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12 Days till Christmas – Day 5. Snow and Rain in the Desert

12 days till Christmas - reflections from a leadership journey for Women and non-binary in STEM focusing on sustainability, climate change and global challenges- culminating in an expedition and leadership journey to Antarctica.


Penguins: Gentoo at Port Lockeroy collecting stones for nests - November 22nd 2023, Adelie on Torgersen Island, near US Research Base Palmer Station, transporting rocks to rookeries - November 22nd 2023, Chinstrap penguins nesting high above Orne Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula - November 23rd 2023.

It doesn’t seem strange to say it’s snowing if you’re in Antarctica. The image conjured by the continent is one of almost pure snow and ice. Indeed, Antarctica would consist of East and West Antarctica and an archipelago of Islands if it wasn’t for its massive ice cap, glaciers, and ice shelves. But would you think twice if I said it was raining in the Sahara? Unintuitively saying it’s snowing in Antarctica is like saying it’s raining in the Sahara. Antarctica is a desert, the driest continent on Earth, and twice the size of the Sahara. A cold dry desert- or at least it should be.

 

The graphs of observational recordings show increasing temperatures in Antarctica and with it comes rain and snow. The penguins can’t nest with snow on the ground, they need bare rock*, or their eggs are too cold to incubate. The chicks with their fluffy insulating down are suited for cold dry conditions, their feathery coats are not waterproof and when they get wet the down's insulating properties fail. Changing weather patterns are affecting not just our planned itinerary but the breeding successes and habitats of the penguins we have come to see.



Warming: Top L-R: graph of anomalous Spring temperatures in Antarctica in March 2022 (as published in the Economist), ice on the ship railings - November 24th 2023, map of the Antarctic Peninsula showing high air tempertaures on February 9th, 2020, map derived from the Goddard Earth Observing System (GEOS) model (image from NASA). Bottom L-R: slush on the ship railings and sleet in the air - November 24th, 2023, welcome to Palmer Station - November 22nd 2023, fresh snow on the breakfast tables - November 24th, 2023.

 

To witness first hand, witness the effects of climate change is something we had been prepared for. The penguins are waiting to nest whilst slush and icicles coat the decks of the boat. The chicks that fledge first have the best chance of survival, but if there is no space left on the rocks there is no opportunity to nest. We visit the US Research Base - Palmer Station and hear how it was once connected to the neighbouring Island, but glacial retreat at a rate of 8m a year means it is now isolated on its own rocky outcrop.

 

Across the bay from Palmer Station are the Adelie penguins on Torgersen Island that featured in the BBC production of Frozen Planet II. In the programme US ornithologist Professor Bill Fraser looked on in tears as and watched the rain devastate the chick population. Today the population is looking healthier, but these ecosystems are fragile, and change driven by our consumption of energy is coming. Snow and rain in the Southern Desert of Antarctica will affect us all.

 

*Adelie, Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins nest in rookeries, creating nests from pebbles to keep their eggs warm and dry.


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