Coastal Post Online


January, 2003

Letter From Magallanes Part II
By Jim Scanlon


Richard Gere almost slipped into Punta Arenas unnoticed, in mid November, on his way to Antarctica to take scraps of onsite film footage to be inserted into a National Geographic documentary. In a matter of hours his hotel was surrounded by a crowd of young women eager to get a glimpse of the star of 'Mujer Bonita" (Pretty Woman) a feminist horror story. The next day, on a visit to the local penguin colony he got upset with the fans and photographers that followed him everywhere and went into a kind of sulking seclusion.

He didn't stay long in Antarctica. He flew in and was back within 24 hours, changing his clothing in the men's room at the airport, taking the first plane to Santiago and then the night plane to Miami. The highly conservative national newspaper, El Mercurio, published a cartoon of a frantic man being chased down a glacier by a mob of adoring penguins.

Felipe Gonzalez, the former Socialist premier of Spain also stayed in town for a while on his way to Antarctica. He was very outspoken, generously advising Chileans on how he would handle their bribery scandal. His advice was not appreciated: it was pointed out that Gonzalez presided over a government involved in one corruption scandal after another, that his party's lost power with little prospect of regaining it.

Gonzalez was going to Antarctica with his good friend, the Mexican multi-billionaire, Carlos Slim. Slim limited his observations to the city's Parisian influenced architecture, which he found pleasing, and the price of chickens in display windows, which he found to be "very cheap." Slim who owns Mexico's telephone system is teaming up with multi-billionaire Bill Gates to monopolize Mexico's cyberspace. Why were these two men going so far south? Who knows? But there are proven oil and gas reserves and that's where money is going now.

One might ask why so many otherwise normal people want to go to Antarctica? Maybe because it represents "The Abyss," that is, hostile unconquered nature, the awe that "The Jungle" used to inspire before it became "The Fragile Rain Forest." But, while we may be able to get along without the "Rain Forest," if Antarctic's ice should melt, sea level would rise some 60 meters or so. While this might take a thousand years, just a little bit off the edges in a few decades, and a few meters rise, would destroy industrial civilization, as we have come to know it-not that many people seem to care!

After all, sea ice and the Greenland Ice Cap, at the other end of the globe melted at a greater rate this past summer than ever before. It this continues ice on the Arctic ocean may be gone before our oil runs out.

Robert Redford was rumored to have a reservation in the same hotel as Gere, just down the street from mine, but in a different world. Redford's appearance was eagerly awaited by local news reporters, but he apparently did not show up. Reporting on any and all of the odd people who turn up in Punta Arenas on their way to Antarctica or around Patagonia is a local news specialty, but film stars don't show up too often and celebrity stories sell all over South America where people feel left out.

With the exception of the American scientists who shuttle back and forth between Antarctica in specialized research icebreakers, visitors like Gere fly in Russian air transports to a Chilean airport in the northern end of the island chain that comprises the Antarctic Peninsula. The company that organizes these trips is Canadian and their clients are mostly adventurous Europeans although the first Saudi made the trip last year, and a growing number of Chinese from China make the trip.

Last year a marathon race was held on the Antarctic Ice, and a man from the UK tried to be the first blind man to reach the South Pole. (He didn't make it. Frostbite). This year, in addition to the adventurers, a group of diabetics from England were planning the trek to the pole just to show they can do it.

The Antarctic Peninsula which sticks out north towards the tip of South America for 15 degrees of latitude is warming rapidly. The Larsen A ice shelf collapsed a few years ago and this year, Larsen B ice shelf, an area about the size of Belgium collapsed, or "exploded," as geologists now are saying, in two weeks. So this large area no longer reflects 80% of incoming sunlight and it absorbs and stores more heat in open water. Larsen A was thought to have formed "recently," say, 10,000 years ago. The age of Larsen B is currently under investigation, but could have been in place for millions of years and that's why there is so much concern and normally conservative scientists are saying the ice shelf "exploded."

You meet interesting people in Punta Arenas if you stay a while. I met an American geologist from the University of Texas prowling around the main square with his just out of the box Nikon digital camera. "Six megapixels! And it takes my old Nicor lenses-only $2,000.00!" He and another professor were part of a team on a dangerous journey to set up extremely precise Global Positioning Instruments on small uninhabited islands that form the Scotia Arc to the north of the Antarctic Peninsula. These instruments will measure down to a centimeter, the movement of to the great tectonic plates that make up the earth. Friendly, smart, capable, nice guys.

It now seems certain that the Antarctic Peninsula is the geological extension of the Andes which start in Venezuela, hook around through Columbia, continue through Ecuador and Peru, down the backs of Argentina and Chile disappearing into the gap at Cape Horn, then arising again in Antarctica. Why would anyone want to find out where tectonic plates are moving, or stuck in such an inhospitable part of the world? The answers are "Just to find out" and "petroleum and gas" are found in the sedimentary rock east of the Andes.

The Antarctic Peninsula is warming rapidly, it's reflective ice is melting and the great masses of ice that protrude into the ocean in West Antarctica are also melting. But the great bulk of ice that towers miles above the continent is growing as the climate there cools. Nature isn't neat.

When I told the geologist from Texas about the blind man and the diabetics, he laughed and complained that the National Science Foundation put him through exhaustive physical tests before approving him and now he learns that diabetics and blind people are prancing all over Antarctica. (Well not exactly.) I ventured the opinion that the NSF, in this case, knew what it was doing.

A friendly but somewhat nervous man from New Zealand stayed in my hotel off an on over five weeks. He was setting up a sustainable forest project in Tierra del Fuego which was being plagued by guanacos, the wild llamas, cameloids, that had been hunted locally almost to extinction. It was essential to keep them out of areas being reforested since they ate the tiny trees. They were using tranquilizer darts to incapacitate the animals so they could be moved, but the drugs didn't work. He kept coming back for more drugs and then different drugs. Finally they resorted to a stone age plan-they organized a drive into an enclosure, rounded them up and moved them.

Local Activities

A friend of mine, Bruce, a tall, handsome young American from San Diego, or Connecticut, depending on how he defines himself, works for the City of Punta Arenas having come to this far corner of the earth to work on Operation Gondawana, a project to protect the native forest of Tierra del Fuego. He is warm and sympathetic and speaks and understands Spanish well, and possibly because of these qualities, and the fact that he has such a horrible American accent, the local people love him dearly. He is a good friend of the Mayor, the shoe shine guy, waiters, people on the street, everybody!

He dragged me off to see the "dog pound" on the outskirts of the city, a private piece of land about an acre in area, for stray dogs. The ever increasing number of these dogs in Chile is a major problem. The word they use for "pet" is "mascot" and they don't kill (euthanize) abandoned or problem dogs as we do so they have a problem. Some dogs bite children, bark, threaten. rip open garbage bags. They chase cars and dirt bikes and, if a bitch is in heat, there is a never ending noisy parade of mutts through the streets. Bruce and his friends are working on an educational program to spay and neuter the dogs.

Bruce dragged me to work as am interpreter for a project with the local Lions Club and the Lens Crafter Foundation to give away free eye glasses to needy people. Volunteer ophthalmologists and employees of Lens Crafters fly on their own time to Asia, Africa and South America to give away recycled eyeglasses from the US. It was a stunning example of organization and efficiency and showed me a part of my country men and women-and Punta Arenas I hadn't known.

It was inspiring to see North American volunteers working on a kind of assembly line, a huge line of people surprisingly short in stature, passing through a row of instruments having their eyes examined and then a huge area covered with boxes of eye glasses.

The women I worked with checked the prescriptions, fitted the glasses and made sure they worked. They communicated efficiently by smiles and gestures and I helped with more complicated instructions, like, "Tell her she looks beautiful."

"Oh, these glasses are Calvin Kleins! Tell her these would cost a lot in the US," or, "tell him not to let his daughter take these off!" Only when she goes to the bathroom or to bed," That kind of thing.

"Oh look, a three year old! Wait. Stop. Here take my picture with her! My daughter would love her to death!"

Everybody was happy. But-a legal dispute arose over following Chilean law and the project was shut down after two days. The volunteers had a chance to visit Torres de Peine, the spectacular National Park 200 miles away and when they left, they left all their eyeglasses. After wrangling in court and public discussion for days on end about the poor people "not helped," Chilean doctors and technicians agreed to distribute the recycled eye glasses, so even the dispute had a happy ending.

Another time Bruce dragged me to a boys high school on the Strait of Magellan on "GIS Day," (Global Information Systems' Day) where he and our friends Francisco and David from the Governor's office, explained the benefits of satellite mapping information. David drove a limo in New York when he was a student, so when he spoke to me in English, he spoke Noo Yawk Porto Rican something like Rosie Perez.

I explained to the students in Spanish how my Microtops, a hand held electronic instrument which measures stratospheric ozone, uses a simple Global Position Satellite Receiver to obtain latitude and longitude to measure ozone. They listened attentively.

The Ozone Hole

As everyone seems to know, the Ozone Hole wasn't as big this year as it has been recently. It split into two parts in early October. leading to speculation that the ozone layer was "healing," recovering. What happened is, however, a demonstration that the atmosphere is changing and that we are changing it in innumerable ways besides just adding compounds of chlorine. We do not understand what is going on. (When I got back in December, I confirmed this at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.)

What happened is that a series of unusually strong planetary waves, bursts of warming energy propagated through the stratosphere this (southern) spring followed by one extraordinary burst of warmth, which increased the temperature over Antarctica, thereby reducing ozone destruction. Why this is happening is not known, but sudden, rapid change, like "explosions" of ice shelves, is unnerving.

Why is stratospheric ozone so important? It is after all, a pollutant on earth, and an explosive, toxic gas! It burns your throat, it burns your eyes, it stinks!

It took thousands of millions of years for tiny oxygen producing bacteria to produce enough oxygen for sunlight to react with it and form a tenuous haze, a membrane of ozone, which adsorbs the shorter, more energetic ultra violet energy from our sun. The shorter wavelengths break organic molecular bonds. The "shad" of the ozone membrane allowed life forms, made from organic molecules, to expand throughout the previously unprotected area and form a larger biosphere.

Almost all life on earth in its mind numbing complexity, depends on solar radiation for energy to live. Only a very small number of simple species and ecosystems depend on volcanic energy from the earth's internal radiation, that is, not from the sun.

But the unfiltered light from our sun is dangerous to all life which withers and dies when exposed to its purity. The ozone layer is like a membrane covering our home, the biosphere, which may seem huge and vast to us, but among the millions of billions of suns and planets in our universe it is like a tiny cell, and we know that if we prick a tiny cell, if we violate it, it can easily die.


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