Baker on the banks of Alaska’s Unalakleet River on Sept. 17, 2021. Acacia Johnson
Nothing on earth compares to the icy sweeps of the planet’s polar extremes. It’s why, perhaps, explorers and scientists who have been there often seek more distant analogies, describing the poles’ austere swaths of frozen terrain in lunar terms, unworldly with their slimmed-down palettes of white, black, and icy blues. Home only to the most exquisitely adapted organisms, the Arctic and Antarctic are largely lethal to humankind, unforgiving with their dark winters, harsh winds, and violent cold. Yet these remote, inhospitable places have more impact on our lives than almost anything closer to home. The poles regulate our climate, our weather patterns, and even our maritime food supply. And they are warming faster than anywhere else on earth, with untold consequences for those who live at the planet’s more accommodating latitudes.
I saw this firsthand on Feb. 6, 2020, when Antarctica logged its hottest temperature on record—18.3°C (64.9°F)—at Argentina’s Esperanza weather station. I was on nearby Anvers Island, accompanying a team of ornithologists from New York’s Stony Brook University conducting a census of the region’s chinstrap penguin population. Members of the expedition relished the balmy weather, stripping down to T-shirts, but it was an ominous sign for the species they were there to document.
Penguins aren’t just adorable icons of Antarctica. They’re a sentinel species—an animal whose behaviors can tell scientists if something is going wrong in a particular environment. Chinstraps feed mainly on krill, tiny crustaceans that are the foundation of the marine food chain. Almost every animal in the ocean eats either krill or something else that eats krill, all the way up to the tuna that ends up on our dinner tables. Krill feed on the algae and phytoplankton that cling to the underside of ocean ice. As global temperatures rise because of increased carbon emissions, sea ice is declining. It would be impossible to survey the health of the world’s krill populations, but if chinstraps aren’t doing well, it’s likely that krill, and everything that eats krill, aren’t doing well either. And our carbon canaries are not doing well. The Stony Brook researchers found that most of the chinstrap colonies had declined over the past 50 years, some by half and others by up to 77%.
We can wring our hands over the looming loss of a charismatic species, but “Save the Penguins: Use Solar” doesn’t go far enough as a slogan. It doesn’t fully encompass what the loss of this penguin species portends for the future of humanity on this planet. Climate change moves so slowly as to feel almost imperceptible to us—what difference, after all, does a fraction of a single degree make on our day-to-day lives?—but lay that trajectory over something more fragile and less resilient like the chinstraps, and it quickly becomes clear the domino effect of climate change is already starting to reach uncomfortably close to home.
Or at least it should. There is an incomprehensible disconnect between what climate science says must be done—an immediate shift in how we produce energy, travel, and eat—and what we, and our leaders, are willing to do. At what point does the distant threat of ecological collapse assume the fierce urgency of now?
When the sea ice is entirely gone?
When the penguins are?
By then it will be too late.
Baker in Orne Harbor, Antarctica, on Feb.7, 2020. Courtesy Photo
The Arctic is nearing that tipping point. Nearly five months after Antarctica’s high temperature record, the Siberian city of Verkhoyansk reached a searing historical high of 38°C (100.4°F) on June 20, 2020, heralding a summer of extreme heat and wildfires in a region better known for ice storms. Overall, 2020 marked the hottest year on record for both poles, and both the Arctic and the Antarctic saw precipitous declines in sea ice. When there isn’t enough ice to reflect the sun’s rays back into space, that heat is absorbed by the dark ocean, accelerating rising water temperatures and ice melt, altering ocean currents, weakening the jet stream, and changing wind patterns. The effects ripple through the global ecosystem, manifesting in greater drought, heat, floods, and storms. “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,” Admiral Karl L. Schultz, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, told me on a September 2021 visit to the Canadian Arctic outpost of Resolute. Hurricane Ida had just ripped through the Caribbean and parts of the U.S., killing 107 from Venezuela to Connecticut and costing more than $75 billion in damage. While Resolute seemed worlds away from the destruction left in Ida’s wake, the two were opposite sides of the same coin, Schultz said. Ida was a tropical storm that exploded into a hurricane with little warning—the kind of rapid intensification caused by a warming Arctic, and a harbinger of more to come.
What happens at the top of the planet matters to everyone on earth. But it matters most to those who live there. A lack of sea ice exposes vulnerable shorelines to rapid erosion, forcing indigenous villages that have lived in harmony with the Arctic’s extremes for centuries to relocate inland. Hunting for seal, walrus, and polar bear—a mainstay of native Arctic traditions and subsistence survival—is not possible without winter’s thick slabs of ice. For many communities on the edge, the loss of sea ice spells cultural disruption as well as dislocation in a preview of what global warming, if left unchecked, will eventually bring to the rest of the world.
A few weeks after leaving Resolute, I traveled to the village of Unalakleet on Alaska’s northwest coast to meet Laureli Ivanoff, an Inupiaq climate activist. Ivanoff’s home freezer was full of the wealth of Arctic Alaska’s short summer season: berries and tundra greens, wild rhubarb, salmon caviar, caribou fat, and bear meat. The one thing she doesn’t have is the food that sustained her culture for generations: ugruk, or bearded seal. When a seal is harvested, every part of the animal is used, from the fat to the skin and the intestines. It anchors the hunter in a community ritual of sharing and respect for nature. When Ivanoff was a child, ice formed in the early fall and stayed deep into spring—these days she wonders if she will see ice at all in coming years.
“Colonization and assimilation have taken away so much,” Ivanoff told me—including language, dancing, and ceremonies that bound the community together. All that is left is the native food traditions. “And now climate change is taking even that.”
She watched her 3-year-old son play on the floor as he took a toy boat on an imaginary ugruk hunt. “How much of his culture will he get to keep?”
A fundamental part of human nature is to want to pass something on to the next generation that symbolizes our values, be it a cultural tradition or material goods earned over a lifetime of labor. If my daughter inherits a damaged planet, racked by heat waves, befouled with a plastic tide, and witness to waves of climate migrants fleeing uninhabitable lands, what does that say about the values my generation cultivated in its dogged pursuit of perpetual growth?
The science is clear: to prevent climate devastation we must cut greenhouse emissions nearly in half by 2030 compared with 2010 levels. That means real sacrifice in the short term, especially for those of us lucky enough to live in highly developed parts of the world. At this point, prioritizing the climate offers a stronger guarantee for the future than continuing to accumulate wealth the way we have been.
I came away from both poles with a mounting sense of frustration over a global unwillingness to act in the face of certain doom, as well as fear. A warming Arctic is not just a warning. It has the potential to take us with it in its demise. Permafrost, the layer of permanently frozen ground that undergirds both poles, is a carbon bomb waiting to go off. As the soil thaws it releases greenhouse gases, warming the region further and setting off a perpetual feedback loop. Scientists don’t yet know if Arctic emissions are on par with a small developing nation, or, more likely, another China. (The South Pole’s permafrost is trapped under the Antarctic ice sheet. If that melts away, we have bigger things to worry about, like a 200-ft. sea-level rise).
We tend to think of the earth’s polar regions as victims of our own carbon profligacy. But if we push them past the tipping point, they will become perpetrators. Our polar regions protect life as we know it only as much as we protect them. It’s worth sacrificing a little bit more to ensure we leave a better world behind.
Excess heat constricts water flow in shallow surface layers
Two years ago, oceanographers made a surprising discovery: Not only have oceans been warming because of human-driven climate change, but the currents that flow through them have accelerated—by some 15% per decade from 1990 to 2013.
At the time, many scientists suspected faster ocean winds were driving the speedup.
But a new modeling study fingers another culprit: the ocean’s own tendency to warm from top to bottom, leading to constricted surface layers where water flows faster, like blood in clogged arteries. The study suggests climate change will continue to speed up across ocean currents, potentially limiting the heat the ocean can capture and complicating migrations for already stressed marine life.
“This mechanism is important,” says Hu Shijian, an oceanographer at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’s Institute of Oceanology, who was the lead author on the 2020 paper.
“[The new paper] links directly the surface warming and acceleration of upper ocean circulation.”
Currents like the Atlantic Ocean’s Gulf Stream are highways for marine life, ushers of heat, and drivers of storms.
Driven in large part by wind, each of them moves as much water as all the world’s rivers combined. And, despite the fact that the ocean absorbs more than 90% of the heat caused by global warming, until 2020, there had been little evidence that these currents were changing.
A Map of the World's Ocean Currents (1940s)
source American Geographical Society
When Shang-Ping Xie, a climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, saw Hu’s study, he immediately suspected that the structure of the ocean—not winds—played a leading role in the speedup.
He knew the excess warmth from climate change is not distributed evenly through the ocean but is instead concentrated at its surface.
This causes surface waters to grow more buoyant—and more reluctant to mix with waters below.
The shallower surface layers created by this process have been seen across the world’s oceans.
Xie and his colleagues also realized that, in shallower layers, currents would naturally have to speed up: In effect, the winds were pushing the same amount of water through a narrower pipe.
“If you assume the total transport can’t change, your stuff is going to accelerate,” Xie says.
To test that hypothesis, Xie’s team turned to a climate model of all the world’s oceans.
The researchers increased either winds, saltiness, or surface temperatures, while holding all other variables steady.
That was by far the largest increase, they found in a new study published today in Science Advances. One notable exception was the Gulf Stream, which is likely slowing for an unrelated reason: As Arctic ice melts, it dilutes the sinking, salty water in the North Atlantic that pulls the current northward.
“This is an interesting study with a provocative finding,” says Sarah Gille, a physical oceanographer at Scripps.
“We usually assume that if you uniformly warm the ocean, there will be no major impact on ocean circulation.”
Accounting for the top-down nature of ocean warming changes that picture, she adds.
The new findings also suggests that in much of the ocean, lower waters, some 400 meters or so down, would slow as warm upper waters take up more and more of the movement, Xie says.
Hu is not so certain of that, however.
Unpublished measurements of the speed of Argo floats, a fleet of robotic instruments that have been drifting through the ocean for nearly 20 years, show a significant acceleration in surface currents—and a modest increase at lower depths.
“I trust what the observations tell us,” Hu says. The new finding, he adds, “might not be the total story.”
But if ocean currents are indeed becoming faster and shallower, there are many implications for the planet.
For example, the shallow, speedy currents could ultimately limit how much heat the ocean can absorb, causing more of that excess heat to remain in the atmosphere.
Marine microbes and wildlife could be subjected to shallower, hotter, and faster surface waters.
And given that the speedup is driven by the steady drumbeat of warming, it means these trends are likely to continue in the future—as long as human emissions of greenhouse gases continue.
Underwater glacial melting up to 100 times faster than thought, study finds Existing models are ‘wildly inaccurate’ and significantly underestimated extent of melting, scientists say
Underwater glacial melting is happening up to 100 times faster than previously thought, a major study has found.
For the first time, researchers directly measured the melting of tidewater glaciers below the waterline. They found existing models were “wildly inaccurate”.
Study co-author Rebecca Jackson, of Rutgers University-New Brunswick in the US, said: “We found that melt rates are significantly higher than expected across the whole underwater face of the glacier – in some places 100 times higher than theory would predict.”
Until now, scientists did not know how fast these glaciers – which are found in Greenland, Alaska and Antarctica – were melting under the surface.
Researchers previously used water and air temperature, as well as ocean currents, to measure the melt speed.
But the latest study, published in the journal Science, found that ocean salinity and the shape of the glacier was also important.
“We have opened the door to correcting these models and allowing other researchers to use our method to explore other tidewater glaciers around the world," lead researcher Dr David Sutherland told The Independent.
LeConte Glacier, which flows into LeConte Bay
The oceanographer, from the University of Oregon, added that his team's data “provides a new constraint for improving those models and points to the ocean as an important trigger for ice loss”.
Leconte Glacier with the GeoGarage platform (NOAA raster chart)
Scientists studied the underwater melting of LeConte Glacier, which flows into LeConte Bay in south Juneau in Alaska between 2016 and 2018.
They used sonar to scan and profile the underwater face of the glacier.
They also measured the speed of currents, temperature and salinity of the meltwater flow.
This short film is a product of a National Geographic Early Career Grant for storytelling.
It highlights LeConte Glacier’s position in a changing environment and its connection to the local community via a high school citizen science endeavor that has been ongoing since 1983.
The aim of this Sumdum project is to show otherwise unseen perspectives of something that won’t be seen for very much longer.
Iceberg calving was detected using time-lapse photography, and weather station data measured surface melt.
The team believe their approach could be used to study melting rates at other types of glaciers.
This latest study adds to research that suggests assumptions about underwater melting at glaciers need to be revisited – because of the alarming effects of the phenomenon on rising sea levels.
An ice shelf the size of New York City has collapsed in East Antarctica, an area long thought to be stable and not hit much by climate change.
Captured by NASA satellite photographs, the collapse of the Glenzer Conger ice shelf follows a period in March where parts of Antarctica became more than 40°C warmer than average.
"It certainly added a pressure onto those ice shelves that we haven't seen before," says Catherine Walker at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts.
"Over two days, it basically was gone, which was surprising."
Dr Sutherland added: “Future sea-level rise is primarily determined by how much ice is stored in these ice sheets. We are focusing on the ocean-ice interfaces because that’s where the extra melt and ice is coming from that controls how fast ice is lost. “To improve the modelling, we have to know more about where melting occurs and the feedbacks involved.”
Longtime Shippan resident and recreational sailor David Tunick has been preparing for most of his life, and particularly over the past three years, for a trip he plans to make this spring.
In late May, the 78-year-old intends to embark on a journey of about 5,000 nautical miles from Spain to Connecticut on his personal sailboat.
He said he will do the trip alone and only make stops if he runs into major problems.
“I love being alone out in the ocean,” Tunick said, especially at night under the stars and moon.
“I mean, I love having guests when we're coastwise — whether it's Cape Cod or Sweden or Norway or, wherever, Spain. I love having guests and sharing the experience. But in the ocean, I do like to be alone.”
It won’t be the first time Tunick has “singlehanded.”
He said he has taken solo trips for more than 40 years, including to Bermuda, Maine and across the North Sea.
Tunick sailed alone from Connecticut to England about 20 years ago.
That was a 22-day voyage.
He said he is expecting the trip back to the United States to take five to seven weeks because of the route.
Tunick, a New York art gallery owner and Stamford Yacht Club member, said he is in “great shape” and walks four to six miles a day.
Nevertheless, in the past three years, he said he has seen “every specialist under the sun” — including a pulmonologist, a cardiologist and an orthopedist — and had dental work done as well because “you don’t want to have to pull your own tooth” out on the water.
He’s even had his gallbladder removed, eliminating any possibility of having to deal with gallstones, he said.
Tunick has also been getting his well-used, decades-old sailboat, Night Watch, ready for the journey.
In recent years, the generator and engine have been rebuilt and the mast has been repaired
Last summer, he took the 55-foot vessel on a shakedown cruise from the Netherlands to Spain to see if there were any problems he needed to address.
Left: David Tunick works on the mast. Right: Night Watch sits in storage in a boatyard in Spain. Contributed by David Tunick
His family does have some concerns about him doing the trip, he said, but “they know I’ve done it before and they know that I’m OK at it.”
On board, he will have medical supplies, plenty of food — including pasta, canned meat and farm fresh eggs — a tracking device and a communication system.
He will be in regular contact with a meteorologist.
David Tunick poses at the Stamford Yacht Club in Stamford, Conn. Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. The 78-year-old intends to embark on a journey of about 5,000 nautical miles from Spain to Connecticut on his personal sailboat this May.
Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media
As for sleep, he said he puts his head down for one-and-a-half to two-and-half hours at a time then gets up to check on the boat.
But if he is in an area where he may cross paths with other boats, he takes power naps, with a timer waking him up every six to eight minutes.
On deck, he always wears a harness and tethers himself to his boat.
On the off chance the tether breaks and he goes overboard, he has a long, yellow line trailing behind the boat with a lightweight plastic container attached to the end that he could try to grab.
Clockwise: David Tunick standing at the helm, Night Watch racing in Denmark, Tunick in Sweden, and Night Watch at the Isle of Skye in Scotland.
Contributed by David Tunick
Tunick said he is passionate about boating safety — and has strict rules for when people are aboard his boat.
One of those rules: “Once we leave a dock, we leave a mooring, we haul anchor, you must be wearing a life preserver,” Tunick said.
“I don’t care how calm a day it is, how hot a day it is. I don’t care what the conditions are. Even if there’s no wind, you’re wearing a life preserver on my boat.”
Is he ever afraid when he is on a solo trip? “I think that a little bit of fear is a good thing because it helps to keep you alert,” he said.
“It's really all about the preparation.”
Another question Tunick said he is often asked is: “Don’t you get bored? How can you stand being by yourself the whole time?” “I’ve never really minded,” he said. “There’s always something to do — to fix, to check, to write in the log, to try to get some sleep, to cook dinner, to do the dishes.”
And one of the upsides of being alone: No one sees when he makes a mistake. “I don't think of myself as a great sailor,” Tunick said.
“I'm a careful sailor, but I'm not a great, great sailor. And so I do make mistakes. And I like very much the idea of self-reliance and the accomplishment of achieving a passage and doing it correctly and properly.” Something is bound to go wrong on a trip of more than 1,000 miles, he said, “and you have to have the wherewithal to fix it yourself.”
Left: The bow of Night Watch. Right: David Tunick at the Stamford Yacht Club. | Contributed by David Tunick | Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media
Tunick said he has “always been crazy about the water.” He recalled going with his father and uncles on power boats from Greenwich Harbor to Island Beach, where they would fish or swim. His uncles even had a model boat made for him — though it sank as soon as they put it into a pond at Bruce Park.
His first exposure to sailing was at camp.
Then, when Tunick was about 20 years old, he bought his first boat with a partner, splitting the $300 cost.
It was a 19-foot day racer with an open cockpit and no cabin, but he said he preferred to use it for cruising.
Sometimes he and a friend would take the boat out on Long Island Sound, sail to Oyster Bay or Huntington Bay, sleep in a sleeping bag on the beach and sail back the following day.
“I love just being on a boat,” Tunick said.
“I race around every day in New York in my day job. So when I'm out there, I don't want to have that feeling that I must be somewhere a tenth of a mile before somebody else or two minutes before somebody else.”
He later bought the boat that he has now owned for close to 40 years: a Sparkman & Stephens-designed, Abeking & Rasmussen-built vessel with an aluminum hull.
“There's no place I'd rather be, if not in my own house, than floating around on that boat,” he said.
Since launching his one-man rowboat from the Northern California coast last summer, Erden Eruç has pulled himself nearly 6,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean.
That’s the distance between Crescent City and the tiny tropical island of Guam, where he made land Saturday after a grueling journey of squalls, salt sores and the muscle atrophy that comes with spending seven months doing little more than sitting down and grinding on oars.
“I’ve been beat up, I’m tired, sore here and there — but that’s all to be expected,” Eruç said on a phone call from Guam this week, shortly after arriving at the island territory.
“The muscles that have to do with locomotion are all sore. I’m getting used to standing again.”
Eruç, a 60-year-old Turkish adventurer who lives in Seattle, set out last June on a mission to circumnavigate the globe under his own power — rowing, bicycling and walking.
The first leg was supposed to be a solo voyage from California directly to Hong Kong.
But in September, Eruç opted for a brief pit stop in Hawaii for repairs, and trouble procuring a Chinese visa prompted him to waylay temporarily in Guam while he charts a new course to mainland Asia.
Erden Eruç is crossing the Pacific in a 23-foot rowboat, alone except for the occasional seabird.
His human-powered exploits have earned him 15 Guinness world records, and he believes he has picked up four more during his latest voyage, including one for having spent a career total 1,136 days traveling alone at sea, which he believes is the most of any solo rower.
But Eruç says claiming records isn’t of much importance.
The true rewards come from the excitement of adventure.
“To handle what nature will throw against me, I approach these crossings much like a special chess game with my Yellow Queen moving one day at a time on a vast blue game board,” he wrote earlier this month on a blog he updates regularly from sea.
His “Yellow Queen” is his 23-foot-long rowboat.
Sunrise over the Pacific from the deck of Eruç’s rowboat.
While Eruç has steeled himself for life on a small craft, the Pacific offers new surprises.
Days after the Tongan volcano eruption last month, which sent tsunamis rippling across the ocean in every direction, Eruç experienced a day of atypical weather and wind.
“For one day, I got the oddest winds from the south-southeast in the direction of Tonga that were not in the forecast,” Eruç said.
While there were no rogue waves to contend with, “the seas were oddly different that day,” he said.
Isolation can come to define his experience some days, and occasionally feelings of longing trickle into Eruç’s written updates. In a November post, he expressed his desire to see his wife and dog.
“I so long for her company and my routine at home as I spend my days quarantined on my yellow rowboat,” he wrote. “Just thinking of our dog, Buddy, brings a smile to my face. Nancy tells me that he sleeps on my pillow every night.”
Eruç makes time each week for satellite phone calls with Nancy, and she flew out to Guam after his arrival for a Valentine’s Day reunion.
Eruç attaches himself to his boat at all times by an ankle tether.
He hopes to resume his journey soon and is plotting a course through the Philippines that would land him in Borneo by springtime and Malaysia by May, where he expects to receive a visa upon arrival. From there, he’ll proceed by bike north toward the Himalayas and a hopeful ascent of Mount Everest, a bucket list challenge for Eruç.
But that’s all too far in the future to cement on a firm timeline. For now, Eruç is resting and eating all the fresh fruits and greens he can before setting out again.
“I’m not really losing sleep over these details at this time,” he said. “I have enough of a challenge just getting off this rock called Guam and reaching the other rock called Borneo.”
Climate change is affecting the entire globe, but it’s especially pronounced at the poles.
Weather anomalies bring about new challenges for maritime operators but also pose threats to the local communities and the ecosystem.
With an integrated EU Space Programme in place, Europe has the capacity to better understand the challenges the Arctic Circle is confronted with, shape new mitigating policies and develop the necessary tools to fight Climate Change.