Global Warming

3 03 2009


“What do you mean, you locked the keys inside?” (off Vernadsky, Antarctic)


Not many people stroll through the Louvre, encounter the Mona Lisa and exclaim “Oh, is this where it is?” However, sometimes on our travels we do encounter things in the most unexpected of places and suddenly feel emotions akin to the surprise and satisfaction of finding something worthwhile in a Christmas cracker. I had one such experience in the Antarctic, and no, it wasn’t a polar bear!


Rarely does a day pass when we don’t hear reference to Global Warming. We’re barraged by images of melting glaciers, flooded towns and violent storms all attributed to the steadily increasing temperature of our planet. One of the first indications came from scientists who detected a growing hole in the ozone layer above the Antarctic. In the pre-Al Gore “Inconvenient Truth” days, the discovery wasn’t widely reported in the mainstream press and largely went unnoticed. Now, both believers and debunkers are familiar with the suggested ramifications of that discovery.vernadsky


Hugging the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula on Galindez Island sits the Vernadsky Research Station, an Ukrainian facility with a long history. Britain first established a base there in 1947 and named it after Shackleton expedition member Sir James Wordie. Thirty years later, the base was renamed Faraday Station and remained a significant part of the British Antarctic Survey until 1996 when it was taken over by the Ukraine and renamed after scientist Vladimir Vernadsky.


We weaved past icebergs before landing on the rocky outcrop that was home to the small base. The original Wordie House still remains, although newer buildings now protect the scientists and their valuable work from the harsh elements. We stumbled ashore from our zodiac laden with fresh vegetables in gratitude for the staff’s kindness in hosting us for a few hours. On a clear Antarctic summer day with the temperature a few degrees above freezing and only a gentle breeze, life didn’t seem too bad. It’s only when you contemplate the long winter with its katabatic winds, deadly cold and months of darkness that you appreciate how difficult life can be for the dozen or so researchers who winter-over.


The scientists led us on a tour of the base. We saw their modest sleeping quarters, laboratories, work rooms and communications equipment. The walls were lined with photographs and mementoes of previous crews, supply ships and visitors. As a reminder of the base’s British origins, upstairs there was a cozy wooden-beamed pub complete with bar and games table.


Further down the hall a ladder led through a ceiling hatch and into the attic. There, beneath the eaves was the large Dobson Spectrophotometer which first detected the alarming growth of the hole in the ozone. Until the ‘80s, it was predicted that the ozone layer would decrease by approximately 7% over a 60-year period. Shortly afterwards – and largely based on observations conducted at the Faraday base – it was determined that as much as 50% of the ozone over a localized area of the Antarctic had in fact disappeared – and within a few years that number had increased to as much as 77% of its pre-1975 levels.


As the ozone layer is the Earth’s natural sunscreen and protects humans, plants and animals by filtering out harmful UV-B radiation, its depletion was an immediate cause for concern. Standing in my sock-feet in a warm hut in the Antarctic, staring at an inanimate object and realising that it was ultimately responsible for the term “Global Warming” and the birth of the unprecedented international interest in the fragility of our world, was an odd experience. Not preserved behind glass in a museum, but still in regular use monitoring the upper atmosphere was a piece of equipment responsible for an environmental discovery arguably as important as any other in the 20th century.


There, in the attic of a hut at the end of the world sat the unheralded environmental equivalent of the Rosetta Stone and there were no brass plaques, souvenir postcards or fridge magnets in sight!



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Disappearing Destinations

5 01 2009



Snows of Mount Kenya – Africa’s second highest mountain.


In the back of a desk drawer sits an expired passport bearing the visa and stamp for a country that does not exist. Sadly, it is not Narnia or Middle Earth, although a childhood spent hiding in my parents’ wardrobe and a pair of very hairy feet suggest that I actually have familiarity with both. Instead, it is for Zaire: a country that existed in name from 1971-1997.


Over the past 50 years, many places have disappeared. No matter how hard you look, you can’t find Upper Volta, Rhodesia, Peking, Nyasaland, Bombay, Bechuanaland, Ceylon, Dutch Guyana, Yugoslavia, Leningrad or Czechoslovakia on current maps.


While these places have only changed names or borders and may not have actually disappeared, there are unfortunately many places in the world that are at risk of existing only in memories and photographs.


Some years ago, famed author Douglas Adams wrote “Last Chance to See”, a travelogue/natural history book examining the plight of desperately-threatened species. Now, Kimberly Lisagor and Heather Hansen have contributed “Disappearing Destinations” which highlights the plight of such well-known threatened spots as the Amazon rainforests, the Maldives, glaciers, Kilimanjaro’s snowcap, Tuvalu, Timbuktu, China’s Yangtze River Valley and even Machu Picchu.


Very recently, Australian scientists announced that the Great Barrier Reef experienced less growth last year than at any other point in the past 400 years and is under very severe threat from global warming and high levels of acidity in the world’s oceans.


While we have long been aware of the threat to individual species such as whales, tigers and gorillas, for the first time in most of our lifetimes, we are seeing particular sites or entire eco-systems under threat.


Not only are we on the threshold of our very own ‘last chance to see’ with many of these epic places, but visiting them may actually help to save them. In cases where today’s threat may in part be due to past unrestricted tourism, sensible limits have in many cases been imposed and responsible tour operators created to ensure that visitors are now not only no longer part of the problem but actually part of the solution. Park fees and environmental taxes are re-invested in conservation efforts and many people who visit these endangered places often return home as their most enthusiastic supporters and greatest activists.


Like never before, we not only have a chance to see the great sights of the world, but to actually help to ensure that they are still there for future generations.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan