I’m so excited for my hometown book event in Ashland tonight at 7 p.m. at the lovely Bloomsbury Books.
It’s great fun to see My Last Continent in such good company here at the store … and with the temperatures reaching for 90+ degrees today, I’m looking forward to an evening of ice and penguins and all things Antarctic!
Check out my Facebook page today for a #FacebookFirstReads live event, during which I’ll read from My Last Continent and chat about a scene from the book (at the location in Boston in which it is set).
And to learn about the researchers who count penguins at the bottom of the world, check out The Penguin Counters, a documentary about these dedicated researchers and the species they study in Antarctica.
And, finally … stay tuned for My Last Continent, coming on June 21 from Scribner! In this novel, you’ll meet four species of penguins: three Antarctic species, and the Magellanic penguins of Patagonia. Check out the book club kit for a little more info, and join my mailing list for news and updates on the book.
As a writer who is passionate about the environment (and often impatient about the lack of progress when it comes to tackling climate change), I know all too well how challenging it is to write about environmental issues without sacrificing story. And Ann Pancake is one of those authors who does it brilliantly, not only by creating unforgettable characters but by evoking a sense of place so beautifully that readers will come away wanting to protect it as much as her characters do.
A new study from University of Pennsylvania researchers has found that Antarctic lake deposits have remained frozen for at least the last 14 million years — which suggests that the East Antarctic Ice Sheet has also remained intact.
If the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, or EAIS, didn’t experience significant melting during the Pliocene (a period from 3 to 5 million years ago, when carbon dioxide concentrations were similar to what they are today), this offers new hope that perhaps the continent won’t melt away, as many fear it eventually could.
Current climate change projections indicate that the marine portion of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is “a goner,” [Jane] Willenbring said. Studies from the past few years suggest that sea level will likely rise a few meters as that ice melts. But the East Antarctic Ice Sheet is 20 times more massive. If it melted, the ensuing sea level rise would be even more catastrophic than the western peninsula’s dissolution.
However, while this study offers hope that a massive collapse of the ice sheet, and the subsequent sea level rise, may not be imminent, the differences between the Pliocene and the rapid warming of today’s climate are great enough that it’s impossible to draw any definitive conclusions. As Willenbring says,”we’ve probably never experienced such a fast transition to warm temperatures as we’re seeing right now.”
I just read this recent article by Amanda Biederman — a scientist stationed at the U.S.’s Palmer Station, located on the Antarctic peninsula — who writes about being at once removed from the media’s coverage of climate change, yet also being at ground zero at the same time.
Biederman writes about the scary news from NASA about the imminent disappearance of the Larsen B ice shelf, as well as the fact that on the other side of the continent, in East Antarctica, while there had been increases in ice shelf volume between 1994 and 2003, this part of the continent is also experiencing ice shelf loss at the rate of 56 cubic kilometers per year.
Climate changes threatens not only the wildlife in Antarctica, as well as the ability to continue research there — it will change entire map of the world as we know it. Biederman writes:
If the entire Antarctic ice sheet melted, global sea levels would rise by 60 meters. Much of the U.S. East Coast — including about one-third of Maryland and the entire state of Delaware — would be underwater. Denmark and the Netherlands would disappear. Large portions of other countries, including the U.K., China and Brazil, would be destroyed as well.
It’s so easy to think of Antarctica as a faraway place, where what happens there doesn’t affect the way we live. But it does…and it will even more over time.
“This is not an issue that will be resolved on its own,” Biederman concludes, “and the time for making the environmental protection a priority is long past due.”
The Larsen B Ice Shelf has been in the news recently due to a recent NASA report about the shelf’s increasing fragmentation, including visible cracks. This is alarming news, as the breakup of the remainder of this ice shelf — which could happen within the next five years — would cause a massive rise in sea levels globally. While the United Nations projected the planet could see a rise in sea level of up to three feet by the year 2100, due to human-induced climate change, this study did not take into account the potential loss of Larsen B.
Global warming has been increasing faster at the planet’s poles than elsewhere on the planet. The Antarctic peninsula alone is nearly 5 degrees warmer than it was 50 years ago — an astonishing increase in temperature. The big danger in losing the Larsen Ice Shelf is that it holds three of the continent’s glaciers in place. With the ice shelf gone, the glaciers will advance into the ocean; it’s this loss of ice that will cause the rise global sea levels.
The Larsen Ice Shelf has existed for 11,000 or 12,000 years, says lead researcher Ala Khazendar in this video, below. After a large part of the shelf broke off in 2002, it has been weakening quickly and is not expected to last more than a few more years. Without a doubt, he says, this will affect sea level rise.
“It is certainly a warning,” he says. “The conclusion is inescapable.”
Click here to learn about last year’s winner, Mary Heather Noble, selected by bestselling author Karen Joy Fowler, whose novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves won the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award and the 2014 California Book Award and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
I came across two very different glimpses of Antarctica recently — one terrifying, and the other gorgeous. Of course, they’re connected…the first (NASA images of a gigantic iceberg breaking off a glacier) is a strong warning that we need to do something about climate change before what we see in the second (stunning video captured by a drone) disappears altogether.
This graphic is amazing because NASA captured imagery of the iceberg splitting from the continent just before and just after. It may look small in this image, but remember, this was shot from space! The iceberg, which broke off of West Antarctica’s Getz ice shelf, is 17 miles long (larger than Manhattan) and only one of many that have been breaking off the continent’s glaciers and floating into the sea (which will cause the oceans to rise to catastrophic levels). Check out the article for more info and photos.
And this gorgeous film was made by a Swedish filmmaker visiting Antarctica during this last tourist season … it shows the continent it all its quiet beauty, and in a few of the images you can see just how tiny human life feels in this vast place. Below is one of the stills from Kalle Ljung’s film … definitely worth watching, especially if you need a few moments of peace — it’s very meditative.
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) is a voluntary membership organization founded in 1991 to help Antarctic tourism keep up the standards of the Antarctic Treaty, that is: to protect the environment and to keep developing guidelines to continue to preserve and protect the continent.
Recently, IAATO released its latest tourism numbers, and I always find it interesting to gauge the activity in this part of the world. The total numbers of visitors traveling to Antarctica (with IAATO members) was 36,702. This is 2 percent less than the previous season; the highest recorded number of tourists visiting the continent was 46,265 during the 2007-2008 season.
IAATO also estimated the numbers of visitors expected next season, 2015-2016, and this edges closer to that high number: 40,029. The organization expects this increase to be among those smaller cruise ships that do landings, which means safer travel yet more feet on the ground in Antarctica.
This past season, 73 percent of Antarctic visitors traveled on small ships carrying fewer than 500 passengers — yet it’s the 26 percent of visitors who cruise through on larger ships without making landings that can be even more dangerous. These ships often carry thousands of passengers, and when you get into trouble that far south, rescues are challenging.
In 2007, a Canadian ship struck underwater ice in the waters off the Antarctic peninsula and sank within 15 hours. Fortunately, the ship had only 91 passengers, all of whom got into lifeboats and received help from a Norwegian ship that was nearby. In addition, the weather was good, around 20 degrees Fahrenheit (fairly balmy for Antarctica) and calm. But what if there had been hundreds more passengers, or if the weather had turned, or if no other ships were close by?
Traveling to Antarctica comes with inherent risk — it is, by nature, a wild and unpredictable place — and IAATO continues to keep the safety and environmental standards as high as possible. By now, most ships that travel to Antarctica are IAATO members, which wasn’t always the case. But with tens of thousands of tourists visiting annually, and this number only increasing, the continent is bound to be affected. My hope is that visitors return with a new respect for the planet and for all that we need to do to keep it healthy, and to keep Antarctica icy.
Of course, many believe we shouldn’t visit at all … like John Oliver, who has created a hilarious (anti) travel campaign for the white continent.
When I was writing MY LAST CONTINENT, I did a lot of research on penguins and those who study them.
Then, a couple of months ago, I discovered Penguin Watch, which is a completely addictive website that uses citizen science to help study penguins. What this means is that we can all take part in the research and conservation of these amazing animals.
How does it all work? The short of it is that the Penguin Lifelines project at the University of Oxford has set up a camera-monitoring program of 50 cameras set up throughout the Southern Ocean and along the Antarctic Peninsula. These cameras snap images of the areas overlooking colonies of gentoo, chinstrap, Adélie, and king penguins year-round, and they need volunteers to help annotate the hundreds of thousands of images being produced. For more info, click here — and sign up!
Penguin colonies are difficult to access during breeding season, but thanks to time-lapse cameras and online volunteers, the Penguin Watch program hopes to make big strides in conservation and protection.
Visit Penguin Watch and become a citizen scientist. It’s tons of fun, but be warned — you’ll lose hours to penguin counting! But at least you can say you’re doing it for science.