Warning: wild winds are altering Antarctic currents, melting ice from below

The Thwaites glacier, better known as “the apocalyptic”, in a satellite approach view in which one of the many cracks on its surface can be observed. (Jeremy Harbeck / OIB / NASA)

The footprint left in Antarctica can last longer than the life of the person taking that step. Ice is capable of keeping the biggest secrets for millions of years. But that was a scientific truth until now. Climate change is changing everything in this mythical land. I’m leaving my boot prints on melting ice. We walk on pieces of iceberg in López de Bertodano Bay, on Seymour / Marambio Island, towards the camp where the Valverde Scientific Station is being built. There they will begin to study the methane emissions that occur with increasing intensity from the seabed, and which contribute enormously to the greenhouse effect. My guide is the geologist Rodolfo del Valle, from the National Antarctic Directorate, a 35-year veteran of Antarctic work with more than 60 campaigns at the South Pole. “This causes me enormous sadness. This land is changing at a frantic rate. The Antarctic that I knew is disappearing. If I were to put it in unscientific terms, it’s melting away”.

I wrote this first paragraph 15 years ago for the Clarín newspaper when I had the privilege of visiting different scientific camps scattered throughout the Antarctic Peninsula for more than a month. At that time there was no shortage of criticism. They said he was exaggerating, that it was all part of a natural process. The argument of the deniers. A decade and a half later we see that the situation worsened in an extraordinary way. The wildest winds are altering the currents. The sea is releasing carbon dioxide. The ice melts from below.

Antarctica, that pristine refuge of biodiversity and science
One of the scientific camps in the Argentine Antarctic area from where the behavior of glaciers and ice shelves is studied every summer season. (Courtesy of the researchers /)

A special report published recently by the New York Times reveals that already the currents of the Antarctic Sea are changing. This phenomenon has the potential to accelerate climate change and detach the largest glaciers on the continent, including the Thwaites, better known as “the apocalyptic” because if it melts, as everything predicts, it could raise the level of the oceans globally by 60 centimeters.

The dominant feature of the ocean, which spans about 3 kilometers deep and up to 2,000 kilometers wide, is the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (CCA), the largest maritime current in the world. It is the engine of global climate and prevents the planet from warming even more by drawing deep water from the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, much of which was submerged for hundreds of years, and dragging it to the surface. There exchanges heat and carbon dioxide with the atmosphere before being sent back on its eternal round trip.

Without this action from the CEC, which scientists call “outcrop”, the planet’s average temperature would be higher than it is now as a result of man-made emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases. It is likely that Without his action the threshold of two degrees Celsius would have already been exceeded that would put us before an environmental catastrophe with a level of destruction of the planet. “In climate management, from no point of view is there a place more important than the Southern Ocean,” said Joellen Russell, an oceanographer at the University of Arizona in the New York newspaper report. “There is nothing like it on planet Earth.”

The wildest winds are altering the currents.  The sea is releasing carbon dioxide.  The ice melts from below.  BECK / NASA OPERATION ICEBRIDGE
The wildest winds are altering the currents. The sea is releasing carbon dioxide. The ice melts from below. BECK / NASA OPERATION ICEBRIDGE (Sebastian Carrasco /)

For centuries this ocean was a mystery. Only a few whaling ships and seasoned explorers dared to sail waters that at any moment he could lock them in a layer of ice until he finished with their ships and their lives. The English captain, James Cook, had spent three years searching the Terra Australis Incognita, as it was called then, during his second voyage between 1772 and 1775. He passed close to the mainland, but never knew. It was not until 1820 that two expeditions reached the Antarctic peninsula almost at the same time. The one commissioned by Russia and headed by Fabian von Bellingshausen sighted the polar ice cap on January 27 of that year. Three days later, British Navy Captain Edward Bransfield was able to observe the tip of the peninsula. From there the expeditions followed one another and the incipient colonization began. The countries closest to Antarctica were the first to maintain stable bases. until In 1959 the Antarctic Treaty was signed that preserves that continent and prohibits any other activity other than scientific research.to. As we entered the 21st century, it also became the laboratory where you can see first-hand the devastation caused by climate change.

As the world warms, scientists say, the incessant winds that drive the outcrop are getting stronger. This could have the effect of releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, bringing more deep water to the surface that has kept this carbon locked up for centuries. Some of this rising water, which is already relatively warm, flows under the ice shelves of the Antarctic coast that help prevent the continent’s vast and thick ice sheets from reaching the sea more quickly. The Antarctic that I saw melting from the surface of the ice, now produces the same phenomenon, but from below. “Indeed, Antarctica is melting from the bottom,” confirmed Henri Drake, an oceanographer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in researching the phenomenon.

Another report published by the scientific journal Live Science confirms that the “hot outcrop” is shedding huge masses of ice that end up melting as they approach warmer seas. Among them, the Thwaites glacier, the apocalyptic, which is about the size of Great Britain or the Argentine province of Córdoba (160 thousand square kilometers) and extends to a depth of 800 to 1,200 meters in its line of connection to land. The Thwaites has already lost around 1 billion tons of ice since 2000, double what it did 50 years ago. “There is going to be a dramatic change to the glacier front, probably in less than a decade. Both published and unpublished studies point in that direction, “glaciologist Ted Scambos of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration told the BBC.

A 25-year record of satellite observations over the Getz region of West Antarctica revealed that the rate at which glaciers flow into the ocean is accelerating exponentially.  UNIVERSITY OF LEEDS / ESA
A 25-year record of satellite observations over the Getz region of West Antarctica revealed that the rate at which glaciers flow into the ocean is accelerating exponentially. UNIVERSITY OF LEEDS / ESA (UNIVERSITY OF LEEDS / ESA /)

If Thwaites completely detaches and releases all of its water into the ocean, the sea level would rise by more than 60 centimetersScambos said at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. “Y could lead to an even higher rise, up to 3 meters, if it drags the surrounding glaciers with it ”, added the glaciologist.

Scambos is based on evidence collected by a small unmanned yellow submarine called “Boaty McBoatface” that traveled under the Thwaites Glacier. In this way it was discovered that more warm water from the deep ocean is reaching the glacier, which is causing deep fractures in the ice shelf. Should the collapse of the Thwaites and other ice shelves of the Antarctic Peninsula occur, it would alter the proportions between land and water surface on the planet. Islands and coastal areas will disappear across the globe.

Icebergs have always been detached from the ice structure. For hundreds of thousands of centuries, this happened and was automatically put back together. Balance was naturally maintained. It is not known when the phenomenon of detachment without regeneration began, but as in the rest of the planet it can be inferred that It was from the Industrial Revolution and the action of man releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, in addition to polluting the seas and changing the rain and drought regime globally. The tragedy in the dimension that we know now began on January 28, 1995, when the Larsen A barrier collapsed in just a few hours, about 1,600 square kilometers and up to 300 meters thick. Barriers are platforms of ice that flow over the sea. The cause was very simple: the surface temperature had risen to levels never seen before. In the Argentine base Marambio, the closest to the place, temperatures well above zero degrees were recorded that summer. It was the warmest summer up to that point. The next disaster occurred in 2002. Between January 31 and February 17, the Larsen B barrier disintegrated. Nearly 800 square kilometers of ice averaging 230 meters thick collapsed, of which only about 30 meters emerged from the water. Again, heat records were being broken. But this time it was discovered that it was not just the heat. The rain also had its effect. Until about 30 years ago it only snowed on the Antarctic Peninsula. But now it rains almost every day and that makes the glaciers melt. “The day we found out about the Larsen barrier, I almost started to cry. Humans would have to remember that day. It is a milestone in the era of the destruction of our planet. And almost no one in the world has any idea what happened ”, Rudy del Valle told me on the 2006 trip to Antarctica as we dodged the last pieces of icebergs that had been brought to the coast by a 50 knot wind (about 90 kilometers per hour).

The antartida It is melting at a faster rate than the scientists calculated with whom I spoke 15 years ago. in various bases in different countries, from the Argentine Jubany to the Chilean Frei, from the Chinese (increasingly larger and expanded) to the Russian and Uruguayan Artigas. The new evidence collected by the yellow submarine exceeded all predictions. Antarctica is melting at the speed of the wild and lawless winds that lash it.