Pw, Whole Earth


A few years ago, the first radar image of Antarctica went public. Now, new radar images show great "ice rivers" flowing beneath the planet's most extensive ice sheet, moving at a heretofore unimaginable clip (next page). Picture the river as an ice-snake--its body thirty miles wide, half a mile deep from slippery belly to frozen back---calving, slopping, slushing, and pouring (there's some liquid water) into the sea. It's been entering the sea for ten thousand years; a third of a mile issues forth each year, moving fifty to sixty times faster than the surrounding ice. The longest ice-river snakes back inland for 500 miles.

The images and immensity of these ice rivers sparked Whole Earth's desire to present the un-bio bioregion of Antarctica--the coldest, windiest, driest, and, on average, highest continent. No human inhabited this continent before the establishment of research stations. No mammal or bird in recent geological history has spent a full year on land. The largest full-time animal resident is a midge less than half an inch long. Only ice algae and ice bacteria seem to be at home; last year, Russian researchers discovered a bacteria colony two miles down into the ice sheet. (The ice sheet's thickness averages over three miles.)

All photographs of Antarctica (including most of this section's color pages, 53 to 59) reveal a terrible longing for life. Tourists aim their cameras at the seven penguin, or six seal, species which, like the tourists themselves, have just come ashore for summer. As Steve Pyne points out (pages 58 and 59), the human eye aches for topography (the few mountains, valleys, rocks, ice caves)--whereas the truth is closer to Endless Ice that strains the mind and challenges the voice to find a poetry, a lyric answer to greenery. Visitors shy away from this paucity, clinging to the coast where upwellings of food tie together the web of krill and whales.

The whiteout is Antarctica's logo. Days with no contrast or shadows. A perfectly white or off-white sky enveloping a snow-covered surface. Depth perception appears lost, peculiarly and suddenly forgotten. Birds and humans alike enter a featureless, bleached volume of space in which the distances to fly or to walk can no longer be reckoned with confidence. Barry Lopez (page 50) gives the most poignant portrayal of Antarctica's cold indifferences, as he scouts the landscape for breathing resident biomass.

Storing 90 percent of the planet's ice (over 99 percent of the Antarctic's surface is clothed in these amazing crystals), canteening nearly 70 percent of the Earth's freshwater, Antarctica may be the un-bio bioregion of prophecy--the Isaiah-trumpet proclaiming that should the entire ice sheet melt, the seas will rise at least 230 feet, and the lands will flood again. In the slightly more likely case that all of the East Antarctic ice sheet, undermined by ice rivers, lurches into the sea, then the ocean would rise about fifty feet; Malibu mansion dwellers and Bangladeshi delta farmers would experience the wrath of long-term climate change abetted by greenhouse exhausts. The "rational" prophets--witnessing recent calving of icebergs the size of Rhode Island and the accelerated retreat of ice shelves in the last decade (next page)--predict smaller sea-level rises that could still swamp some Pacific islands and destroy floodplain farms over the next century.

On the other hand, for those following the ideals of sustainability, this is the only continent with a treaty preventing all resource extraction for fifty years. It boasts the best multinational treaty for offshore protection of marine resources (though problems remain, especially with krill harvesting by Japan and China). I keep thinking that perhaps a few months of blizzards at minus 35 [Degrees] C are just what the Earth doctor ordered to restore our appreciation of planetary health. Antarctica as a continent--no longer just wind and white terrains, penguins and petrels--is speaking out. …

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