The ends of the Earth are melting at And over the past few months, there’s been increasing evidence that the changes we’re seeing at our planet’s poles are only growing more severe.

  • On 1 August, the Greenland ice sheet a new all-time record.
  • On 18 September, the Arctic Ocean reached  
  • On 9 February, the temperature reached an astounding just off the coast of the Antarctic peninsula, the warmest temperature ever measured on the continent. “[W]e have never seen anything like this,” a Brazilian scientist working on Seymour Island.

These changes in the most remote places on Earth have huge consequences for our daily lives because our daily lives have huge consequences for the most remote places on Earth. Decades of routine human activities – going to work, driving a car, eating a hamburger, choosing a stock portfolio – have transformed the frozen parts of this planet on a scale never seen before. If we do not change our behaviour drastically to slow down and eventually stop the Arctic melt, rising sea levels and even faster rising global temperatures will threaten our very way of life. 

A turquoise container is carried on a red boat. Men wearing red are standing next to it.
A man sitting a yellow and orange boat is wearing an orange overall. He’s holding a white cup while on the phone.
Above: Container which supplies scientists for the next 8 months is being brought to a location on the Antarctic Peninsula. Below: A Chilean Navy sailor talks to a relative using his cellphone in one of the few places with phone signal near the Villa Las Estrellas settlement on King George Island, Antarctica. From the project Permanence in Antarctica by Ronald Patrick

Wait, could you first tell me a bit more about the Arctic and the Antarctic?

It’s easy to lump the frozen parts of our planet together, but the Arctic (the North Pole) and the Antarctic (the South Pole) are very different places. The Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents, and the Antarctic is a continent surrounded by an ocean.

Due to the the polar seasons are always in opposition. When it’s summer in Antarctica from December to February, it’s winter in the Arctic.

Last year marked arguably the most successful international treaty ever devised. It has prevented territorial claims on the continent and banned resource extraction, instead encouraging transnational cooperation for science and environmental protection. In the Arctic, on the other hand, there’s a growing sense of a free-for-all conflict over resource extraction.

Housing in the settlement of Villa las estrellas in King George Island, Antarctica. The maximum allowance for inhabitants in summer is 150 people, and the average in winter will drop to aproximately 80 people. Photo by Ronald Patrick, March 23, 2011.
Housing in the settlement of Villa Las Estrellas on King George Island, Antarctica. It can house up to 150 people in summer and the average number of inhabitants in winter drops to approximately 80 people. Photo by Ronald Patrick, March 23, 2011.

What’s going on in the Arctic?

People have lived in the Arctic for tens of thousands of years, but the region itself is dominated by a seasonally frozen ocean – the Arctic Ocean. Over the past 20 years, more and more of the ocean has thawed out during the summertime, which has set off a chain reaction of further warming. Ocean water is darker in colour than ice, and since darker colours absorb more of the sun’s energy, the entire region – including the parts of the Arctic that are on land – has warmed at twice the rate of the global average. And that warming is kicking off even more chain reactions.

Earlier this month, based on measurements of in Alaska showed that in the Arctic stands to release vastly more greenhouse gases over the next few decades than previously thought. continue to puzzle scientists, and The but the hills and valleys brought to life after millennia of dormancy.

The survival of Indigenous peoples are in conflict with resource extraction across the region. The and are all planning new drilling projects in the Arctic, and the privately funded scientists employed by oil and gas companies are working to accelerate the region’s destruction.

The Arctic is an example of emergent conflict at a moment when climate change is reshaping the political, economic, and physical fabric of the world

Eight countries claim territory inside the Arctic Circle, but dozens more stand to benefit from the rapidly clearing shipping lanes that the melting ice provides. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and on a globe, that often means passing over the North Pole. Travelling from Japan to the UK by sea is passing through the Suez canal and the Strait of Malacca. Taking an ice-free route through the Arctic would That’s currently only possible with the help of expensive icebreakers, but the route could be more freely accessible soon as the Arctic warms.

The militarisation of the Arctic has already begun. Russia dominates the region with but opening a new frontier in international relations. A tiny town in Norway, the first one across the border with Russia, is on The Arctic’s rise to prominence is an example of emergent conflict at a moment when climate change is reshaping the political, economic, and physical fabric of the world.

A football net stands in the right side of the frame. On the left are triangular shaped buildings and an antenna is standing in the middle.
A group of men wearing blue overalls are standing in the gravel.
The Captain Arturo Prat Base, an Antarctic research station located at Iquique Cove, Greenwich Island, Antarctica. The seven crew members of the base are saying goodbye to their fellow countrymen as they depart on a barge heading to icebreaker Oscar Viel. They will stay at the base for the whole winter, and won’t have visitors for the coming 8 months. From the project Permanence in Antarctica by Ronald Patrick

Got it. And what about Antarctica then?

Antarctica, on the other hand, has no Indigenous human population. And, if anything, the scale of geography and change there is far more vast and consequential than in the Arctic.

Antarctica is home to and the west Antarctic ice sheet is its most vulnerable chunk. The ice sheet is grounded below sea level, which means it is highly vulnerable to changes in ocean temperature. Recently, scientists have embarked on a high-stakes expedition to measure key glaciers in west Antarctica for the first time.

The connected ice floes of Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers together drain an area of west Antarctica the size of Texas, about 440,000 cubic kilometres of ice. Scientists have long referred to this section of the ice sheet as its the especially sensitive area where warm ocean water intrusions could kick off a chain-reaction collapse that could raise global sea levels more than a metre in just a few decades

A person wearing a silver overall with helmet is standing on a boat, in front of a fire extinguisher.
Crew member of the icebreaker Almirante Oscar Viel, standing on the helipad, ready to extinguish any possible fire. From the project Permanence in Antarctica by Ronald Patrick

These glaciers are almost unfathomably remote, more than 1,500km away from the nearest permanently staffed research outpost. Only a handful of people have ever set foot on them. They are monitored almost entirely by satellite sensors, with arriving in just the past two decades. Alarming new scientific studies based on these data have triggered that is now underway.

Pine Island glacier has and lost another 350 square kilometre iceberg (approximately three times the size of Paris) Its acceleration toward the sea has resulted in stretching, thinning, and cracking, which makes future large icebergs more likely.

Thwaites glacier – half the size of Germany, and more than twice the size of Pine Island – is going through similar effects, with as it continues to rapidly shrink. Warm water is essentially shredding the glacier into shards, and

“What the satellites are showing us is a glacier coming apart at the seams,” Ted Scambos, a polar scientist at the University of Colorado, “Every few years, a new area seems to be letting go and accelerating. Like taffy being stretched out, this glacier is being drawn into the ocean.”

The glacier is itself more than 150km wide and extends inland more than 500km. “Inland” is a relative term here because the seafloor actually gets deeper toward the core of the west Antarctic ice sheet, and that’s a perfect recipe for a chain reaction of collapse. Thwaites is currently shedding and retreating by about 2km each year. The main thing currently stopping it is an undersea ridge – a thin “grounding line” of rocky subsea hills, about 30km from the current terminus. Once the glacier passes that point, warm water will be able to flow unmitigated toward the centre of the continent, and all bets are off.

A man stands in the back of a beige pick up, taking a photograph of Te amo writing in the snow. Two other men are standing nearby.
A Chilean Navy crew member gets his photo taken on top of a message in the snow that reads "I love you". Villa Las Estrellas, Antarctica.
Medical room with a hospital bed and some medicine and equipment.
Emergency room at Captain Arturo Prat Base on Greenwich Island. In this very isolated place there’s the basic equipment needed in case of an emergency. If a patient needed further treatment they would have to be evacuated by helicopter, which is an unlikely situation to happen during winter time. From the project Permanence in Antarctica by Ronald Patrick

Why do I hear so little about this?

Before this year, only four people had ever seen Thwaites glacier in person. Earlier this year, humanity finally got its The largest-ever expedition to Thwaites successfully drilled through the ice to reach the underside of the glacier and sent to take and images of perhaps

BBC journalist Justin Rowlatt, who described the incredible lengths that were necessary to get the gear here that collected the data:

“Two ice-hardened ships docked alongside an ice cliff at the foot of the Antarctic Peninsula during the last Antarctic summer. A team of drivers in specialist snow vehicles then dragged it more than a thousand miles across the ice sheet through some of the most inhospitable terrain and weather on Earth … drilling a 30cm hole through almost half a mile of ice at the front of the most remote glacier in the world is not easy.”

It was, an Earth-shaking moment akin to astronomers’ Nobel Prize-winning first images of a black hole a few years ago. The murky quality of the images gave off the feeling of the second act of a Hollywood disaster movie, where you finally see the monster face-to-face. The water temperature beneath the glacier at the grounding line? More than Just warm enough to change everything.

The silhouette of a person is visible on the top of a rock surrounded by water.
Maintenance is performed on a weather station on an islet in the middle of the Bransfield strait, on the Antarctic Peninsula. From the project Permanence in Antarctica by Ronald Patrick
About the images The series ‘Permanence in Antarctica’ by photographer Ronald Patrick (born in Santiago de Chile) focuses on the extreme conditions and challenges of living in isolation on the scientific and military bases in Antarctica. As they have become an almost permanent residence for many that work there, spaces for comfort, recreation and communication stand in stark contrast with the harsh surroundings. (Lise Straatsma, image editor) See more work by Ronald Patrick Not a member of The Correspondent yet? The Correspondent is a member-funded, online platform for collaborative, constructive, ad-free journalism. Choose what you want to pay to become a member today! Click here to join our movement!

Dig deeper

Photo of a destroyed house Lawyers are going to court to stop climate change. And it might just work Governments and polluters are being put in the dock for their part in the climate crisis. The legal system is not the best place for this fight, but these cases could still change the world. Read Jelmer Mommers’s article here.