Antarctica: A Call to Action
Antarctica: A Call to Action (Earth Aware Editions, 2008) is Sebastian Copeland's second visual ode to the strange and beautiful continent, the stability of which, like the Arctic, is threatened by global warming. Like the Arctic, too, the melting of the Antarctic would threaten the human world in dramatic ways, as the oceans lose their ability to absorb carbon, support marine life -- or just stay put at current shorelines.
Antarctica, unlike the Arctic, has not demonstrated the clear and consistent warming and melting that capture the public's attention. Its complex dynamics are less-well understood, though a raft of new research in the past two years is unlocking its secrets. Copeland's goal is to inspire people to take action to curb global warming -- as much to preserve civilization as we know it as to preserve the amazing landscapes he photographs. "Otherworldly, exotic and distant though it may seem," Copeland writes, "this is our world and it is shrinking."
In the book, the images are largely unadorned. No captions -- just thrilling visuals punctuated by four short essays, by the author; by his cousin Orlando Bloom, the actor; and by David de Rothschild and Will Steger, the eco-adventurers. Here, you'll find 10 of Copeland's images, along with captions researched by The Daily Green. We thank Copeland and his publisher for granting us permission to republish these inspiring images.
A Continental Glacier
Antarctica is a continental glacier, covering nearly 9% of the earth's land area, and it lived only in myth until the 1820s, when whalers first described the icy land. The South Pole was located for the first time only 100 years ago. Now an international zone governed by the Antarctic Treaty, it remains the coldest, windiest, driest and -- by all accounts -- harshest place on Earth.
Signs of Stress
Antarctica holds 90% of the world's ice and 70% of its freshwater. Its average temperature has increased nearly 5 degrees (F) in the last half century. Floating ice shelves account for about 11% of the area of the continent, and while the loss of these ice shelves does not increase sea level, they effectively act as corks to hold back glaciers. Significant melting of Antarctica's glaciers -- which have been moving more rapidly toward the sea -- could increase sea levels as much as 20 feet worldwide.
The Antarctic Peninsula, which juts toward South America and is one of only two masses of land on the continent outside the Antarctic Circle, has been warming markedly. Vast portions of its Wilkins Ice Shelf disintegrated in 2008 and 2009 after 1,500 years of stability.
Disappearing Ice and the Rising Sea
Temperatures over other parts of the continent had remained stable, or even cooled. But new research in 2008 showed that ice loss has accelerated by 75% in the past 10 years even in the western part of the continent, which holds as much ice as Greenland. (Snowfall has also dramatically increased, which is predicted by a warmer atmosphere that can hold more moisture.) The prospect of rapid ice melt in either place was described by Rajenda Pachauri, chief of the Nobel Prize-winning International Panel on Climate Change, as "frightening," given the prospect of sea level rise of several meters. Meanwhile, continued climate change is all but assured, in the near term, as global emissions of carbon dioxide continue to increase. Research in a portion of New Zealand that once was adjacent to Antarctica revealed that 40 million years go, when greenhouse gases were as concentrated in the atmosphere as they are projected to be by 2100, the world had no ice.
Decreasing temperatures defied the predictions of some scientific computer climate models, but scientists gained a key insight as to why in 2008: The ozone hole is masking the effects of global warming over Antarctica. While the 1987 Montreal Protocol ushered in international bans on ozone-depleting chemicals, the ozone hole will persist for decades, but gradually decrease in size over time. In another sign of the system's complexity, scientists said in December that the ozone hole may decrease the Southern Ocean's ability to absorb carbon dioxide. The Southern Ocean now absorbs as much as 40% of the greenhouse gas emitted annually. Carbon dioxide not only warms the atmosphere, but makes oceans more acidic -- a major threat to marine life.
As glaciers melt in Antarctica, they are releasing other long-banned toxic chemicals that accumulated there, including the pesticide DDT, which was found in Adélie penguins. It's one way that global warming poses a threat to wildlife, but other threats are much more direct.
Icons of Antarctica
While the polar bear is the icon of global warming in the Arctic, the penguin is the icon in Antarctica, in part thanks to the 2005 March of the Penguins, which chronicled the long and strange migration of the Emperor penguin. (In 2008, Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World considered the long, strange migrations of humans living and working in Antarctica.) In December, the Bush Administration listed seven species of penguins as endangered, but neither of the Antarctic species suggested, the Macaroni and Emperor penguins.
A Frayed Antarctic Ecosystem
Less charismatic than penguins, a more fundamental Antarctic species at risk is krill. The tiny, shrimplike animals are threatened not only by ecosystem changes wrought by global warming, but by new fishing forays by international fleets feeding the market for fish oil supplements and fish food. Like icebergs, there's much more to krill than seems readily apparent. Krill represent a vital place in the region's ecosystem. As the British Antarctic Survey puts it: "The Southern Ocean food web is relatively simple, with a single species, krill, being the major item in the diet of many of the predators: fish, squid, penguins, seals and whales." (Whales swimming in Antarctic waters continued to be the source of controversy, as Greenpeace and the Sea Shepherd sought to disrupt Japanese whalers.)
New research in 2008 opened up a world of knowledge about life in the Antarctic, past and present. The first-ever comprehensive inventory of life revealed ecosystems more diverse than the Galápagos Islands, made famous by the pioneer of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin. Among the findings: Antarctic waters were likely the evolutionary nursery for the world's deep-sea octopuses and "meadows of sea lilies."
Life in Antarctica, Then and Now
New fossils, including those of the largest dinosaur ever to walk the earth, the burrows of a four-legged lizardlike creature from the Triassic, and those of moss and insects, have been discovered in recent years in Antarctica, showing that plate tectonics and climate shifts once made the land habitable for a wider range of species.
International Polar Year
The International Polar Year, a collaborative research effort, brought renewed attention to Antarctica in 2008. Through new research, scientists have discovered a chain of interconnected lakes, which lubricate the flow of glaciers, deep under the ice. The first evidence of a sub-ice sheet volcanic blast and a glacial earthquake were documented, evidence of the longest lava flows on earth were discovered, and scientists were recognized for producing an 800,000-year record of climate locked in Antarctic ice. A new observatory in Antarctica will also take advantage of the unusually clear, dry air to scan the skies.
Sebastian Copeland's book seeks to inspire protection for the Antarctic landscape at a time when not only global warming, but invasive species and tourism threaten the continent. The first weekly passenger flights from Australia to Antarctica began in 2008, and scientists warned that alien species could decimate sensitive local wildlife, as they have on other continents. "We all share the responsibility to preserve this remote part of the world in order to preserve ourselves," Copeland writes. "Because our activities are not just dooming the environment -- they are dooming us."