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Weather report from McMurdo Station

Peter West, a spokesman for the National Science Foundation's programs in Antarctica, just sent this dispatch from McMurdo Station, where it is mid-summer, and snowing:

Greetings from McMurdo Station, Antarctica, the National Science Foundation’s logistics hub on the southernmost continent, where the forecast for today is cold, with continuing periods of cold for, well, pretty much the foreseeable future.

Actually, as I sit here on Monday afternoon (your Sunday morning: we’re 18 hours ahead of you on New Zealand time) broodily watching the wind-driven snow fall over McMurdo Sound I am in a less-than-jolly mood, as a flight out to the McMurdo Dry Valleys and the Cape Royds penguin colony--two of the most spectacular places on Earth--with reporters from CBS News and National Public radio, seems a diminishing possibility.

Still, it gives me time to write.

People often ask me, and more so lately, as I’ve been to the continent a number of times, "Is it true that the ice is melting and it’ll soon be all gone."

The best way I can answer that is that it’s a question better aimed at the scientists who study the glaciers and sea ice. It IS true, for example, that large portions of the massive Larsen Ice Shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula disintegrated and washed out to sea in 1995 and 2002. The rapid collapse—in a period of weeks--of the Larsen B shelf in 2002 took scientists a bit by surprise and they surmise that what they had not factored into their thinking about a potential collapse was that the melt water that formed on the surface during the near 24 hours of daylight in the summertime, then flowed down into cracks and, acting like a multitude of wedges, levered the shelf apart, almost in one fell swoop

But the Larsen Shelf is located on the "Banana Belt" of the continent, the piece of Antarctica that stretches upward towards South America. This area, all the scientific data agree, has warmed noticeably in recent decades.

But what I reflect on when I stand at the South Pole, which I did only a day or two ago, is that the ice beneath my feet is nearly two miles thick and how almost incomprehensible it is that it might melt anytime soon, even in geological terms. Without discounting the very solid science behind the many reports of global climate change--which is not at all my intent—it is very hard to fathom, without arguing with the underlying truth that, as we did with the Ozone Hole, human activity can affect things on a planetary scale, that human beings could make an appreciable dent in such a mass of ice, covering as it does a continent the size of the U.S. and Mexico combined.

Put it this way, imagine yourself standing in the middle of an ocean of ice, stretching to the horizon in very direction and knowing that ice beneath your feet is almost two miles thick. That is what it’s like to stand at the South Pole.

And that, I think is a dimension of the global climate issue that easily gets lost when settling in to a story in the morning paper about climate change: the sheer scale of the planet. And yet if the observations are correct, we, as a species, are having measurable effects on that scale.

Well enough big-picture ruminations.

The meteorologists—who are forecasting weather with a mere handful of weather stations--tell that there is good news in store for Tuesday (which means, among other things, I will be boarding a C-17 cargo plane for New Zealand and, eventually, home); that the clouds will clear and the sun return.

The temperature will be a balmy 28 degrees Fahrenheit, falling to 16 degrees at night. Night, of course, being a relative concept, as the sun never sets in January.

Conditions at the South Pole, of course, are expected to be much different. The projected high? Minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit. With unrestricted visibility. Oh, and sunrise at the Pole? Well that took place on Sept. 21, 2007. It’ll start to get dark again on March 22.

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