Cold, distant - and threatened

by Carl Duivenvoorden ( Published Monday, February 6, 2012 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

For most of us, Antarctica brings to mind images of friendly penguins, breathtaking scenery and extreme cold.  Earth’s southernmost continent is all of those – but it also has the potential to rewrite maps the world over, including here in New Brunswick.

Big, cold and icy
Antarctica is huge.  Whereas the North Pole lies in the middle of an ocean, the South Pole is in the middle of an enormous land mass.  At 14 million square kilometres, it is nearly 1.5 times the size of Canada, or nearly 200 times the size of New Brunswick. 

Antarctica is cold – in the interior of the continent, the average temperature throughout the year is about -45°C.

Antarctica is icy.  Over 98% of its land is permanently buried under a thick blanket of ice.  That ice – most of it thousands of years old – averages over 2 km deep, or four times the height of the CN Tower.  In total, 30 million cubic kilometres of ice sit atop the land of Antarctica.  (For comparison, the daily tide in the Bay of Fundy involves the movement of just 100 cubic kilometres.)

So distant and isolated is Antarctica that few of us ever get the chance to experience it firsthand.  So inhospitable it is that those who do visit are of necessity temporary guests, entirely reliant on outside support from more temperate parts of the world.  The permanent population of Antarctica is zero; you could call it Earth’s final frontier.

A changing continent
As distant and isolated as it is, Antarctica is not beyond the reach of climate change – and that should be worrisome for all of us.

The Antarctic Peninsula, the long finger of land that reaches up from the icy enclave toward South America, is showing the most change so far.  It has warmed by 2.5°C in the past 60 years.  As a result, several huge ice shelves bordering the peninsula have collapsed spectacularly in the past decade – most recently the 4000 square kilometre Wilkins Ice Shelf in 2008.

But Antarctica’s biggest global impacts lie not in the collapse of floating ice shelves on its perimeter, because floating shelves are like ice cubes floating in a glass of water: they don’t change water levels when they melt.

The real threat from Antarctica comes from all that ice sitting up on the continent.  It DOES raise sea levels when it melts or breaks off into the ocean, and there is enough ice in Antarctica to raise sea levels worldwide by more than 60 metres.  That’s sixty metres, or about 200 feet – enough to affect every metre of New Brunswick’s coastline and threaten every coastal community. 

To be sure, that won’t happen quickly.  But it is distressing to note that Antarctica’s ice has been melting faster lately.  The Western part of the continent is especially vulnerable; it’s been losing over 200 cubic kilometres per year recently.  And Christmas Day 2011 was a record-breaker: the warmest day ever at the South Pole.

Climate change is like a train: it starts slowly, but it’s awfully hard to stop once it gains a bit of momentum.

On Thin Ice
This month, former US Vice President Al Gore is leading an expedition to Antarctica to raise awareness of the impacts of climate change.  Among the business leaders, activists, and scientists joining him are Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson, pop star Jason Mraz, leading global climate scientist Dr. James Hansen and Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.  You can find their pleas, postings and photos at

Antarctica may be cold, distant and desolate – but it’s folly to ignore its potential to raise sea levels and affect civilization the world over.