by Archi Varma
Imagine standing at a point that could possibly be the beginning of humanity, or the very end of it all, how would you feel?Awestruck? Ecstatic? Afraid? Thrilled? You feel small
And small is exactly what I felt standing in the southernmost part of the world — ANTARCTICA
A year ago I journeyed with polar explorer and environmentalist Sir Robert Swan whose organization 2041.org aims to raise awareness around protection of Antarctica. The continent is currently protected by the International Antarctic Treaty, a 50 year moratorium that is binding in its statement that “Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord”. It also prohibits nuclear explosions, radioactive waste disposal, commercial mining and military deployments in the region. As the treaty nears its 50 year cap in 2041, Robert is keen to inspire more voices for positive change.
Sir Robert Swan, not many know, is the only man in history to have walked unassisted to both the South and North Pole. Having explored the poles on foot, Rob has a first person account of what it feels to walk through climate change. His eyes changed colour the year he walked across Antarctica, a result of the harsh UV rays from the hole that was discovered that year in the ozone layer. Since then NASA research findings year after year show an increased pace at which warming is taking place in the Antarctic peninsula. Why this should concern us, became crystal clear during my journey there.
After 3 days on the drake passage, we had arrived on the western coast of the continent. Our first offshore cruise saw us in the middle of what the team called a ‘Graveyeard of Icebergs’. Icebergs had broken off land and glaciers , floated and parked themselves here. We were in awe. But there was another emotion that slowly crept in: remorse. Could we, from thousands of miles away, be responsible for their premature deaths? For the creation of this graveyard?
This picture of us (taken by my teammate
Phil)in our inflated rubber zodiacs, as we cruised past what were ice carcasses the size of an average sky scraper, helps put the magnitude of the issue into perspective. The realization that one is amongst 90% of the world’s ice and on 70% of the earth’s fresh water, not only gives you goosebumps but certainly fills you with a renewed sense of responsibility towards our planet.
Highly sensitive to even a minor rise in annual temperature, the Polar Regions are often referred to as “the canary in the coalmine” because they show changes long before it can be seen anywhere else in the world. This means, even a degree increase in temperature here, could perhaps mean a 2 degree rise for the rest of the world.
Conversations on carbon emissions and global warming become more real when you stand face to face with this ; the biggest ice-berg to prematurely break-off, the famous Larsen B Ice Shelf. They say you can have 30 gin and tonics a day for 30 million years to exhaust the ice in this. It truly was my eye witness account to the fact that climate change is not just real, its here.
Apart from remorse and the responsibility, Antarctica also fills you with hope. The pristine white landscape is dotted with wildlife in the form of penguins, seals and whales. Unlike the Arctic, the wildlife here is not only non threatening but even friendly, especially the penguins. And they truly are as Disney cast them, Happy Feet! It’s a common site to see them waddling, lazing or even enjoying a dunk in ice puddles (much like the Gentoo penguins pictured below).
Being the outsiders on this land, we were clearly told to put the wildlife before us. Penguins had what was called ‘right of way’ and often we waited patiently for them to cross , before moving forward on our charted paths. This reinforced the importance of protecting Antarctica, and ensuring that the wildlife here never faces the threat of extinction that our Polar bears are, up north.
2016 has been an important year for climate talks. The success of COP 21 has made news for all the right reasons. For 200 countries to participate and join in consensus on emission levels is noteworthy. We can hope that since an agreement is in place, each nation will be able to uphold their end of the policy. However it is for us to understand that as important as the global policies are, equally important is our individual efforts towards living more sustainably.
As Sir Robert Swan very powerfully puts it; “The greatest threat to our planet, is the belief that somebody else will save it”