In November 2016, I attended a presentation by Robert Swan, the first person in history to walk unaided to both the North and South Poles. As a physical education teacher working at an international school in Bangkok, I’d never before thought about Antarctica and its vital importance – but Rob’s passion and his mission to save the Antarctic sparked something in me.
After spending six months wheelchair-bound from a nasty leg break, the inspiration I needed to get back on my feet came as he uttered his famous quote:
“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.”
I dreamed right there that I would be part of the solution – a dream that became a reality in December 2016, when I was selected as one of 90 global participants to visit Antarctica with Rob Swan and his foundation, 2041. We would observe climate change, learn from scientists of its effects in Antarctica and beyond, and collaborate on solutions to take back home where we would served as 2041 Climate Force Ambassadors.
In March 2018, we embarked on our adventure from Argentina’s southern tip, setting sail to Earth’s last great wilderness. Our mission? To promote sustainability and climate action by drawing attention to a changing climate.
Antarctica was pristine. It was as if a giant artist had wandered through the Southern Ocean and set to work creating frozen art.
I’d always imagined icebergs to be plain white. I was wrong. The blues and greens that shone from them were mesmerising, as if there were treasure chests of precious gems hidden inside. Though beautiful, each masterpiece told its own story of climate change.
Icebergs form when an ice shelf calves and a section of ice breaks away. These ice shelves are doorstops for Antarctica’s glacier ice sheets; when they break off into the ocean, sea levels rise. NASA studies show that the West Antarctic ice sheet is declining – and the many icebergs we saw that had broken away from ice shelves further south in the Bellingshausen Sea were tangible evidence of this.
It was the Antarctic summer when we visited, so there was not a great deal of sea ice – which mostly forms when the seas freeze over during winter and the continent almost doubles in size.
Unlike iceberg ice, sea ice is formed from salty ocean water. It serves an extremely important function in Antarctica, providing winter habitat for penguins and supporting the growth of algae, the primary food source of Antarctic krill. As climate change decreases sea ice cover, krill populations are declining – with consequences that are rippling up the Antarctic food chain.
One species that was abundant was the humpback whale. The eerie, ancient sound of these huge, graceful giants was my favourite Antarctic sound as they hunted krill together – of which one individual can eat 3.6 tonnes a day!
Penguins were everywhere, too – cute and clumsy on land, yet in the water agile and fast enough to outswim a leopard seal. They were curious creatures, often waddling over and face-planting before having long stare at us, as if to say, “You’re a funny-looking thing!”
We saw three species of penguin: Gentoo, Adélie and Chinstrap. While Gentoo penguin populations are not under threat, Chinstrap and Adélie penguins are not as resilient to the effects of a warming climate on their habitat and food sources, including krill, and are sadly declining as a result.
Being in this vast wilderness, I felt a real connection to both the wildlife and landscape and an obligation to raise awareness about climate change. This purpose is something I’ve taken home with me as a Climate Force Ambassador, where I continue to talk about the impacts of climate change on the landscape and wildlife that I witnessed in Antarctica.
It’s tempting to think, “I’m so far away from Antarctica. Surely this doesn’t affect me.” This is the part I think many people don’t understand.
We are all connected; what we do in our daily lives affects Antarctica, and what happens in Antarctica affects us.
Throughout the expedition with 2041, I was reminded of this: the importance of Antarctica in understanding the global climate crisis, and the crucial need for us to act now.
As global atmospheric and oceanic temperatures rise, ice sheets will melt and seas will rise at an accelerated rate – but there are many hundreds of smaller impacts already underway. More extreme weather, ocean acidification, species extinction… It’s happening now.
Action on international, national and industry fronts is undoubtedly needed – but we must act as individuals, too.
In 2018, 2041 introduced the Climate Force Challenge; a mission to clean up 360 million tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere by 2025. We can all be involved in this, whether by refusing single-use plastics, changing a renewable electricity provider, using public transport instead of driving, and so on.
In travelling with 2041 last year I wanted to listen to Antarctica’s message, collaborate with others, and bring back what I learned to share and inspire others. My hope is that you too will now feel inspired to change your daily habits and champion sustainability in your everyday lives.
One person cannot change the outcome of climate change for Antarctica and the world – but if enough of us stand together, we can.
You can read more stories from my time in Antarctica and find out more about how you as an individual can make a difference on my blog, Eco Annie.
At South Pole we’re all about working together and creating partnerships that inspire & achieve #ClimateActionForAll. Visit our website to learn more, or get in touch about carbon offsetting with us and find out more about our emission reduction projects here.