Statistically, the polar continent is just as breathtaking. Having 1-1/2 times the surface area of the United States, Antarctica contains 7 million cubic miles of ice, which has an average thickness of 1.6 miles.
Virtually an icemaking machine that has locked up 70 percent of the planet’s freshwater, Antarctica is undergoing rapid change.
According to one estimate, 550 cubic miles of Antarctic ice are calved into the sea each year, while about 407 cubic miles of compacted snow are added each year. The net loss seems slow, but the results along the water’s edge can be dramatic.
As the Europa arrives at Trinity Island in the Palmer Archipelago, humpbacks blow in the distance, and leopard, fur, and Weddell seals bask on rocks. Sharply angled pinnacle icebergs of every description loom: giant “cathedrals” of opaque bluish crystal; flat islands of ice shaped like aircraft carriers; one looks like a swallow perched on a mount.
But also evident are signs of the “great melt.”
“The breakup of several Antarctic ice shelves since the beginning of the 1970s is an important indicator of climate change in the Antarctic Peninsula,” says Ken Jezek, a geophysicist at The Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar Research Center in Columbus and a world authority on polar ice. “Removal of these ice shelves has eliminated an important restraining effect. So glaciers on the rocky interior of the peninsula are now more rapidly pumping ice into the ocean.”