- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 1, 2006

While we languish in 100-degree heat, it’s 189 degrees below zero with howling winds in the skies over Antarctica, creating ghostly, pearlescent layers of rare clouds that have stunned scientists living at the bottom of the planet.

Researchers at Australia’s Mawson Station said yesterday that they had ventured out on the ice to admire and photograph “nacreous,” or polar stratospheric clouds, which form only in temperatures of minus 176 and below.

“Spectacular is an understatement,” said meteorologist Renae Baker, who compared the pale colors overhead to the vibrant shimmer of mother-of-pearl shell.

“Our weather balloon measured temperatures down to minus 125 degrees in the vicinity of the cloud layer. That’s about as cold as the lowest temperatures ever recorded on the surface of the earth,” she continued, adding that winds were blowing 143 mph near the formations, produced as the glow of an Antarctic sunset passes through airborne ice crystals six miles above the research station.

Though the Australian Antarctic Division officially described the clouds as a source of “beauty and mystery,” Andrew Klekociuk, the station’s atmospheric scientist, threw down the global warming gauntlet.

“These clouds are more than just a curiosity. They reveal extreme conditions in the atmosphere and promote chemical changes that lead to destruction of vital stratospheric ozone,” said Mr. Klekociuk, adding that the facility — along with Davis Station 560 miles to the east — had begun a yearlong study to ferret out the implied threats of that beauty and mystery.

“We are using instruments on the ground, on balloons and satellites in an international program to find out what this phenomenon tells us about the current and future state of the climate,” he said.

Meanwhile, Antarctica itself has other worries: tourists. Last year, more than 26,000 people visited the frozen continent; there are 80 outfitters registered with the trade group International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators.

Tourists can behold penguin rookeries or the “historic huts of Antarctic explorers,” according to the New Hampshire-based Antarctic Connection. Particularly well-heeled adventurers can cruise aboard a gussied-up Russian ice breaker outfitted with pool, gym, dining rooms, bar and lecture hall — paying up to $43,000 for the monthlong ride, according to Oregon-based Polar Cruises.

The Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, held in June in Scotland, recommended new tourist guidelines to protect the dozen most visited sites. The number of tourists is expected to rise by a thousand each year.

“This is a step in the right direction,” said Jim Barnes of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition. “But it covers only a fraction of the areas used by tourists. Governments need to take further action to protect the environment from the growing number of visitors.”

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