A few days ago, I left Toronto and travelled to the utmost south, to Antarctica – the coldest, windiest, darkest continent on earth. I flew from Pearson to Ushuaia, the world's southernmost city, then boarded a Norwegian expedition ship, Hurtigruten's MV Fram, which crashed its way through the Drake Passage.
The Drake is reputed to be the world's roughest sea crossing, and our determined little ship smashed its way through gale-force winds and waves as high as a two-story building in order to reach the Antarctic Peninsula, a narrow finger of land that reaches north from the main landmass of the continent. Little did I know that my friends at home would envy me – that the temperatures here on a continent that's perennially locked in the grip of ice and snow – would be warm in comparison with the brutal cold snap back in Toronto. "Enjoy the warmth in Antarctica!," a typical e-mail read. "It's minus 38 with the wind chill here in TO!"
Indeed, the last two days have been rather balmy, at least by Antarctic standards. After dropping anchor, we boarded smaller boats that took us through frigid waters and chunks of ice to Kinnes Cove on Joinville Island, which sits just off the tip of the Peninsula, like Sicily does Italy. We were greeted by thousands upon thousands of penguins – a vast rookery of Adelie penguins on the left and, on the right, a smaller grouping of Gentoo penguins. The temperature was just below 0C, and as I climbed a hill to gain a good overview of the place, I found myself actually sweating, despite my relatively thin outfit of thermals, windbreaker, sweater, and synthetic waterproof pants. I actually shed my toque and mitts, putting them back on later only because a brisk wind began to blow.
While fully cognizant of the fact that we are presently in the heart of the Antarctic summer, it still seemed rather strange that this frozen continent would be significantly warmer than normally temperate Toronto. To help better understand what's going on here, I chatted with Dr. Olav Orheim, our on-board glaciologist, a former director of the Norwegian Polar Institute and a man with more than 40 years' experience in this part of the world. As we sat comfortably by a window and drank tea on the Fram, Mr. Orheim noted that he wrote his doctoral thesis in the late '60s on glacial changes on Deception Island, an outer island in Antarctica, and since then, he says, he has seen dramatic changes both here and globally. Putting things in very simple terms of me, he explained that warming at the poles and the melting of ice shelves and glaciers has basically caused the previously well-oiled global system of circulation to malfunction. "The warming affects that engine, and that leads to changes in the whole system," he observed, meaning that some places will receive strangely warm temperatures while others will be locked in crazy deep freezes and other weird weather phenomena.
He pointed out the window as we passed a small, rocky island, highlighting the big, white glacier that lined its top and filled its small valleys. "All the evidence shows that the Antarctic Peninsula – the northernmost part of this continent – is warming as fast as any place on earth," he said. He gestured to blue ice at its edges and tiny icebergs that had just peeled off the glacier, a sure sign of the warming and melting that's happening in bigger ways all over the Peninsula. He noted that the wildlife here, too, has been affected in negative ways. Penguins, he said, nest on the ground, so they like snow but hate rain, which washes away their eggs. In just the last few years, biologists have seen these birds move further and further south, to cooler temperatures, while recent evidence shows low levels of breeding success in various groups of Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins – some rookeries, he said, are just disappearing.
I'm now preparing for an afternoon of kayaking and an evening sleeping in a tent on the snow. Knowing firsthand that these balmy temperatures signal a great global problem takes certainly takes a little bit of the edge off my enjoyment of this Antarctic heat wave. But I'll admit, it's definitely better than being back in Toronto, where, after all, it was –38C with the wind chill.
Tim Johnson is a Canadian travel writer