Thursday, November 15, 2007

Glacier Speaks Silence

We decide to take a walk on the glacier and the moment couldn’t be more perfect. The sun is shining and, except for a line of grey on the horizon, the sky a brilliant blue. The snow is beginning to melt. Scott needs to check the VLF tower, and Rosemary is learning to back him up on his day off. They invite me along. Rosemary and I decide to wear snowshoes; Scott only boots, and it turns out the snow is solid enough that we ladies remove our snowshoes and tromp along. We're warm with the exercise. We strip off our coats and gloves as well. The glacier is less than a quarter mile away, and you can see it from almost anywhere at Palmer, but the glacier has melted significantly since the station was built. Where the outermost buildings now stand the glacier used to crouch. The glacier melting into the sea lowers the salinity of the water, and this kills some of the creatures that make a home here. If the phytoplankton cannot live, the krill cannot feed. Without the krill, the seals and penguins have less to eat.

The adélie penguins eat only krill, and if they don't change their species may soon be extinct. Petermann Island sits at the southern border of the gentoo range and the northern edge of the adélies range. Over the past five years the temperatures have risen, the glacier is melting, the sea ice is thinner, the krill are less abundant. For the gentoo this change has meant they can extend their feeding and breeding range. But for the adélies penguins the warmer temperatures mean dwindling numbers. Five years ago the scientists on Petermann Island counted 2000 pairs of adélies and 60 pairs of gentoos. Last year the tally was adélie 500, gentoo 2000.

Stepping out onto the glacier there aren’t any trees, no breaks of any kind in the vast expanse of white. To the right mountains pierce the clouds, behind me the sea—alive with bits of iceberg—rushes the shore, ahead and to the left smooth, glistening snow coats the glacier. As we climb we begin to see the tips of larger mountains peeking up over the glacier. Away from the station, the noise of the generators and fans fade and all I hear is the snow crunching beneath my boots, the crash of the sea against the shore, the occasional call of a tern or a petrel gliding along the ice cliffs. In the distance we see two seals basking in the sunshine. As summer progresses we will begin to hear the seals barking warnings at trespassers who come too near their pups. My first question about the glacier was where it began. It’s not possible to tell from looking when you move from walking over snow-covered stones to walking over snow-covered ice. For the most part the glacier looks like a giant, snow-covered dome. Only at the edge, where the glacier calves, can you see the jagged edges of ice and the brilliant blue colors caused by gas being trapped inside the ice.

I look at the glacier edge and at the surface of the sea in much the same way, wondering, “What secrets are you hiding?” Gazing at the ocean I see only the surface of the water and a few feet down. I gaze at a distant crevasse and imagine it as an unspoken invitation to enter the world beneath the ice. These things remind me that for all our accumulated learning, we know so little. On the walk back we veered closer to the shore, and as close to the edge of the glacier as we’re allowed to approach. Where the snow had melted we see boulders emerging, glistening with the runoff of yesterday’s snow. Palmer Station, Torgersen and Litchfield Islands, and some of the other smaller islands that I can’t yet identify by shape dot the landscape below us. The clouds swoop in on the breeze coming from the sea, and the surface of the water turns grey, bits of ice bobbing at the surface. Ice dots the bay looking like a vast room covered in sculpture. One looks like a swan.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Magnifiscent! That's what I'm talking about! Prose poem all the way. This is great. I like that you both thought you would need snowshoes and then you didn't end up needing them. And hearing about the birds and poor dying adele penguins. This is golden on every word. A tour de force. Thank you thank you thank you!