Speaking of global warming… (and everyone should be speaking about it, constantly):
What a difference 10 degrees makes!
This time last year Tierra del Fuego was buried under a foot of snow.
Last winter, in June, we set off to sail from Puerto Williams to Wulaia; and before we went, we had to spend more than an hour unfreezing the mooring lines. Each knot in each line was cast as if in iron. You could pick up a warp and hold it aloft, and it remained in the shape of a coil, or a rod, or whatever form it had lain in when Jack Frost arrived.
In order to undo the hitches on the cleats and the bowlines on the quayside, we had to pour seawater over them to raise the melting point and then bash them about to break up the ice crystals.
Then, once we had extricated ourselves from the web of frozen lines – and having also shovelled the snow from the deck and cracked away the ice which had formed beneath the snow, turning the coach-roof into an ice-rink – we went on our way dressed like Antarctic explorers. Our Mullion jackets, worn over two fleece jumpers and two thermal shirts, served very well to keep the core cosy; and thermal long-johns under trousers and salopettes kept our legs warm; but the extremities tingled in the icy air. Polartech-lined woollen gloves were not enough to keep my fingers in working order – not even when worn inside waterproof mitts – and I needed two hats inside my hood to keep my ears warm. My mouth and nose were covered by a fleece snood, but my breath made it damp, and the damp made it chilly; and my eyes, unprotected from the bitter wind, simply ran with tears.
Of course, it could have been a lot worse. We were only travelling along the Beagle Channel and in a mere suggestion of a breeze. We did have to dig the sails out from beneath their snowy coverlets, and we had to be careful to stand clear of chunks of snow falling like small boulders from the rigging – but at least we weren’t exposed to a spray of icy water; and at least we didn’t have ice forming on the rigging as we beat along, gradually hauling the boat over to one side or the other.
Ocean sailing in sub-zero temperatures must be downright scary.
We were only ditch-crawling, so it was just downright frozen.
That was last year. And bearing in mind how much I feel and fear the cold, the reader could be forgiven for asking why we’re still down here, enduring our second Fuegian winter.
The answer has something to do with plans which, as we all know, gang oft a-gley, but it also has a lot to do with the beauty of the mountains and the glaciers. It has to do with the romance of snow-covered slopes and gaunt forests and icy bays. And it probably has a bit to do with having them all to ourselves.
In the summer, this remote extremity of South America is anything but busy, but it is peopled. If you head off into the wilderness of Tierra del Fuego in the southern summer, you aren’t going to have it all to yourself; you’re going to have to share the channels and the glaciers with two dozen charter yachts, a couple of cruise ships, and a continual dribble of cruisers.
In mid-winter, on the other hand, only mad dogs and Englishmen go out to play.
Well, actually, that’s not true. Our good friends, the Galactic explorers came south through the channels in winter, and they’re American. So, too, did our Kiwi friends aboard Windorra.
And Alea also came south in the winter, and her crew are Dutch and Spanish – so that rules out the idea of it being just an ‘English-speaking’ madness.
Bad planning, having too many irons in the fire, a semi-subconscious desire for solitude… Fate… Karma… Call it what you will, this is where we Mollymawks now find ourselves: about to embark on a wintry passage from Puerto Williams (Cape Horn province) to Puerto Montt (Chiloe) in mid-winter.
But it isn’t cold!
I don’t want to speak too soon, and I’m touching wood as I say the words, but thus far this winter has been – (whisper it, so that the weather trolls don’t notice) – remarkably mild. We have had a little bit of snow, but it hasn’t lasted long because during the past couple of months the temperature has seldom been below zero. And what a difference it makes!
As I write, we’re on passage from Puerto Williams across the channel – and across the international boundary – to Ushuaia, Argentina. We embarked without any more fuss than one would make in setting out from a marina in the temperate world; and although the helmsman is wearing his Mullion, when I popped on deck to take photos of a passing whale I didn’t even bother to don a woolly hat, still less a jacket. That’s something that I couldn’t have dreamt of doing last winter.
The mountain tops on either side of us are blanketed in snow – but only the tops. And there’s no ice in the bays. So it looks as if we might still be able to get into some of our favourite nooks, and into others, further north, which we have been told about but have yet to visit. By this time of year most of the little coves and fiords would usually be inaccessible.
And to what do we owe our good fortune with the weather? And is it really good fortune or is this a dire warning?
If there’s no snow then the glaciers will melt. And indeed, as we have seen, they are melting. There’s a huge one on the north side of the Darwin mountain range which has retreated 15 kilometres in under 100 years.
Imagine that! Imagine the volume of ice which has vanished! 15,000 metres by about 300 metres – that’s a heck of a lot of cocktail cubes. And in their place there’s now a gorge, whose lower slopes are covered in young trees.
What miracles Nature works! In the course of a man’s lifetime she has unwrapped a hidden landscape! But on the whole I should say that we’ve got enough fiords and trees – certainly, there are plenty of them in this part of the world – and we’re running short of glaciers.
A couple of months ago, Caesar was part of an excursion which took two mountaineers to make the first ever crossing of the most southerly ice-cap in the Americas. Like Caesar, these two lads have hardly been aboard the Earth for a quarter of a century, but I think they realised that they needed to grab the chance to do this thing while it was still a possibility. Having studied glaciology at university, Evan and Ibai understand better than most the rate at which the ice is melting, and I’m sure they don’t expect for there to be any trace of that ice cap left by the time they’ve reached their own centennial. In fact, if things continue as they are doing, I’d be surprised if it’s still around when they’re my age.
Yes, this mild winter is a blessing to us as individuals plodding west and north through the landscape, but so far as the future of this magical terrain is concerned, it’s a symptom of disaster.
Of course, it’s what’s happening on the mountaintops that’s of most relevance to the state of the glaciers – and this goes not only for the ones in Tierra del Fuego but also for those in North America, Northern Europe, Asia, and Antarctica. Just so long as the temperatures up there on the mountaintops remains below zero, the precipitation will still fall as snow and the ice will not thaw. In the summer, the sun might sometimes melt the outer layer on even the highest icy heights, but winter snowfalls will add to the ice. Whether the glaciers become thicker or thinner depends on the balance between the two temperature extremes.
The ice-caps in Antarctica are not diminishing because a rise in temperature of one or two degrees has not brought them anywhere near to melting point. But the glaciers of Tierra del Fuego are living closer to zero. A difference of ten degrees – the difference between an average daytime temperature of minus seven or plus four – will make a fantastic difference to what happens in this region.
Is mankind to blame for this state of affairs? And can we do anything about it?
Some will say that the frozen winter of 2015 was due to El Niño – and it surely was. But what causes El Niño, and what caused it to produce such radical effects last year?
Why was it colder than usual in Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica but markedly warmer almost everywhere else on the planet? Why did it rain hard in the Atacama Desert? Why were there planktonic algal blooms in the Pacific? Why did 300 whales wash ashore on Chile’s coast last year? Why were there so many deaths in the local seabird colonies?
And are these things all inter-related?
Nobody knows the answer.
The vast majority of the world’s scientists tell us that we are now in the age of the Anthropocene, where the actions and antics of mankind exert the leading influence upon our weather and our environment. There seems no cause no doubt them – and even if one did, for whatever perverse reason, there’s still the fact that our actions do, inevitably, have some effect on the climate.
Even if we prefer to tell ourselves that Global Warming is just the end of the ice age and an inevitability, the fact is that our own individual actions can either lessen or speed us on our way towards the brick wall.
As we sow, so shall we reap. Or, to put it another way, our karma is going to get us.
Pretty much the biggest action that any of us makes is in buying – or in not buying. So it behoves us to shop carefully.
As we Mollymawks see it, our first duty is to buy only food which has been produced without doing damage to the environment… and that’s not always easy.
It rules out buying fish, because the oceans are overfished.
It rules out anything containing palm oil, because the palm oil growers are responsible for the ongoing deforestation of Indonesia and Borneo – with all the suffering that that entails.
It rules out meat, whose production is responsible for the creation of somewhere around 20% of man-made carbon gases; and it ought to rule out milk, cheese, and butter for the same reason. Unfortunately, however, whilst we’ve been getting along very nicely without any meat for almost 20 years, we’re finding it difficult to cope without dairy produce.
Shopping sustainably and responsibly also entails buying only food which has been produced locally – and that’s partly why we’re finding the vegan thing rather hard. Shopping locally means no bananas and mangoes unless we’re in the tropics! Well, we can cope with that… but we do need something to take their place. Down in Tierra del Fuego nothing grows – nothing except beef, crabs, and seaweed – and we can either eat the imported bananas, vegetables, and dairy produce which is available in the shop, or we can starve.
Hmmm… I guess it could be said that the Yaghan hunter-gatherer lifestyle is the only one which is truly sustainable in these parts. And even that lifestyle is off now that the local shell-fish have been declared toxic.
Reducing the speed at which we hurtle towards the wall also means buying less stuff; and when we do want or need things, we can try to get them second-hand. That way, we don’t add directly to the problem of consumption of finite resources.
There are times when this philosophy doesn’t work very well. For example, our first computers were second-hand, and they all turned out to be duff. And I’ve been trying for almost 25 years to find a second-hand sewing machine capable of mending sails, whilst simultaneously making do with a very second-hand and inadequate dressmaker’s tool. I’ve finally realised that, in this case, I should long ago have bitten the bullet and forked out for the thing that I need.
On the other hand, we’ve always done perfectly well with second hand bicycles – it would never even enter my head to think of buying a brand new bike – and we take pride in the fact that our boat was largely built from second-hand materials.
What we do by new, such as sails, we do our best to take care of, so that it lasts a long while.
We also vie with one another to be wearing the best bargain or the item of clothing which has been in circulation for longest. This has been a family game since the kids were very small and even Xoë, who jumped ship some five years ago, still adheres to the rules. Essentially, we aim never to buy any clothing anywhere other than in a charity shop or at a jumble sale, and we love hand-me-downs. When it comes to ‘golden oldies’ I usually do rather well, because I’ve got jumpers that I’ve had for 20 years and I’ve even got a skirt that I bought when I was fifteen; but when it comes to tallying up the costs of our outfits Nick always wins, because he supplements his wardrobe at dockside dustbins.
By making a game of making do with less, we’ve managed to make environmentally sustainable living a pleasure. However, what we wear and what we eat are just one part of the modern lifestyle. There’s also how we get about – and in our case this means whether we choose to go on the wind or with the help of the 120 horses which we keep stabled in the bilge.
As regular readers will know, we take great pleasure in journeying under sail – but travelling along the Chilean Channels without recourse to the engine is reckoned by many to be more or less impossible.
During these past months Mollymawk has become known as “the boat that always sails”. A screen-shot from the navigation computer, taken during our travels amongst the glaciers, should explain how we won this accolade:
That track, with its fifteen tacks, was laid down on one day at the height of the southern summer, when the days reached from three in the morning till ten at night. But nowadays the sun stays in bed until nine, and he’s gone again by four. So it remains to be seen whether we will be able to do the clean green thing during our passage north. But we’ll certainly be trying.