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Yale 62

Antarctic Sea Ice: Going, Going…

1962-63 operation in Antarctica. The first shows our ship USS EDISTO, a Wind Class icebreaker, as stopped in the ice for R and R. (Beer could not be consumed on board so down the ladder we went!)

By Rutherford H. “Rud” Platt

Amid the deluge of political, war, and economic news, a new report from Antarctica caught my attention: Floating pack ice surrounding the frozen continent has shrunk to the smallest extent since monitoring by satellite began in 1979.

As reported in The Guardian online on March 4, the ice pack reached a record low of 1.79 million square kilometers on Feb. 25 — about 9% lower than previous February levels. According to Australian scientists Rob Massom and Phil Reid, “two-thirds of the continent’s coastline was exposed to open water last month.”

Sixty years ago as a newly minted ensign, I spent four months in Antarctica aboard a Navy icebreaker bashing channels for cargo ships to reach McMurdo Sound and other research stations on the continent. After leaving New Zealand and crossing the stormy “Roaring Forties” and “Furious Fifties,” we entered a vast ocean of pack ice 500 miles wide.

For three weeks we pounded through ever-heavier ice until we became totally stuck within view of the ice-sheathed volcano Mount Erebus, still 50 kilometers from McMurdo. As described in my journal: “We’ve been stuck for thirty hours during which we’ve heeled and trimmed the ship, swung our heavier boats out on cranes, hauled against ice anchors, exploded dynamite charges near the bow, all to no avail.”

Thanks to our six engines and a strongly built hull, we avoided being crushed like Shackleton’s “Endurance” and finally wriggled loose.

A couple of months later, while conducting oceanographic research along the vast white cliff front of the Ross Ice Shelf, a lookout spotted debris spilling out of a great tabular iceberg that had broken away from the shelf. On closer inspection, the debris was found to be the remains of wooden buildings crushed beneath 10 tons of ice.

Photographs from our ship later appeared in Life magazine, and the wreckage was identified as part of Admiral Richard Byrd’s “Little America IV” base built on the Ross Ice Shelf in the 1940s — a relic of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, but in retrospect also an omen of the age of climate change yet to come.

Who could then imagine that the immense expanse of pack ice that we struggled through for weeks would largely disappear within a single human lifetime?

Debris from Byrd’s “Little America” base that our ship encountered in the Ross Sea after its burial under decades of snow and separation from the Ross Ice Shelf on which it was originally constructed.

While the “greenhouse effect” was vaguely recognized at the time, no one realized that atmospheric carbon dioxide, a driver of global warming, was already at the “elbow” of the famous “hockey stick” model, as formulated in 1999 by UMass climatologist Ray Bradley and his colleagues. In 1963, atmospheric CO2 stood at about 318 parts per million, a slight increase from the millennia-long, pre-industrial average of 280 ppm.

CO2 levels have since leaped upward to an appalling 419 ppm today — the highest level since 3 million years ago, when the world was 3 to 4 degrees Celsius hotter than today. As David Wallace-Wells wrote in “The Uninhabitable Earth,” (2017): “The last twenty-five years of emissions … is about half of the total humanity has ever produced — a scale of carbon production that has pushed the planet from near-complete climate stability to the brink of chaos.”

The melting of sea ice per se does not directly raise sea level significantly since that ice is already largely immersed in the ocean. But as studied by another distinguished UMass climatologist, Rob DeConto and his team, the loss of protective floating ice causes the seaward edge of land-based glaciers to be thawed by warming ocean water, leading to faster melting of land ice and sea level rise.

Polar surface air temperatures are rising at more than double the global average over the last two decades, as amplified by feedbacks from loss of sea ice and snow cover, and melting of permafrost. As reported daily, climate change is driving more intense and costly disasters including prolonged drought, devastating wildfires, stronger hurricanes, coastal and river flooding, and extreme temperatures.

Climate change also threatens food and water supplies around the world through changes in precipitation and rising temperatures. Climate impacts will most heavily burden those who already suffer from food shortages, environmental degradation, and deficient housing.

We have had plenty of warning: In 1992, 1,700 scientists, including 104 Nobel Laureates, signed a “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” that declared: “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. … A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided … ” Twenty-five years later, 15,364 scientists in 184 countries signed another “Warning to Humanity: Second Notice.”

A “Final Warning” was issued on March 20 by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its closing Synthesis Report. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called the report “a clarion call to massively fast-track climate efforts by every country and every sector and on every timeframe. Our world needs climate action on all fronts: everything, everywhere, all at once.”

As the ice goes, so goes the planet.


We welcome your comments.

5 comments to Antarctic Sea Ice: Going, Going…

  • I certainly pray the the scientific and governmental worlds maitain their efforts to get us lay people behind an achievable rescue. Please keep up your efforts telling us what painful pills we must reconcile ourselves to swallowing in order to Stop the Melt!
    Christopher Cory.

  • Rutherford H Platt

    Chris — Thanks for your comment. This gets worse by the day. How can we be opening more oil/gas fields in Alaske, and sending humans to the Moon? — I thought we already did that trick. Just keeps the NASA PR office busy.

    Rud Platt

  • Ken Merkey

    I don’t understand why we are still sending people to the moon. I do know that we need more fossil fuels. Wind and solar are not going to get us there. And we can’t afford the 50% federal subsidy that every renewable project gets. The Biden inflation machine is already out of control.
    Fossil fuels got us here. Weaning us off fossil fuels is not going to be quick or easy. Hydro has good potential but behind every rock there is a snail darter protector. The only substantial answer is nuclear. Unfortunately, the brainiacs in DC can’t seem to grasp that.
    BTW, thanks for not blaming Trump for the ice melt.

  • Jay Hatch

    Rud, Thanks for the very educational article. I do hope you will keep them up from time to time. Jay