Antarctica Is Melting. Its Future Could Be Catastrophic

Antarctica Is Melting. Its Future Could Be Catastrophic

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Chinstrap and gentoo penguins climb an iceberg on Elephant Island off the coast of Antarctica. Photographer Camille Seaman captured these images during a six-week period in late 2019 and early 2020.

Camille Seaman didn’t need Monday’s UN report to learn that the Earth has been warming at a breakneck pace.

She’s seen it with her own eyes.

The photographer has been visiting Antarctica on and off since 2004, working on expedition ships for National Geographic. In just the past few years, she has witnessed a noticeable change on the continent.

“What I have seen from 2016 to now, it’s like a different place altogether,” she said.

Fragments of ice called bergy bits can make it difficult for people to travel on and off the coastline. A large chunk of ice breaks off from the underside of a glacier in Neko Harbor. Seaman said glacier calving can be dangerous, especially when it happens underwater and it isn’t easy to see. Seaman points out the snow algae she’s photographed, which often turns the snow pink and sometimes green.

“That’s a normal occurrence. That’s not unusual,” she said. “But what is unusual is I had never seen it before March blooming in the glaciers. And now it’s showing up in January and December. That’s like three months early.

“And there are places where I had never, ever seen the ground. There had always been some snow cover. And now it’s just mud and rocks.”

The white landscape isn’t so white anymore.

These king penguins were photographed on the island of South Georgia, on the way to Antarctica. Seaman was surprised to see this little snow on the ground when she visited Cuverville Island. Green moss can be seen thriving in the foreground. Pink snow algae is on the mountain in the background. Last year, Antarctica registered a record-high temperature of 18.3 degrees Celsius, or nearly 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Petteri Taalas, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, said the record is “consistent with the climate change we are observing” and noted that the Antarctic peninsula — the northwest tip closes to South America — is among the fastest warming regions of the planet.

The WMO says temperatures on the peninsula have risen nearly 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) in the last 50 years. That has led to an increase in melting ice, which raises global sea levels and threatens coastal cities across the world.

It’s one of the many issues listed in Monday’s state-of-the-science report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Scientists say the planet is warming faster than previously thought and that the window is rapidly closing to cut our reliance on fossil fuels and avoid catastrophic outcomes.

Tourists kayak near icebergs off the coast of Cuverville Island. An Adélie penguin jumps over water at Brown Bluff on the Antarctic peninsula. The melting of polar regions is also having a troubling effect on some of the wildlife that calls those places home.

Chinstrap penguin colonies in some areas of the Antarctic have declined by more than 75% over the past half-century, according to independent researchers who joined a Greenpeace expedition to the region before the pandemic. They believe climate change is largely to blame, saying less sea ice and warmer oceans have reduced the krill that many of the penguins rely on for food.

“Phytoplankton blooms on the underside of the sea ice, and that is what the krill feed on,” Seaman explained. “And then the penguins feed on the krill, the whales feed on the krill, seals and sea lions feed on the krill. So it has this incredible chain effect. If you lose the sea ice, you lose this phytoplankton. You lose the phytoplankton and then you start losing the krill, and it starts to chain all the way up.”

Gentoo penguins nest at Neko Harbor. They’re faring better than the other penguin species on the continent. Their population actually increased from 2019 to 2020, according to the nonprofit Oceanites. Penguin footprints are seen on Cuverville Island. Higher temperatures can also be difficult for cold-weather penguins, especially chicks, Seaman said.

She recalled being on Antarctica’s Paulet Island when it was about 60 degrees Fahrenheit la

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