughts and floods and the increasing frequency of temperatures that soar off the charts. We mustn’t ignore the Miami neighborhoods flooded by the sea at high tides or seem puzzled when coastal homeowners can no longer buy insurance. We need to move in a swift, deliberate, and measured way to fashion a low carbon planet. Just listen to what the glaciers are saying.
James B. McClintock, Ph.D. Endowed University Professor of Polar and Marine BiologyUniversity of Alabama at BirminghamAuthor of Lost Antarctica February 23, 2017, Palmer Station, Antarctica
McClintock is a scientist with the U.S. Antarctic Program, which is managed by the National Science Foundation. The opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NSF.