Global environmental challenges
Icebergs, Copenhagen hot topics in Southern Ocean
The Southern Ocean is toying with us, like some killer whale tossing its prey before devouring it.
The small French research ship l’Astrolabe is being battered by 55 kmh (35 mph) winds and tossed like a cork in icy, three metre (9 feet) waves.
Many onboard have retreated to the safety of their bunks where, with the help of medication, they are trying to stave off seasickness. My cabin is beside the kitchen, so the strong smells don’t help.
I have avoided gut-wrenching seasickness so far, but I am struggling with an overwhelming tiredness that the onboard doctor tells me is normal after four days in heavy seas.
It is too dangerous to be on deck for any length of time as the small research ship wrenches violently from side to side, which means I virtually live day and night in a two-berth cabin.
I share it with a French lady in her late 50s who speaks limited English and I, almost no French. But despite our language barrier, we do a lot of smiling and nodding as the ship rolls under us.
My cabin mate, who scored the lower bunk, displays the nimbleness and speed of a 16-year-old, jumping from her bunk to salvage flying pieces of equipment that gets thrown around the cabin like ping-pong balls.
There are 60 people on board l’Astrolabe. Ten of us are from the Mawson’s Hut Foundation Expedition 2009/10, who will help restore Australian explorer Sir Douglas Mawson’s Huts, which have clung to the ice of Commonwealth Bay for 98 years. The others will travel to the French scientific research base of Dumont d’Urville where they will stay for up to 12 months.
My team will live on the ice in a combination of shelters, huts and tents for six weeks, celebrating Christmas and New Year’s Eve in an Antarctic freeze. I will also be filing stories and blogs on life on the ice, climate change and tourism.
With world climate talks starting in Copenhagen on Monday Dec 7, I ventured to l’Astrolabe’s bridge to interview skipper Benoit Hebert, who has been sailing the frigid oceans of the Arctic and Antarctic for more than 15 years.
As he steers the icebreaker through a grey sea, periodically spotlighted by a shaft of sunlight through the clouds, he is on the lookout for icebergs, which we expect to see later today.
Large icebergs have recently been spotted floating hundreds of kilometres (miles) north of Antarctica — a sign of the accelerating East Antarctic melt and possible climate change.
Hebert is confident world leaders like U.S. President Barack Obama and China’s Hu Jintao will agree to dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming and the breakdown of ice sheets at both poles.
Making my way back down from the bridge I couldn’t help but notice the deck resembles a prison yard with little groups huddling together in different spots, trying to grab some fresh air before bunking down again.
The fresh air on the bridge was a welcome relief to the stale air below deck.
(You can track the ship here )