After our first landing on the Half moon Island, we spent the next week exploring other parts of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Technically we had not yet stepped on mainland Antarctica. The half moon island is a part of the South Shetland Islands – a little off the mainland.
On day 2 we would be exploring Brown bluff. This would be the first time we would be stepping on the 7th continent. We would be walking on land that has been visited by less than 1% of the world’s population. Antarctica is covered with ice and snow on 99.8% of its area – the remaining .2% is land. Brown bluff had a pebbly beach that also has remains of the volcanic activity that formed it over a million years ago.
Our zodiacs drew closer to the shoreline and we all carefully got off one at a time. I took a moment to soak it in – I was finally on the 7th continent! No passport, no currency, no border control. We were lucky to have Jonathan Shackleton with us. He is the cousin of Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. Shackleton’s story, unfortunate as it may be, has become very well known over the years. His ship – the Endurance became trapped in pack ice and was slowly crushed. The crew had to evacuate the ship and live on sea ice till they could reach Elephant island and finally the inhabited island of South Georgia. You’d think that he would put an end to his adventurous travels and retire in a nice country home in England but he went back to the Antarctic in 1921. Unfortunately that proved to be his last expedition as he died of a heart attack and was finally buried in South Georgia.
We spent the day walking around the island, which was full of molting Gentoo Penguins. Gentoo penguins can easily be recognised with their bright orange-red bills. They clumsily waddle on land with their tails sweeping behind them from right to left. With Austral summer coming to an end, the chicks were now of a decent size and were preparing to spend the next few months in the water with their parents. Gentoo penguins face threats from seals and whales in the water and often Skuas steal their eggs. As clumsy as they might look and behave, Gentoo’s can be very cute. Some are very inquisitive and even come up to you to say hello!
A lot of us had come on the expedition to experience climate change first hand in the south and that day we did. Our ship went past massive tabular icebergs. These icebergs get their name from their shape. They had travelled thousands of miles over the last 10 years. They were parts of the Larsen B ice shelf which had broken off over a decade ago. They contained billions of liters of water – Fresh water. Coming from a part of the world that is already suffering from acute water shortages this really hit close to home. From trying to save every drop of water back home – I was now looking at a single piece of ice that contained enough water to sustain an average person for 4.5 billion years. This piece of ice will eventually melt away and mx in with seawater but it will not lead to rise in sea levels. Sea levels do not rise when ice shelves break away and melt. Sea levels rise when glaciers from the inside begin to melt. Ice shelves hold these glaciers back – and once these ice shelves start breaking away , theres nothing stopping the glaciers from melting into the oceans. To put things into perspective if the Antarctic ice sheets were to fully melt – it would lead to a 60mt rise in sea level. This puts over 40 million Indians at risk, with Mumbai and Kolkata being the top two cities with the highest population exposure to coastal flooding.
I stayed on the top deck of the ship for a while that evening staring at these massive icebergs and wondering about what the future has in store for us. I consider myself to be an optimist and am always ready to face challenges but for the first time I was scared.
Can we reverse the damage we’ve done so far?