The sound of icebergs melting: my journey into the Antarctic
The long read: Not long after Antarctica recorded some of its highest-ever temperatures, I joined a group of scientists studying how human activity is transforming the continent. It wasn’t what we saw that was most astonishing – it was what we heard
An ancient fizzWe set out across the ice-filled Antarctic bay to listen for whales, but first we heard something altogether different: an upside-down sound below the Southern Ocean, something like the sound of climate crisis itself.Marine acoustics specialist Tim Lewis.
Photograph: Abbie Trayler-Smith/GreenpeaceOur small motor dinghy was carrying seven passengers – a polar guide, two Greenpeace activists, two journalists, a camera operator and a scientist specialising in marine acoustics. All around us were jagged, brilliant white peaks, piercing blue glaciers and water flecked with such a constellation of ice fragments that you could imagine a sky-sized mirror had shattered on to the surface of the ocean.
The pilot cut the outboard engine to reduce noise while the scientist, Tim Lewis, dropped the hydrophone – essentially a waterproof microphone on a long cable – into the ocean. We sat quietly as the boat bobbed and drifted to within a few metres of an iceberg the size of a church. Dozens of gentoo penguins swished in and out of the water. Further off, we could hear the intermittent rumbles of avalanches as mountain snow warmed and collapsed in the pale southern summer sun.
MapBut it was the underwater soundscape that we had come to hear. After playing out 20 metres of cable, Lewis took off his woolly hat, put on the headphones, closed his eyes and let his ears take him down to the depths. We watched his face for clues as to what he was hearing. First a frown. (Is the equipment working properly?) Then a look of bemusement. Finally a wry smile. “I have never heard anything like it. Not what I expected at all,” he said. “It sounds like dripping, like the inside of a gorge.”
—The earphones were passed from person to person. Everyone listened with a similar expression of concentration and offered their own interpretation of these strange sounds. “Drips in a drain,” said one of the activists. “Forest waterfall,” said the coxswain. “Rainfall on city streets,” said the camera operator.
My turn came, and I, too, was transported. Not, it seemed, below the ocean, but into a vast cavern, where it sounded as if water was cascading from a high ceiling, each drip echoing through the emptiness.Half Moon Island, Antarctica.The sound of an iceberg melting
The sound of an iceberg meltingSorry your browser does not support audio - but you can download here and listen https://uploads.guim.co.uk/2020/04/08/melting-glacier--trimmed.mp300:00:0000:00:34“That’s the sound of the iceberg melting,” Lewis informed us. When snow falls, he explained, pockets of air get trapped and then compressed inside glaciers over years, centuries, even millennia. “What you can hear are the pops as they are released,” he said.
It was the opposite of what we imagined. Rather than water dripping down through air, we were listening to air escaping up through water. We were so close to the ice that this ancient fizz was surprisingly loud. Though we humans never hear it above the surface, this is the sound the Antarctic makes every summer. And as the planet heats, the sound is getting louder.
—Chapter 2: King George IslandMeasuring the meltIt was mid-January, the peak of the Antarctic summer, and I had joined a broader 10-month, pole-to-pole expedition by scientists and campaigners on two Greenpeace ships, the Arctic Sunrise and the Esperanza. On this final leg around the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Shetland Islands, nine researchers from British, French and US universities were measuring how human activity is disturbing the region’s natural equilibrium.
A research base on King George Island in the South Shetlands archipelago.Photograph: HO/Brazilian Navy/AFP via GettyWith the help of 59 crew members – a mix of sailors, engineers and activists – the scientists conducted acoustic monitoring, environmental DNA sampling, testing for plastic microfibres, phytoplankton analysis, as well as surveys of penguin and whale populations. Just as the first explorers once charted coastlines voyage by voyage, the aim was to map Antarctic ecosystems. Many of the waters and islands we were visiting had not been surveyed for decades, if ever.
I caught up with the Sunrise at King George’s Island, about 600 miles south of Cape Horn, the southern tip of South America. Home to an airfield, two churches, the research bases of 10 countries and about 500 semi-permanent residents, this international community has often been cast as the last hope of humanity in dystopian novels and films because of its remoteness, collaborative spirit and focus on science. (Today, coincidentally, Antarctica is the only continent that
a single case of coronavirus).An island in the South Shetlands.Photograph: Christian Åslund/GreenpeaceBut it is all too vulnerable to the other great global crisis – climate change. Veterans of Antarctic exploration had warned me that this location would give me my first taste of how rapidly the region is warming. On the slopes around the bay, there was more bare rock than snow, while the stony beach was so free of ice that it could almost have been Brighton, were it not for the penguins. This was to be expected. Temperatures on the peninsula – the finger of land that points up from Antarctica towards South America – have
in the past 70 years, one of the fastest increases in the world.What was more surprising was the number of other vessels bobbing in the bay.“People think Antarctica is isolated. That is a myth,” Marcelo Leppe, the director of Chile’s National Antarctic Institute, had told me when I visited him the previous day in Punta Arenas, the capital of Chile’s southernmost region. “The changes are so great it is hard to put them in words,” he said. Since Leppe started studying the region in 2002, he had seen more and more visitors, and less and less snow. “I have seen glaciers retreat by 100 metres, and parts of the land become so green that it almost looks like a golf course,” he said.
In December, monitoring equipment at the Chilean research base on King George Island detected something that worried Leppe even more: black carbon in the air, which came from the Australian bushfires more than 6,200 miles away. Even in tiny quantities, this soot darkens the white landscape, reducing its capacity to reflect sunlight and making it melt faster. “At least future geologists will find this black layer helpful to identify the year 2020 in their ice cores,” he joked darkly.
The bridge of the Arctic Sunrise in Discovery Bay, Antarctica.Photograph: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Greenpeace Read more: The Guardian »
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