How does it feel to become a drop of water, and then to re-enter,
to dissolve back into the whole?
– Ingrid Horrocks
The US Navy relocated 11,067 tonnes of radioactive earth to the United States. By 1979, decommissioning was complete. What remains of Nukey Poo are these two wooden platforms, still pounded into the side of Observation Hill, a steep lava dome covered in scales of scree. Large metal sheets – canvases for wind and snow to splotch rust and scratch and nick paint – are still affixed to the floors of two decaying platforms. I’ve been putzing between them, surprised by the amount of debris still littering the ground after 42 years. This morning’s sallow light highlights the junk. Rusted screws, bolts, nuts, washers and wires. Bits of insulation. String. Rubber. Unidentifiable corroded metal scraps. Even bits of porcelain. All mingling with volcanic rock and dirt.
Observation Hill pimples the edge of Ross Island. From here, I can view a thin line: the meeting of the Ross Ice Shelf – a Spain-sized glacier and the world’s largest floating body of ice – and the frozen Ross Sea. This juncture is the furthest south the open ocean exists. Three white wind turbines belonging to Scott Base, our neighbouring station, crown a nearby hill to the left. Below, at the base of Ob Hill, a scattered cluster of buildings make up McMurdo, the American research station where I work and the largest on the continent. Enormous fuel tanks – at least ten – are its most striking structures. Three letters – ‘NSF’ – emblazon the top of the closest tank.
The National Science Foundation now runs the US Antarctic Program instead of the military. I don’t typically visit the nuclear plant rubble on Ob Hill to think about energy consumption or environmental catastrophe. I come to this hill to watch whales, clouds, birds, light. A smoking volcano. Distant glacier-drizzled indigo mountains. Mostly I witness the water. The sea’s surface, frozen or liquid, changes like a face. I love watching its subtleties, how its personality comes through as crushed ridges of blue-sheened shards arching towards the sky. Or as the rhythmic lapping of waves touching land. Or its evolution from grease ice to pancake ice to a thin crust, thickening into sea ice as the temperature lowers.
Two islands hunker next to each other in the distance, White Island and Black Island, one like a penguin on its back, the other like a penguin on its belly. Between the islands, due south, you’ll find a groomed snow road to the interior of the continent. South of here, beyond the mountains and islands, it’s ice, a flood of ice. Antarctica is home to most of the world’s ice and snow and its highest population of glaciers. But ice is not just ice.
About 1,200 miles from Ob Hill, on the edge of West Antarctica, lives a glacier named Thwaites, a colossus, one of the biggest glaciers in the world, about the size of Great Britain or Florida. Its size is not why we are afraid of Thwaites or why it’s famous. Rolling Stone nicknamed Thwaites ‘the Doomsday Glacier’. A few call Thwaites a monster. Officially, Thwaites the glacier is named after Fredrik T. Thwaites the man, a glaciologist from Wisconsin. I wish I knew what Thwaites the glacier’s real name is, what it calls itself pronounced in the tongue of glaciers.
To us, Thwaites is mysterious. We are working to pry its secrets open. I am one of many who are working to support the work of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, a robust four-year-long collaboration primarily between British and American research programmes. The collective goal is to understand Thwaites and ultimately to predict its ‘death’. The eight research projects have acronyms like GHOST, PROPHET, MELT and TIME. People have journeyed by ice in tractor trains to Thwaites – no small feat. They’ve arrived on the back of the glacier, gliding to a halt on tiny aluminium planes outfitted with skis instead of wheels. They’ve melted hunks of Thwaites, their only source of freshwater, for drinking and cleaning. Thwaites has filled their bellies, their bloodstreams, and their cells.
From the surface, researchers have bored holes into Thwaites, lowered instruments and detonated explosives inside of its guts – a large-scale ultrasound – to understand the depths, the insides of their subject. They’ve also arrived by sea, sending robots under the water, underneath its body, to measure. They peer at the crumbling edges of glaciers from boats called icebreakers, whose muscular hulls can crush their way through sea ice: South Korea’s RV Araon; Britain’s HMS Protector, RRS Ernest Shackleton, and RRS Sir David Attenborough; and the US’s RV Nathaniel B. Palmer.
When you step onto its surface, you step onto a solid cloud. The two-miles-thick ice in West Antarctica is a remnant of clouds drifted to Earth, frozen for millennia.
From the nuclear ruins I can view McMurdo’s port, Winter Quarters Bay, whose bottom is coated with garbage. When the Palmer, a cheerful-looking orange and yellow research vessel, pulled into this harbour a few years ago, logistics contractors like me – the majority of people in Antarctica and the ones who make scientific research possible – were invited to tour the ship. There’s a maritime romance to it. Tables and chairs bolted to the floors. Porthole windows. Large maps in the captain’s bridge. The namesake of the research vessel is unfortunate. In 1820, Nathaniel B. Palmer, only 21 and already a captain, led one of the first groups of westerners to encounter the continent. Palmer, an American seal hunter, didn’t only see the glaciers curling over the hard ragged edges of the continent. When he saw fur seals and elephant seals, he saw potential profit. So when humans first came here we slaughtered many seals. Whales too – those great supple beings – were systematically hunted to near extinction. Right whales. Sperm whales. Grey whales. Humpbacks. Blues. Fins. Seis. Minkes.
In 1925, an Antarctic whaler wrote: ‘The water in which the whales float, and on which we too are riding, is blood red.’ Between 1918 and 1984, humans killed about 1.6 million whales in the Southern Ocean. That combined biomass was equal to the whole of humankind. In 1986, most nations agreed to suspend whale hunting. Right now, Western powers are squabbling over harvesting krill, small crimson creatures who travel together in hypnotic red clouds like murmurations of starlings. We mostly turn krill into food for our pets, but also into cosmetics, like anti-aging serums, and pharmaceuticals. Krill’s bodily oils are good for our physical hearts.
Humans have not always approached Antarctica to overharvest, nor were westerners the first people to experience Antarctic waters. Ui-te-Rangiora, an expert ‘wayfinder’ from present-day Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, sailed south and led a group of ancient Polynesians around ad650. They encountered floating ice and called the area Tai-uka-a-pia, ‘sea foaming like arrowroot’, a fine white powder with which they were familiar. The relationship between the ocean and ancient peoples in Oceania was intimate. Wayfinders knew the languages of clouds, water and stars and navigated with them, being carried from small island to small island by water in the vast Pacific.
The art of wayfinding, often taught orally through song, demands all the senses. For wayfinders, attunement to the ocean is attunement to one’s body. The sun, moon and stars guide, but if clouds obscure, there are other signs. Driftwood, seaweed. Subtle shifts in the water’s hue. The kinds and behaviours of birds. The presence, shapes and colours of clouds. Rain and the direction and qualities of wind. Wayfinders decipher the shapes, motions, and direction of water, reading swells, waves, and ripples like script. Ancient peoples employed pigs as wayfinders on their boats, whose keen snouts navigate by the distant smell of atolls. One wayfinding technique – to get the best felt sense of things – is to rest one’s genitals on the bottom of the boat.
Wayfinding technology – knowing the patterns of nature, the language of water – survived western colonialism. In his 1978 book, The Voyaging Stars, David Lewis recounts learning from Kaho, a blind wayfinder who asked his son, Po’oi, where certain stars would appear. Kaho directed Po’oi to steer into a wave so he could taste the spray in his mouth and feel the water on his skin. The blind man then plunged his whole arm in the water to feel its movement, its remembrances. ‘“This is not Tongan water but Fijian,” he announced. “The waves are from Fiji Lau group near Lakemba Island. Let us alter course to the westward.” Next morning they duly sighted Lakemba.’
We are afraid of Thwaites because of what its transformation means for us, our homes and ways of life. Researchers estimate how many billions of tonnes of its body melt every year and what percentage of annual sea level rise that constitutes. It’s a lot. They say that a key part of Thwaites’s body – its ice shelf, its body part that floats over the ocean – will disintegrate within ten years. They also describe Thwaites’s ice shelf as a ‘cork’ or a ‘dam’ holding back the mass of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, an icescape we call ‘the flat white’. When you step onto its surface, you step onto a solid cloud. The two-miles-thick ice in West Antarctica is a remnant of clouds drifted to Earth, frozen for millennia. In West Antarctica, all appears still. But underfoot, the ancient ice is moving. My lifetime is too short to perceive it. How exhausting it must be for Thwaites to shoulder that bulk, at least 3,200,000 gigatonnes! Researchers describe Thwaites as ‘vulnerable’ and ‘unstable’, steadying itself by holding onto land under the sea like a cane. They speak of Thwaites ‘losing its grip’. Perhaps Thwaites is letting go.
After the ice shelf disintegrates, researchers predict an ‘ice cliff failure event’ when the rest of Thwaites’s flesh will speed up and leak into the sea. People have calculated how many feet the ocean will rise when Thwaites’s entire body liquefies. Afterwards, when all the West Antarctic glaciers behind follow, the sea level will rise five times that amount. The word ‘collapse’ has been used as a rhetorical catch-all to describe these series of events, ranging from the onset of Thwaites’s ice shelf shattering to the bulk of West Antarctic glaciers circling the drain. As Bethan Davies, a glaciologist, notes: ‘collapse’ is slow. Time scale models give vast ranges for the disintegration of West Antarctica, from hundreds of years to begin to millennia to complete.
A few weeks ago, I strolled atop the surface of the frozen Ross Sea with Marianne, a seismologist and geophysicist awaiting her chance to spend time with Thwaites. Antarctica is not one homogeneous slab, but a kaleidoscope of ice, intertwined frozen bodies moseying towards the sea. To Marianne, topographical maps of Antarctica showing glaciers’ velocities in various colours make the continent look like a human organ. Its currents, its rivers of ice streaming into the sea resemble veins, arteries, aortas. The whole thing an unfathomable heart pumping blood.
Researchers like Marianne are investigating all the factors that are lead-ing to Thwaites’s metamorphosis. The shifting location of the polar vortex – the swirl of air around the continent – is altering wind patterns, driving warmer water towards Thwaites, changing it from below. We describe tidal pumping, one of Thwaites’s natural bodily functions, as problematic – for us. When the tide causes the floating part of its body to rise, the pressure sucks warm water into Thwaites’s ‘grounding zone’, the confluence where its frozen belly, the land and the water meet. The tide goes out, ice lowers, but the warm water is trapped underneath, morphing solid to liquid.
This is an excerpt from a longer version that appears in Dark Mountain: Issue 21. If you take out an annual subscription to Dark Mountain you can buy this issue for a reduced price.
IMAGE: ‘Revelation of the Mole’ by Veera Kaamos Pitkänen.
Hand cut paper collage
This artwork brings into focus the voiceless in our society – the overlooked, insignificant or small. The collage is based on an apocalyptic nightmare the artist had as a child, where she was trapped inside the body of a mole while the world was ending. Wanting to reinterpret the dream, she empowers the little mole. Small yet capable, it defies and conquers death, banishing despair and helplessness.
Veera Kaamos Pitkänen is a Finnish collage artist. Her work draws inspiration from the study of art history, literature, esotericism, environmental disaster and comparative religion. Pitkänen’s work has been exhibited and appeared in various formats in nine different countries.
Dark Mountain Issue 21 will be launched online this week. Come along and meet the editors, contributors and artists at our book launch at 7:30pm (BST) on Thursday 21st April. See you there!