The Earth’s Overwhelming Polar Underside

Bruce Northam gives a detailed account of his experiences camping and hiking the Antarctic in an article for, where he describes both the awe-inspiring landscapes and the local penguin population of the continent. Traveling with the Russian tour company Quark Expeditions, Northam also experiences the realities of global warming first hand.

Here, there are birds that can’t fly (penguins) and mammals that can’t walk (seals); a pollution-free environment where the wildlife returns your ogle. There’s no native population, so any environmental degradation is caused solely by outsiders. With limited history of abuse – excepting whalers and seal clubbers active until the mid 1900’s – animals don’t fear humans.

Wildlife endures unimaginably harsh climate conditions. Only two percent of its land is not covered by permanent ice, and that’s where 16 of the 17 species of extremely tolerant, upright ducks colonize and nest during their short summer vacation. (Penguin species number seventeen claimed the Galapagos).

The UN-sponsored, 1959 Antarctic treaty mandated that everything south of 60-degree southern latitude may only be explored for peaceful purposes: no hunting, fishing, industry, exporting, oil drilling, or weapons testing. Mingling with penguins, however, penguins willing, is permissible.

Floating into this winter wonderland of crystal glacier palaces is a powerful sensory overload. Amazingly, Antarctica’s February daytime temperatures were warmer than New York’s, with mercury rising above freezing and sometimes into the 50s.