We were surprised to find that the weather got significantly colder as we sailed north. It could just be circumstantial, but perhaps crossing the Southern Ocean had something to do with it. Just like the Gulf Stream comes north from the Caribbean bringing warmth to Northern Europe, the Southern Ocean encircles Antartica in a continuous ring of mainly eastwardly-flowing water. This water comprises 10% of the world’s oceans and is the most biologically abundant ocean in the world. As well as connecting to the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, it isolates the Antarctic continent from their warmer waters. The strong westerly winds help form the current which flows four times as fast as the Gulf Stream. Deep water from all the world’s oceans wells up here and the current keeps the warmer waters separate from the cold. There is a significant temperature variation toward the cold once you are inside the Southern Ocean. For the first time on this trip, we have snow on the deck and the spray is freezing to the windows in aesthetic patterns.
When we first sailed around South America, we had already been to Alaska and thought we knew extreme cold (in the summer), but even on a temperate days, you could feel that looming presence of an immense, looming, bitter cold on the wind. This raised the question: why is the South Pole so much colder than the North Pole?
The two poles are complete opposites in that the North Pole is an area of sea surrounded by land; the South Pole is an area of land surrounded by the sea. The North Pole is warmed because the sea has such a strong effect on the temperature. Sea water freezes at about -2ºC, so whenever the sea is not frozen, its temperature is not any lower than this.
The second reason is due to the thickness of the Antarctic ice sheet. The South Pole is 2385 meters above sea level, the average elevation is about 12,000 feet. With every 300 feet you climb, the temperature drops by 1ºC, which puts the average temperature of Antartica 23ºC below the already cold coastal temperature. 98% of the continent is covered by ice, which holds 70% of the world’s fresh water. As climate change affects this area, the content loses 155 billion tons of ice a year. Geologists report the the continent is rising up again as the tremendous weight of all this water recedes.
Antartica is isolated from the other land masses on earth. It is isolated from the rest of the world’s weather in a way that the Arctic isn’t. Antartica generally has its own weather systems that rush around the continent having nothing to do with the rest of the world.
And today we suffered from it. The Plan A was to anchor at Elephant Island, the spot where Shakleton left most of his crew and sailed north for help and rescue. We were supposed to zodiac around the site and see macaroni penguins, a breed we have not seen yet that have colorful yellow feathers coming out from their heads as if they are having a bad hair day. Plan B was to sail by with the ship. A strong storm is coming from the west, so Plan C was to put the pedal to the metal and race north to our next stop, the Falkland Islands.
We bid Antartica a fond farewell.