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Journey to Antarctica: What We Learned in the Ice

As he ends his two-month long voyage to Thwaites glacier, Jeff Goodell wrestles with the awesomeness, the strangeness and the power of what he saw on his journey to Antarctica

This is the latest dispatch in a series from Jeff Goodell, who is aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer in Antarctica, investigating the effect of climate change on Thwaites glacier.

As I write this, I’m on the bridge of the Nathanial B. Palmer, cruising through the Strait of Magellan on our way to Punta Arenas, Chile. I’m watching black-and-white Commerson’s dolphins — they look like mini-Orcas — jump around us. Cormorants fly alongside the ship, and Magellanic penguins float nearby, grooming themselves. It is a warm and sunny afternoon, a light breeze kicking up whitecaps in the blue-green waters of the Strait. Our two-month-long, 3,700-nautical-mile-long journey deep into Antarctica is about over. In a few hours, we’ll be tied up at the pier and many of us will be stampeding off the ship toward the nearest bar for a pisco sour.

It is has been extraordinary trip, one that I’ve been lucky to participate in and report on. I’ll have lots more to say in an upcoming story in Rolling Stone, but for now, I’ll wrap up these dispatches with a few final thoughts.

First, the variety and significance of the science we accomplished on this trip was awesome.

We tagged 12 seals with a high-tech instrument that allows them to gather ocean data as they dive and swim; those hard-working seals have already completely more than 10,000 dives, and logged nearly 700 temperature, depth, and salinity reports. We retrieved two moorings that contain important long-term oceanographic measurements. We mapped hundreds of miles of previously uncharted seabed with sonar devices. We launched and recovered underwater gliders to measure ocean temperature and salinity. We completed three missions with the Hugin, an automated underwater device, that created very high-resolution maps of the sea floor in front of Thwaites glacier. We explored old beaches on five remote islands, looking for evidence of past sea level rise in the region. And we bagged 27 sediment cores from the bottom of the Amundsen Sea.

In this image, you can see our ship tracks as we zig-zagged back and forth in front of Thwaites glacier, mapping the sea bed and gathering oceanographic data.


What have we learned from all this? It will take a while for scientists to analyze the data we’ve collected and say anything definitive. But it’s already clear that some our findings were notable, if not historic: We mapped an uncharted part of the Amundsen Sea, gaining crucial understanding of the topography of the seabed in front of Thwaites that will help scientists understand the flow of warm water beneath the glacier. Using high-resolution instruments in the Hugin, we found tracks on the bottom of the seabed, likely made by retreating glaciers, that will be enormous help for researchers trying to determine when, and if, Thwaites glacier has collapsed in the recent past. And we have gathered the first direct evidence of warm Circumpolar Deep Water flowing under Thwaites, as well as come up with several hypothesis about the mechanism that drives it.

But to talk about this trip in strictly scientific terms is only part of the story. For me, this was a voyage of discovery in a more personal way, an encounter with a world that is as distant from my everyday experience as a trip to Mars would be.

Among my discoveries: I learned that elephant seals have very bad breath, and are both terrifying and hilarious when they arch their backs and roar at you. I walked among a waddle of Adelie penguins and discovered they have no fear of humans, and in fact seem to think they are superior to us in many ways. I watched albatrosses follow our ship and understood why sailors once believed (and perhaps some still do) that they carry the souls of dead sailors with them. I learned that Skuas — a gull-like seabird — have bad attitudes and will steal food right out of your hands, and that albino Orcas really do exist. I discovered that if you spend enough time staring at the ocean, you will see something interesting — including, if the conditions are just right, a green flash as the sun falls below the horizon. I learned that nine-tenths of an iceberg is beneath the surface of the water. I discovered that pancake ice really does look like a million pancakes scattered over the surface of the sea, and that ice shelves, like old men, show their age by growing craggy and crevassed. I learned that katabatic winds off the glaciers are terrifyingly cold. I discovered that the Antarctic Circumpolar Current is the largest current on earth, with five times the volume of the Gulf Stream. I found that the language of geology has its own poetry (“dilated tills” “basal drag”), and that the blue of the sky and the blue of the sea are as different as the sky and sea themselves.

I also learned plenty about climate scientists and the work they do. Like the rest of us, they capable of making mistakes, pushing flawed hypothesis and over-interpreting data. Money matters a lot to them, but not in the ways that climate deniers think (it’s all about research funding, not ski condos in Aspen). I learned that some scientists can read sediment cores like a book, with each chapter full of new characters engaged in a mighty struggle to survive on our ever-ever-changing planet. I learned that science is not only hard and often dangerous work, but that it is also impromptu, improvisational and weather-dependent. And that on a ship like the Palmer, scientists are only as good as the marine technicians and crew members who are working with them. Most importantly, I learned that the best scientists are radical and fearless in ways that few outsiders can understand or appreciate. They are heroes of our time.

Spending two months on the bridge of the ship with the captain and the mates was an education, too. Most importantly, I learned that scientists don’t run the boat, the captain does. As we rolled through the notorious Drake’s Passage on the way down to Antarctica, I discovered that a big wave on the beam of the ship is far spookier and more dangerous than a wave on the bow. I learned that at night, you don’t go to bed, you hit the rack. I discovered that the “Bowditch” — shorthand for The American Practical Navigator by Nathaniel Bowditch, first published in 1804 — is a sacred text on the bridge of the ship. I learned that there is no such thing as an up-to-date ice map, and that sunshine in the Southern Ocean usually means bad weather ahead. Finally, I discovered that among the eternal mysteries of the sea are how rogue waves form, why whales breach and why ships are always referred to with a female pronoun (“she”).

Still, none of this captures the awesomeness and strangeness and the power of what we saw on this journey to Antarctica. What is so hard to capture and communicate in words is not just the scale of it all, the sublime awesomeness of this continent of ice, but also its fragility. In Antarctica, we witnessed an ice shelf the size of five Manhattan’s disintegrate in a matter of hours. More than anything else, this journey has reminded me that, thanks largely to the west’s 200 year-long fossil fuel binge, we live in a rapidly changing world now. And those change are likely to come much faster, and with far greater force and power, than most of us can even begin to understand.

Goodbye, Antarctica. Hello, pisco sour!


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