Antarctica is one of the most hostile environments on the planet. It’s the coldest, windiest, highest and driest of all our continents where humans have never lived because conditions are so extreme but its inhospitable climate is matched by its stark, dazzlingly white beauty.
Antarctica measures about 14 million square kilometers, roughly the size of the USA and Mexico combined, with 99% of the area covered in ice. It’s been estimated that if the West Antarctic ice sheet melted entirely, global average sea levels would rise by 5 meters. As we speak global warming is melting the ice there faster than ever.
It’s also become a magnet for affluent tourists and academics who have the wherewithal to fund an expensive cruise. Ornithologist and ecologist Jim Wilson joins us from Cork as he has seen the snowcapped peaks, mighty glaciers, and glistening icebergs.
On the 30th of January 1820, Cork man Edward Bransfield, an Irish-born navigator is credited with making the first confirmed sighting and maps of the Antarctic coastline 200 years ago. It was a discovery which began an era of Antarctic exploration later made famous by the exploits of Ross, Crozier, Borchgrevink, Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton.
Bransfield was born in 1785 to a prominent Catholic seafaring family in the port town of Ballinacurra, near Middleton. In 1803 when the Napoleonic Wars broke out, a British warship pulled into Youghal harbour and abducted the 18-year-old Bransfield from the deck of his father’s boat into the service of the Royal Navy. Bransfield survived for more than a decade fighting against the French, an impressive achievement given the mortality rates amongst sailors in that conflict. Remarkably he rose to the status of an officer eventually earning the rank of ship’s master.
The first sight of land was made on 16th January 1820 as Bransfield ran along the South Shetland Islands. A small party went ashore on King George Island to formally claim the territory for Britain and Bransfield then turned south into the unknown seas.
For those lucky enough to visit Antartica, it is hard to miss the Adelie Penguins. Ornithologist and ecologist Jim Wilson educate us about The Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae), a species of penguin common along the entire coast of the Antarctic continent which is their only residence.
They are named after Adélie Land in turn named for Adèle Dumont d'Urville, the wife of French explorer Jules Dumont d'Urville who discovered these penguins in 1840. They obtain their food by both predations and foraging with a diet of mainly krill and fish.
You can learn more about Jim Wilson and his expeditions to Antartica by visiting his website here.
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