I will always remember Portal Point as the place I first stepped foot on the continent of Antarctica. For many on the ship, it was their seventh continent, but I still have a few remaining. We’d suited up that morning in anticipation of our first kayaking excursion, but the water was rough and visibility declining, so the guides deemed it unworthy for our first paddle. Instead, the kayakers joined the main group on Portal Point, where we were greeted by our first fur seals.
Having prepared myself for one of the driest places on earth, I was quite surprised that it was snowing. Later, when we returned to the ship, the naturalists explained that snowfall on the Antarctic Peninsula has been increasing over the past 200 years. My first thought was “If the planet is warming, shouldn’t there be less snow?”, but clearly I didn’t pay enough attention in high school, because the science checks out. According to a study by the British Antarctic Survey, “Theory predicts that, as Antarctica warms, the atmosphere should hold more moisture and that this should lead therefore to more snowfall.” Put another way, “The loss of ice exposes warm water to the cold air, increasing evaporation, which returns to the world’s driest continent as snow—even rain” (National Geographic). This is affecting many wildlife habitats, especially Adélie penguin colonies. As they return to the same sites to nest each year, they’re now having to build on snow rather than rock or soil, and many of the nests collapse or flood, drowning eggs or freezing chicks to death.
It all comes down to the ice. Everything on the peninsula depends on the sea ice. While I always tended to imagine that melting was the only problem caused by warming in the poles, it’s just one part. More noticeable is how much less sea ice forms each year when winter returns. According to National Geographic, “The ice-free season on the western peninsula lasts a full 90 days longer than in 1979.” And we’re only barely beginning to understand the massive consequences of this.