The arctic and Antarctic polar regions might look alike from outer space but they are fundamentally different for that reason. The northern ice cap, on the left, floats on the arctic sea and is only 3 to 4 metres thick whereas the Antarctic ice cap, on the right, is frozen all the way down to the land base that supports it. This has allowed ice to accumulate to more than 4000 meters thick in some places. The Antarctic is consequently much colder than the Arctic. It holds 90% of all the ice on earth. If all that ice melted, the oceans would rise by 80 meters drowning all of the world's sea ports.. That's not at all comparable to the thin sheet of permanent ice floating in the Arctic.
The polar ice caps were formed only about 20 million years ago which is relatively recent considering the earth's age of about 4.5 billion years. This means that the structure and composition of the Antarctic continent under the ice is very similar to the other continents. The occurrence of valuable minerals should not be significantly different in Antarctica than in the other six continents. The discovery of coal deposits bearing fossils of Permian age close to the South Pole confirms that Antarctica was covered with abundant vegetation 250 million years ago before Pangaea broke up. The same life forms were present here as elsewhere. Consequently, the possibility of finding oil in Antarctica cannot be ruled out.
This is what Antarctica would look like without its icy mantle. Only half of its 14 million sq. km rise above sea level. The ice cover varies between 2000 to 3000 meters thick on the large eastern part and exceeds 4000 meters in the west where its great weight has submerged the land between what appears here as islands.
All this ice moves slowly down to the sea. The ice moving outwards in the Weddell and Ross seas can be more than 1000 meters thick where it is still attached to the sea bottom but it melts as it advances forming a floating ice shelf that is still a couple of hundred meters thick where it breaks off in huge chunks to form icebergs.
Dense cold water from the melting ice plunges rapidly under warmer deep water that moves up to the surface to replace it where it is cooled and diluted plunging in its turn under the surrounding warmer surface water.
Because of these currents and more particularly the upwelling of deep water rich in phosphates, nitrates and minerals, the turbulent Antarctic surface waters, exposed to long hours of daylight in summer, produce immense growths of phytoplankton and algal blooms that form the basis of a highly productive food chain of which krill is a central intermediate on which a wide variety of species feed.
Biological productivity drops sharply however when the sun is low or behind the horizon between April and July. Then, seasonal floating pack ice extends out to 100 kms around the continent but it rarely exceeds three meters and it melts in October when algal blooms begin a new frantic explosion of life.
This overall picture is complicated by winds. Westerly circumpolar winds drive massive amounts of water from west to east constantly all around Antarctica up to about 40% of latitude. Further south however, easterly winds cause a narrow band of east to west currents close to the continent in the vicinity of the Weddell and Ross seas. All this is further complicated by sudden katabaric winds of heavy cold air that rushes down the slope from the 3000 meter centre of the continent to sea level, sometimes with speeds of 200 kph.
All this to say that Antarctica is definitively not the most hospitable place on earth for humans! That explains why exploration of the Antarctic came so late. Sources abound on Antarctic exploration so I'll just list the principal milestones.
- 1773 British James Cook reaches latitude 71°10 south. He was the first
to cross the Antarctic Circle and to explore the edge of the pack ice.
Discovery and exploration led to territorial claims by the British around the peninsula in 1908, around the Ross Ice Shelf in 1923 (transferred to New Zealand) and in East Antarctica in 1933 (transferred to Australia). In 1924 France claimed Adelie Land and in 1933 Norway claimed Queen Maud Land. In 1943, Argentina and Chile lodged rival claims to the peninsula, already claimed by the British.
The United States does not recognise the territorial claims of these seven nations but it made no claim of its own, The USA was a late comer in the exploration of Antarctica but it must be said that it deployed more effort of scientific research in the Antarctic than the seven others together.
During the International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1967, 5000 scientists and staff from twelve nations carried out research on geology, seismology, glaciology,oceanography, meteorology and upper atmosphere physics in 49 Antarctic research stations. Co-operation between these scientists led to the drafting of the Antarctic Treaty signed by the seven claiming countries and eventually by 36 other states 27 of them with only a consultative status. The treaty side-steps the claims problem but it does set important rules excluding the military use of Antarctica and promoting conservation and shared scientific research. This led to a number of other conventions protecting life and the environment in the Antarctic in 1972, 1980, 1991 and in 1994.
This sounds almost too good to be true, as if reason had prevailed over expansionist ambitions and plain old fashioned greed. I have not surveyed all seven claiming states but I did ask some people in the streets of Argentina and Chile if they thought that Antarctica should become a "commons" managed for the best interest of all mankind. The reaction was almost unanimous in both countries to the effect that Antarctica was "an integral part of our national territory that should be defended to the death" by each and every true patriot (of Argentina and of Chile). We know where the British stand, they went to war and sacrificed lives in 1965 not for the sheepherders of the Falklands but to gamble on the peninsula's mineral or petroleum potential (unless it was only to bolster the British pride which is even more stupid).
Fortunately, it is generally accepted by believers that penguins do not have souls. Can you imagine the mess that would result if the American Christian fundamentalists discovered they had a mission to bring the true faith and democracy to the seals and penguins of Antarctica! And how rich the right-wing military-industrial establishment would get in the process?
Joking aside, the probability of finding oil in Antarctica is not negligible but it has not happened yet so the penguins are safe for the time being. They will however be more and more pestered by tourists like me attracted by the incredible beauty of this lost continent.
One of the first ships to offer Antarctic cruises for tourists, the Lindblad Explorer, was in port when I visited Ushuaia in 1994. I watched it tied up at the main pier and wondered what it would be like to follow in the footsteps (sic) of the great explorers. It was a dream, out of reach at 5000 dollars for the cheapest berth.
Ten years later, competition from underemployed Russian icebreakers had brought the price down to the 3500 $ price range. Still expensive, but a superb present to give myself for my seventieth birthday.
The cruise on Quark Expeditions' M/V Orlova was superbly organised and well worth the price. Three distinct groups of professionals, the ship's crew (Russian), the catering staff and the expedition staff saw to the satisfaction of our every need. The blue trail shows our route. We spent two days crossing the Drake Passage on the way south, five days exploring the islands and the continent by zodiac and two more days getting back to Ushuaia. I can wholeheartedly recommend this cruise to all who can afford it.
I actually visited only a very small portion of the coast but it is technically correct to say that I have been in Antarctica and to colour the whole continent yellow as having been visited once on my world map of visited countries.
|CIA Country Reports Lonely Planet Wikipedia|
The weather was fine when we left Ushuaia around nine o'clock in the evening of December 17th. It was still quite light as you can see because of Ushuaia's high latitude south.
The captain, Andrei Rudenko, the hotel manager Josef Puscl and the expedition leader Olle Carlsson were introduced and we were briefed on the rules and regulations of shipboard life, on safety and boat drill and other routine matters. After a great welcoming cocktail and dinner we set about getting acquainted with the other 85 passengers.
We had been told that the Drake Passage could be windy but nobody expected the full gale (90 knot winds = 167 km/h) that hit us around 4 in the morning. With 10 meter waves the ship's motions were so wild that only a few stalwarts managed to make it for breakfast on the 18th. It was really rough on the first day and all the conferences had to be cancelled.
I had taken a pill and managed not to be sick but spent most of the first day stretched out on my bunk to avoid being thrown down by the ship's violent motions. I would have loved to take dramatic pictures of the ship's bow crashing through mountainous waves but that was quite out of the question. Just getting from my cot to the bathroom was risky business! I was fortunate however to be alone in a four berth cabin so nobody saw me crawling to the toilet...
The gale abated on the second day and most of us had three hearty meals and attended interesting conferences on polar ice, on Antarctic birds and on the Antarctic food chain.
It was cloudy on the third day but the wind had fallen to 5 knots and the sea was calm as we approached the tiny Aitcho Islands located between the larger Robert and Greenwich islands.
The six zodiacs were put to sea and we were off to our first Antarctic exploration.
We were all well dressed for the cold which was quite moderate at 5 degrees Celsius. Here, Mike Murphy is driving the zodiac. The first two passengers are Bill Gardner and Crystal Merriwether. I will appreciate hearing from any of the other cruise members who could identify the third passenger or who might correct my mistakes and provide missing information.
Finally, this is what most of us came to see: the awesome beauty of polar ice!
The rounded flanks of this large table iceberg indicate that it had been travelling for some time since it broke off the ice shelf.
Coming this close to a smaller berg would have been risky as they do turn over when their centre of gravity shifts but this big old fellow was evidently stable so we enjoyed its shapes and colour.
Penguins add humour to the humbling beauty of the vast empty white spaces. They are really quite funny creatures waddling along on their short legs with outstretched arms (wings).
The "Chinstrap" name of this species of penguin (pygoscelis antarctica), is obvious. They are the second most numerous species with around 4 million breeding pairs. ("Macaroni" penguins (eudyptes chrysolophus), are the most numerous with 12 million pairs but only one was seen for their breeding grounds are closer to the Antarctic convergence.)
The orange bill and white flash above the eye distinguish the "Gentoo" penguins (pygoscelis papua), of which there are some 300 000 breeding pairs.
The penguins gait appears awkward but they are great walkers and do not hesitate cover long distances every day from the sea where they feed to their nesting grounds.
Here, a Gentoo colony has occupied the hill to the left of the zodiac while chinstraps have settled on the rocky patch on the right. Most penguins lay their eggs in pebble nests so they must wait for the snow cover to melt before breeding. The large and beautiful Emperor penguins (aptenodytes forsteri, 200 000 pairs), breed much further south and incubate their eggs on their feet as do the related King penguins (aptenodytes patagonicus, 1.5 million pairs).
Free coffee and pastry were available at all times in the library where I spent hours browsing the Orlova's excellent collection of books on Antarctica .
A quiet night-cap in one of the two bars made a perfect ending for our busy days.
We were lucky, the next morning it was cloudy but the sea was calm enough to attempt a landing at the foot of Bailey Head, the big cliff ahead of us. Deception Island is what is left of an extinct volcano after the sea has broken through the rim of the caldera forming a perfect harbour hidden behind the island's icy exterior. This picture is a 180 degree panoramic view, stitched together from six distinct photos, showing the bows of the Orlova on the left and its stern on the extreme right.
A one meter swell made getting on the zodiacs was a little tricky.
We were thrilled to land on this beach which is usually inaccessible by zodiac because a strong swell.
I was very pleased with my new glasses that darkened proportionally to the strength of the sunlight. I rented the warm parka, waterproof trousers and rubber boots in Ushuaia, saving me the trouble of bringing my own from Montreal.
Bailey Head shelters one of the largest colonies of Chinstrap penguins. Here on the beach, groups of 50 or more were constantly diving into the sea to fish or returning with full stomachs to regurgitate their catch to feed their partners and offspring.
It was an impressive sight. More than 100 000 pairs breed on the plateau behind Bailey Head with one of the two making the 2 km trek to the sea several times a day when the fledglings need the most food. The Chinstraps went about their business in an orderly fashion keeping to the right of the trail and totally unconcerned by our presence. Their principal source of food is krill which is pink. That explains how the snow acquired a reddish tinge where they passed in great numbers.
The Orlova's three European cooks were really top notch and every meal was a treat.
During lunch, the Orlova sailed around to the entrance of the the caldera which is directly ahead in this picture.
The caldera's entrance is called Neptune's Bellows because of the strong wind through the narrows.
We were all astonished to find this perfect harbour past Neptune's Bellows. So must have been the whalers who discovered it in the 19th century. It used it as a haven and whale oil rendering plants were built onshore at Whaler's Bay which can be seen on the right in this picture (use your slider to see it).
The Orlova anchored and we went ashore for a look around Whaler's Bay.
There wasn't much to see, just a few broken down buildings and rusty remains of the rendering plant that was abandoned when whale oil was replaced by kerosene. There was however another attraction, thermal sources seeping through the black volcanic sands...
Some brave souls went in for a dip. Now they can tell their friends that they went swimming in Antarctica.
I didn't try it myself but sitting in the hot water that filled a pit dug into the sand looked like great fun...
I had my fun taking the ten photos that I used to stitch together this 360 degree moving panorama of this amazing secret anchorage. You can use the buttons on the left to zoom in and out. Use the ? for instructions. If you look carefully, you will see a red hulled sloop in the centre of the anchorage. It takes an adventurous spirit to sail such a small boat across the Drake Passage to get here!