GROWING up as a child, I had seen amazing pictures of Antarctica, spread out on vast sheets of ice and blended into the limitless, white horizon. I could sense that this white continent was a gigantic expanse that could not be ignored because it existed not in its layers of ice but in a total mystery. For quite some time, I had a strange feeling that Antarctica was the ‘dark’ continent of our planet, raging and freezing, in its reign of frenzy.
In September of 1969, something exciting happened to blow the lid of my imagination. Our college principal Reverend RW Timm, a renowned nematologist (biologist), a PhD, had conducted intense research on microscopic organisms that have lived or survived in the icy depths of Antarctica. His textbook on biology was the only available textbook and reading material for pre-medical students of higher secondary in the country. ‘Father Timm’, as he was affectionately known, returned ‘home’ after six months to his Notre Dame College, Dhaka. Local newspapers highlighted his successful, overseas scientific expeditions in the icy, dark continent of our southern hemisphere.
A week after he had been back ‘home’ to our Notre Dame College, he invited students to a ‘slide presentation’, today’s PowerPoint, in the college auditorium. I remember him candidly describing the exhausting details of his journeys to the island of Samoa; he then travelled onwards to the cold, white continent. Initially, he had made his long journey on a US military C-130 aircraft, then hopped on to his ride on a navy ship, bound for Antarctica. Father Timm participated in a scientific study, looking for signs of ‘life’, buried thousands of feet below the coldest sheets of ice. This was one occasion that day which opened many minds, including mine.
Antarctica today has been on the global lead news for a reason. This frozen continent is a symbol and an excellent indicator lamp that has reflected how our planet is changing along with its climate.
Fast forward… this icy wonderland of Antarctica has been on record to have experienced its hottest day ever on Thursday.
At least, that is what scientists reported at Argentina’s Esperanza research station on the very northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The finding announced by Argentina’s national meteorological service, placed the temperature at 18.3 degrees Celsius, or just about 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
‘That would make it the hottest temperature that our world may have seen over the length of record that we have for Antarctica,’ reported Randall Carveny, the World Meteorological Organisation’s rapporteur of weather and climate extremes. The WMO has not officially verified this finding yet. That will require a panel of atmospheric science experts from around the world to parse and discuss the station’s data for as long as nine months before submitting their recommendation to Cerveny.
However, at the moment, there is little reason to doubt the preliminary findings.
‘This is unfortunately a continuing trend’, Cerveny has mentioned in a recent NPR interview. ‘This station just set the existing record only a few years ago in 2015. So we are seeing these high temperature records — not only in Antarctica, but across the entire world — fall, whereas we just don’t see cold temperature records any more’.
We are also conscious citizens of a united globe, who need to catch up on the latest headlines and unique NPR stories, sent every weekday. It is important to note that Thursday’s finding is just one data point, the result of particular weather conditions that day on the northern Antarctic Peninsula. However, as Cerveny and others note, the positively balmy weather this week does match up with broader changes to the climate over time, both on the peninsula and globally. The past year was the world’s second hottest year on record and it just capped the earth’s hottest decade ever recorded.
Even seen in this context, the Antarctic peninsula happens to be ‘one of the fastest warming areas on the planet’, according to Alexander Isern, head of Antarctic sciences sciences at the National Science Foundation. That can mean simple, logistical concerns that may not immediately come to mind — such as different gear for researchers, who have to deal with the wetter weather the warming brings. ‘We’ve definitely had to have to kind of rethink a bit what we provide people with’, the research scientists Isern has observed.
‘I’ve been going down for ten years, and even I have seen the changes’, she likes to add. ‘I bring different clothes.’
Isern’s findings and predictions have indicated that there are other, bigger consequences of the changing climate. On one occasion, I read through her predictions and I was shocked. I felt I had heard these exact details five decades ago from Father Timm. I kept remembering his concerns about the rising carbon emissions in the earth, creating holes in the protective atmospheric envelope, thereby exposing us to the sun’s dangerous ultra-violet rays.
The great scholar Timm had prophesied what some of us may not have imagined to be a far fetched reality of our planet’s future. Isern’s present-day serious concerns could not connect me back in time convincingly to realise that the climate prophet who taught zoology at the local college visualised what future scientists would assess several decades later.
Father Timm smilingly mentioned that there is a vicious cycle at work: warmer weather in Antarctica contributed to warmer seawater in general, which contributed to melting glaciers and rising sea levels worldwide — which, in turn, leads to further warming. And to prove his point, he shared more than a hundred images in colour, captured with his camera in the dark and icy continent.
I have attributed this also in the context of present-day impacts felt around the globe by serious weather conditions caused in our land and oceans. More extreme weather events are in the offing and that was a reality put forth by present-day climatologist Cerveny and his team to verify.
‘When I started this project all the way back in 2007, I thought we would have maybe an evaluation once every few years, and now we’re having multiple observations of extreme climate every year’, the WMO rapporteur says.
More than 50 years have elapsed since Father Timm warned his students that memorable day of the ‘Antarctica slide show’ that: climate changes are likely to influence the frequency, intensity and geographical distribution of parasites, directly affecting their dispersive stages in the environment (eggs, larvae, etc) and, indirectly, the larvae living mainly in invertebrate intermediate hosts.
In biologically diverse nematodes, Father Timm warned that climate warming contributed to the increase in the range of distribution, colonisation of new hosts and modification of their development cycles.
This had been particularly acute in the Arctic and pertained, for instance, to nematodes Ostertagia gruehneri and Setaria tundra parasitising reindeer Rangifer tarandus and Umingmakstrongylus pallikuukensis in musk oxen (Ovibos moschatus). An increase in range expansion of mosquitoes Culicidae caused that nematodes of the genus Dirofilaria, especially D repens, has been listed in autochthonous invasions even in the northern and eastern European countries.
In his search for nematodes, Father Timm extended the range of occurrence that was also shown by Ancylostoma braziliense, a parasite of carnivores in the tropical and subtropical countries. In recent years over 20 cases of autochthonous creeping eruption caused by cutanea larva migrans A braziliense were detected in people in southern Europe (Italy, Spain, France, Germany, etc).
Father Timm also shared some serious concerns on the way industrialisation in China, India, and the United States have contributed to the weakening of the ozone layer in the earth’s atmosphere. This let in ultra violet rays.
‘The climate is changing and this is something that we have to accept. We are not really sure of the consequences. It could prove to be devastating for our planet.’
Today’s climate scientists have echoed Father Timm’s predictions and also share his concerns about our mother earth.
Nazarul Islam is a former educator based in Chicago.
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