A Day Away

January 15, 2010  |   Antarctic Peninsula Project, Blog   |   admin  |   0 Comment

Anticipating a late afternoon flight to King George Island, most of the group went out for a quick lunch.  But some of us were too keyed up to be hungry.  The University of Maryland´s Jay Gregg stood guard over the laptops the scientists had left in the dining room of the hostal.  Les Werner, the Wisconsin professor, was seated on the floor of my room, leaning against a thicket of backpacks and watching Million Dollar Baby—the Clint Eastward film—on an Ipod.  We had paid our bill and moved all of our luggage into my room (the triple) so that the hostal could rent out the rooms the rest of the group had abandoned.  I was sprawled on my bed, working on one of the two lectures I had committed to giving at Bellingshausen station.  My topics were the ¨History of Scientific Exploration in Antarctica” and “Raising Money for Science.”

The innkeeper suddenly and sheepishly entered, announcing a phone call for us.  The aircraft had flown out a group of scientists and visitors to King George earlier in the morning, but was delayed on the island for some reason and would not arrive back in Punta Arenas in time for a second flight.  Our flight was cancelled.  We would depart the next morning, we were told.

That meant another day in Punta Arenas.  Rather than sit around, I decided to hike up to the hills outside of town, following my plan to cut west and skirt the military installation that sits above the downtown area.   I grabbed a few roasted almonds out of my bag for lunch and got going.  It was a gorgeous day, the sky happily blue and decorated with white cumulus.  I swung west through the commercial district and for fun wandered into a supermarket just to compare and contrast it with the ones back home.  The major difference down here was a section for wine and hard liquor.

I continued west for a block or two more than turned north and followed the street as it ascended to…the white portico of Regimiento Infanteria No. 10.  Three ancient field pieces on the lawn were zeroed in on me.  I edged west.  It was about 2 PM Punta Arenas time, which is to say 12 noon on the local meridian of longitude.  I noticed that my shadow pointed due south.  Reaching the flank of the Regimiento, I turned north again, soon passing, on the other side of the street, Cantina Frontera.  The cantina occupied the first floor of a two-family house and inspired me to think I was going in the right direction.  It was 69 degrees.  I carry a little thermometer clipped to the zipper of my vest so I can track the temperature.  Further on, a flea market was in progress on a traffic island in the middle of the lane, the goods for sale resembling those vended at any flea market.  Clusters of middle- and lower-middle class housing appeared.  And ahead on the horizon were the light green foothills and, behind them, rose higher elevations of a darker and deeper green.

The paved road was succeeded by a dirt road.  As it ascended, I noticed on the right a lean-to sort of structure housing a shrine.  I investigated and found that it was dedicated to San Cayetano.  From an image of the saint cradling the Christ child and from the toys among the candles left at the shrine, I supposed that San Cayetano’s blessings were invoked on behalf of children.  Leaving the shrine and climbing further up from the city, I began to notice that a fresh wind blowing out of the north was kicking dust up ahead, clouds were gathering and raindrops were beginning to fall.  I was enjoying myself so much I hadn’t read the story the land was telling me.

There followed a long moment of deliberation as I contemplated taking shelter with the saint versus forging ahead.  It didn’t seem as if a lot of heavy weather was stacked up behind the darkening cumulus so I pushed on.  A good decision, as a passing sunshower passed rapidly and once again the sky was reassuringly blue.  Small farms cropped up on one or another side of the road and grazing land as well.  A couple of black bulls lazed in the sun behind a creaky fence made of thin strands of barbed wire.  They ignored me, which was just as well as I had nothing red with which to sidestep a charge.

Soon I was well up in the foothills.  Standing on the shoulder of the dirt road, I could look down into their narrow pockets where sinuous streams caught the glint of the sun.  Clusters of pine or pine-like trees and lush, stunted vegetation swept across the sides of one ravine after another rolling into the east.  The higher hills still ahead were no longer dark green but a bright emerald green and beckoning.  And back where I came from, the city spread beneath my toes like colorful, glittering pebbles with a backdrop of deep, dark blue sea under a fine, powder blue sky.

What could be a lovelier to sight to contemplate, the day before one leaves for the desolate ice, than the most verdant vegetation?

*     *     *

Ning Zeng came in shortly after I got back, having gone jogging and shopping.  I wanted to know more about something he told me the other day about the latest trends in climate science.  We sat down in the dining room.  The accepted theory for warming and cooling cycles, he explained, is that factors like the wobble and tilt of the Earth on its axis, the influence on Earth’s orbit of that of other planets in the solar system, and the elliptical nature of the Earth’s orbit account for differences in the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth.  These differences explain a 100,000-year cycle of glaciation and climate change correlated with glacial advance and retreat.  Recently, information from ice-core studies and from the coring of ocean sediments (which provide more and better data) made it possible to model the effect of the planetary factors over the last 21,000 years.  These models, however, predict a decrease rather than an increase of temperature.  An expert named William Ruddiman ascribed the discrepancy to human impact.  Human impact over 21,000 years?  According to Ruddiman, the clearing of trees by early farmers contributed to the build-up of carbon dioxide and the consequent warming trend we observe today.

But Ruddiman has been having second thoughts about the tree-clearing version of the human-impact hypothesis and is searching for an alternative explanation.  He has settled on the peatland factor.  “Peatland” refers to wetlands like swamps and tundra, which is a frozen swamp.  Wetlands are carbon pools.  When swamps are drained, bacteria can metabolize the organic compounds that had been piling up in the pool.  Bacterial activity releases CO2.  Having maneuvered himself into a corner, Ruddiman has pegged the early drainage of swamps as a critical factor in climate change.

“But how much peatland is there really?” Ning wondered.  He is a well set-up fellow with short, bristly hair and a jowly face, which became expressive.  “Throughout northern Canada, for example, are some areas of peatlant,” he said.  “But all of Canada and part of the U.S. was covered by a glacier 21,000 years ago.  People ignore the amount of peatland and all of the buried carbon that was compressed by the glacier.  No one asks what happens to it.  I submitted a paper to the National Science Foundation on my theory.  Basically, I was ignored.  But if I can find physical evidence for the theory…”

Chris Johnson, Les Werner´s research assistant, entered the dining room.  “Anyone hear anything?  About the flight?”

Sheldon Bart
Wilderness Research Foundation
© 2010

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