Cruising Antarctica to See a Planet in Peril

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The frozen wastes of Antarctica are attracting tourists who want a closer look at climate change. Layers of ice that have recorded 400,000 years of climate history are beginning to melt.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In last night's State of the Union address, President Bush said the U.S. is committed to confronting global climate change. One of the places that change is becoming most visible is Antarctica.

The Antarctic is part of the great weather machine that shapes climate around the world, and its layers of ice have recorded 400,000 years of climate history. Now that some of that ice is melting, tourists who once came for the wildlife and the natural beauty are also coming to see a planet in peril.

NPR correspondent Gwen Thompkins is on just such a trip for our Climate Connection series with National Geographic. She joined us from the Norwegian ship, the MS Fram.

And, Gwen, where are you right now? Out in the water, I know that.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Yes, we are in the water, Renee. We have been sailing since Saturday evening. For the first 36 hours, we saw nothing. We saw not even a smidgen of dry land. And since then, we've seen some amazing glaciers covered in a powdery white snow. But if you look at to the relief of some of the glaciers, you notice that the snow is actually a pale blue, just a gorgeous blue.

MONTAGNE: Talk to us about the people who are on the cruise with you.

THOMPKINS: The people who are here, they all appear to be very excited about the prospect of seeing this continent and stepping on it for the first time. Many of them are inveterate travelers who want to see all seven continents on the Earth, and this is their number seven. So the people here tend to be drawn to this form of nature, drawn to some degree because they appear worried that it won't be here forever for humankind to enjoy.

MONTAGNE: So they're very aware of the notion that it's, as we were saying a moment ago, a part of the planet that's in peril?

THOMPKINS: Absolutely. In fact, I think to a person, they've all seen the Al Gore film, "Inconvenient Truth," and I think that that had definitely spurred their interest.

MONTAGNE: You just spoke of the ice being blue, it sounds quite dreamlike. Tell us more about that. Give us a sense of how this experience takes you from the familiar to - what?

THOMPKINS: The ice is blue, and that was one of the most shocking realizations that we've made so far. You know, Antarctica is so different from the Arctic if you circle, because at the top of the world, there's only the ice cap. There is no land. But here, what we're looking at are mountains, dark brown or black mountains that are covered in glaciers.

MONTAGNE: It sounds pretty spectacular.

THOMPKINS: It is, Renee. Yesterday, we set our boots on the ground for the first time on a barrier island. It was so exciting, in large part because when you think about these sort of ice paradises, you think that they're going to be silent places, you know, where you can listen to your heartbeat or you can listen through to your breathing. But no. You get on to these islands in the vicinity of the Antarctic continent, and they're loud places. You know, you hear the ice nearly cracking. You actually hear or see ice falling from glaciers into the water.

MONTAGNE: When you say you can hear the ice cracking and seeing ice fallen into the water or the ocean, does it make it easier to believe that climate change is happening, that it's a real event, that the Earth is fragile?

THOMPKINS: Well, the people on board here are very concerned that that this exactly what they are seeing. But at this point, you know, it's very difficult to tell whether these glaciers are melting as a result of climate change or whether this is a natural course of how glaciers behave in this part of the world. Certainly, there's compelling evidence to suggest that global warming is affecting the periphery of the Antarctic continent. But for right now, people are still caught up in the majesty of what they are seeing.

MONTAGNE: Gwen, we'll leave you with that as you head for the Antarctic Peninsula there on the MS Fram, and thanks very much.

THOMPKINS: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: We'll be hearing reports from NPR's Gwen Thompkins this coming March when Climate Connections is all Antarctica.

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