The Last Continent Will Be the First to Go

The lone and level seas. Towering icebergs in Antarctica.

Flandres Bay, a glasslike body of water protected by towering, snowy peaks on the west side of the Antarctic peninsula, is literally uncharted water. No one has ever recorded how wide or long or deep it is. Penguins porpoise through its icy waters while seals sleep soundly on iceberg beds; skuas glide as if trying to tan their wings, as glaciers melt and calve beneath the relative heat of the bright austral summer. Only humans would want to map a place like this. Only humans could think a chart capable of conveying its magnitude.

My husband and I are perched on the edge of a zodiac—a small, inflatable raft—when we first meet Flandres Bay. Our expedition leader, one of the many naturalists accompanying us on our expedition to Antarctica aboard the National Geographic Orion, is steering us repeatedly over webs of thick ice. 

“Do you think this is safe?” I whisper to my husband. By now, I’ve watched our expedition leader stop and restart our boat’s engine to clear out trapped chunks of ice at least twice. “This doesn’t feel like something we should be doing.”

“This whole continent doesn’t feel like something we should be doing,” he laughs, exhilaration brightening his voice.

A world of wonder. Only humans could think a chart capable of conveying Antarctica’s magnitude.

When we first told my parents that we had chosen to travel to Antarctica for our honeymoon, they had understandably assumed we were joking. Then, once they learned we were serious, the questions came hard and fast. “I thought only scientists could go to Antarctica?” they challenged.

No, there are cruises that travel there from South America, we said. 

“How on Earth, from New York, would you even get there?” 

By taking a flight to Santiago, Chile, and then another flight to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. From there, it’s two days at sea—through the historically challenging Drake Passage, notorious for its tempestuousness as the place where three oceans, the Atlantic, Pacific and Southern, all come together and crash.

“Do you really think this is a good, romantic choice?” 

Setting sail. Lindblad Expeditions offers carbon-neutral cruises to Antarctica, departing from Ushuaia, Argentina.

We cruise Flandres Bay for two hours, marveling equally at the diverse, plentiful wildlife and the vivid, crystal-blue color of the ice. When we return back to our ship, crewmembers greet us with large glasses of hot mulled wine. Every time this happens, my husband and I look at each other and say, in almost perfect unison, “Wow, this is the life.”

These are the only words that come easily to us in Antarctica. Most of our experiences here leave us speechless, hobbling through the silence with cliché phrases we actively avoid in real life. We stand among thousands of Adélie penguins on Devil Island, where the only sound is their distinctive, throaty cry, and say nothing. We kayak together deep in the Weddell Sea and find a pair of emperor penguins just standing together on an iceberg, their coats glistening in the sun, and giggle softly, drunk on discovery and our own stupid luck. We climb to the top of a snow-covered peak above Neko Harbour, surrounded by hundreds of gentoo penguins beside a hulking blue glacier, and whisper to no one, “Wow” and “Oh my God.” 

The first night we arrived in Antarctica, we stood on the top deck of our ship in bathing suits, still wet from a brief dip in the ship’s hot tub, and watched as we passed tabular icebergs that dwarfed the Empire State Building in height, and, in length, spanned several miles. The sunset was eternal that night, beginning around 6 p.m. and still lighting the sky with rich swathes of pink, orange and purple when we finally went to bed well past midnight; the water beside us, so still that it less resembled the sea than an endless spool of curling ribbon.

What words are there to describe a place like this? A place where killer whales feast on seals outside the window of a ship’s dining room, while hundreds of birds stalk the scene from above, ready to clean up the crumbs. A place where crabeater seals lie like logs on black pebbled beaches, unmoving and completely uninterested in the people passing them by. A place where, to your left, a humpback whale breaches with all the grace of a ballerina while, to your right, a lonely emperor penguin stands motionless on the ice.

On our wedding day, my husband and I exchanged our own vows. His were beautiful and easy, honest and precise. Mine were long and a little bit rambling; I had found them completely impossible to write. My feelings, I realized, exceeded the limits of language; I wanted a stronger word than strong, a brighter word than bright. I once read somewhere that “I love you” is really just shorthand for “Please, please don’t die.” The tragedy, of course, is that we’re all anyway dying. This is something we have in common with Antarctica. 

The meltdown. Warming temperatures have already changed the landscape of the Antarctic Peninsula, and continue to threaten the lives of the wildlife who call it home.

The west side of the Antarctic Peninsula, home to over 700 glaciers, is one of the fastest-warming areas on Earth. While the global average temperature has increased by only 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since the Industrial Revolution in the 1880s, the temperature of this specific area has increased by more than five degrees in the past 50 years alone. As a result, all of the glaciers in this region—like 90 percent of the glaciers across the continent, as a whole—are retreating.

Since the Larsen B ice shelf collapsed off the peninsula in 2002, the glaciers behind it have accelerated their descent into the sea by up to eight times. If this were to happen across the Antarctic continent, it would raise sea levels by 13 feet per century. That’s the worst-case scenario. Here’s the likely one.

According to a 2014 report from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the sea level in New York City is projected to rise up to 10 inches by the end of the 2020s. By 2100, it’s projected to rise up to 75 inches—at which point large areas of lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, and both JFK and LaGuardia airports, would be completely underwater. Long Island would also be irrevocably changed.

“More than 99 percent of today’s population in 252 coastal towns and cities would have their homes submerged,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In this scenario, there is no Long Beach; all of the spectacular, beachfront homes in the Hamptons are now just the latest, Instagram-friendly dive sites; Montauk is an island—and a small one at that, choked by water on every side.

“And that’s a plain sea level rise,” says Gordian Raacke, founder of Renewable Energy Long Island. “That’s not including any storm surges. The devastation from that, along with all sorts of other things, we can’t really even envision yet. We know the numbers, but we don’t have a visceral understanding of it. It is, frankly, unimaginable.”

The widespread loss of glaciers, however, will not just cause sea levels to rise. Our current climate depends on glaciers’ white surfaces to reflect the sun’s rays, helping to keep climate patterns mild.

“When glaciers melt, darker exposed surfaces absorb and release heat, raising temperatures,” writes James Balog, founder of the Extreme Ice Survey. The end result, of course, is changing weather patterns—and, specifically for the Northeast, more and worse storms.

This is what’s in store for us—a slow, steady march towards devastation—if we don’t call on our leaders to work together and somehow change the course.

Water, water everywhere. If all of Antarctica’s ice returned to the oceans, it would raise global sea levels by about 200 feet.

It is already too late for certain penguin populations in Antarctica. On the western peninsula, Adélie populations have already collapsed, some by 90 percent or more. This is because they, like polar bears on the opposite pole, are starving. 

Like whales and seals, penguins feed primarily on small, shrimplike crustaceans called “krill.” In turn, krill survive on phytoplankton and, during the region’s harsh winters, when all native species travel as little as possible just to conserve enough energy to remain alive, the algae that grows underneath their preferred shelter: sea ice. Just as, on land, we say “no farms, no food,” the cry of the Antarctic seas is “no ice, no krill.” Without this ice—at the beginning of winter, as soon as they start to need it—they die. Combined with the popularity of krill oil supplements, for which krill are caught by commercial trawlers and shipped worldwide, these warming temperatures have been devastating for krill and the wildlife populations across the Antarctic peninsula that depend on them to survive.

And still, this is less concerning than what scientists are beginning to observe continent-wide.

East Antarctica is the coldest place on Earth and, for decades, scientists agreed that it seemed largely untouched by global warming. “But now,” writes Nicola Jones for YaleEnvironment360, “the glaciers and ice shelves in this frigid region are showing signs of melting, a development that portends dramatic rises in sea levels this century and beyond.”

The time to act, to avoid this, was 30 or 40 years ago. The next best time to act, as they say, is now.

“We only have between 10 and 15 years left to do something before we reach the really catastrophic limits of climate change,” says Gordian Raacke. “The analogy I like to use is this: We are all on an airplane and we’re getting closer to our destination. The pilot comes on the P.A. and says, ‘We’re going to begin our descent now.’ If we wait another 15 to 20 minutes, we can all expect a very rough landing. Every minute we wait, the landing will get rougher and harder to survive. That’s the point we’re at now. To be honest, we’re actually already past that point. We now need to make a very rapid descent, essentially to zero carbon, and we need to do it globally, across all sectors of our economy.”

On the clock. Climate scientists have long warned that we are approaching a “tipping point”—a critical threshold beyond which drastic, hard-to-reverse climate changes will occur. 

Four days after we leave Flandres Bay, our flight home from Santiago begins its descent into New York. When our plane lands at JFK, my husband and I are hours-deep into a winding, endless conversation about the absurd.

“I still can’t believe that just happened,” I say, swiping through all the new, icy photos on my phone.

“I know,” says my husband. “We went to fucking Antarctica. Who does that?”

We both agree it’s audacious.

But is it? Both my husband and I come from a country that’s sent a man to the moon. We live on a planet around which an international space station is perpetually in orbit. Science has eradicated the diseases that killed our ancestors, and medical advances will see our children outlive our projected lifespans still. All we did was decide to travel to the beautiful, savagely indifferent end of the world on a bougie, carbon-neutral ship, not knowing how we could make it happen financially or logistically. We just knew that we wanted to do it, that we felt like we had to, that the adventure of a lifetime was the only way we wanted to begin the adventure of our lifetime together.

As it turns out, this is also how we put that man on the moon.

“When Kennedy said that we were going to put a man on the moon, the scientists and engineers at the time didn’t really know how to do that,” says Gordian Raacke. “But the president handed them a job description. He said, ‘Hey, I want this done in 10 years,’ and they did it. How audacious is that?”

Now, 50 years later, only that same audacity—our own, all together—stands between us and oblivion. Please fasten your seatbelt as we prepare to land.