The vast majority of people will never visit Antarctica. But last month, more than 160 environmental leaders and youth activists had the chance to take part in an expedition to the continent.
Zanagee Artis, founder of US youth-led activism group Zero Hour, and Emma Wilkinson, coordinator of Global Choices’ Arctic Angels Network, are two of those who participated.
“There were CEOs, people who work in politics, young activists, environmental leaders. They were truly a diverse and powerful group, capable of creating and sustaining incredible positive impact,” Wilkinson told Euronews Green.
“There was obviously this kind of international cultural and spiritual collaboration going on all the time.”
The ClimateForce 2041 expedition was led by robert swan, the first person to walk to the North and South Poles. Alongside his son, Barney, the Polar Explorers took this diverse group of people from 35 different countries on a journey through the Drake Passage to the west of the continent.
The purpose of the trip? Inspire meaningful action to preserve Antarctica and the rest of our planet.
Deception Island: A Glimpse into Antarctica’s Dark Past
Antarctic wildlife was one of the highlights of the trip for Wilkinson and Artis.
They have been encouraged to participate in citizen science by identifying whales using photos of their tails, helping conservationists understand their migration patterns.
“The whales were so amazing. Just to think that there are other creatures on the planet that are so dynamic and intelligent, and just alive experiencing their own ecosystem that is so different from how humans live, was amazing.” , said Artis.
One of the excursions reminded them of the continent’s dark past when it comes to these majestic sea creatures. A visit to Whalers Bay on Deception Island was an incredibly powerful experience for Wilkinson.
In the early 20th century, hundreds of people spent Antarctic summers here hunt whales, stripping them of their fat and boiling the fat to make oil for the lamps. In the last century, almost 3 million of these sea creatures were killed by industrial harvesting.
Wilkinson describes the atmosphere of the abandoned whaling station as moving, “it’s just incredibly eerie and quite ghostly to see the remains of structures, of where the oil was kept and where the whalers lived”.
For Artis, it was also a sign of humanity’s ability to adapt and change.
“It is the story of the extraction from the ocean and the extraction of other living things to feed our planet. And all around us we could see how it was being recovered,” he adds .
The visit to Deception Island showed him what might be possible in the future. There was a time when whales were hunted to near extinction to feed the world – but not anymore.
“I think it’s a real testament to the ability to transition. And our ability to do it today with renewable energies.
Heat waves and sea ice collapse in Antarctica
Expedition leaders encouraged the group to be fully present in the unique landscape they were traversing. But, using internet access via a satellite phone, they read about two incredibly important events that happened while they were on the mainland.
“One was that the Conger Ice Shelf collapsed in East Antarctica,” says Zanagee. “And then we also saw the news of the record-breaking heat wave that crossed East Antarctica.”
A research station recorded unprecedented temperatures – more than 30C above seasonal norms. These are weather conditions that experts did not think possible.
Then, on the Antarctic Peninsula to the west of the continent where they were based, the group experienced rain.
“The expedition leaders had shared that they hadn’t actually experienced any rain on their previous trips to Antarctica, and Robert has been going there for decades now,” says Zanagee.
He says this type of weather is incredibly rare, especially at this time of year when the days are getting shorter and the continent is entering winter.
“The weather was very fickle,” adds Emma. “The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the fastest warming regions on the planet, nearly three degrees Celsius over the past 50 years.”
The rains are a source of concern with consequences for the entire ecosystem.
They are just one of the many impacts of climate change affecting this part of the world. Sea ice, for example, reached an all-time high last summer, falling below 2 million square kilometers for the first time since satellite records began.
“Antarctica is crucial to wherever we live,” says Zanagee.
“And despite the fact that there are no people who have a permanent residence in Antarctica, that there is no culture and no history of a human population, this continent is crucial for the local climate regulation.
Telling the story of Antarctica
The name of the expedition and the foundation behind it is a nod to a vital international agreement called the Antarctic Treaty.
It ensures that the continent belongs to everyone on the planet and can only be used for peaceful purposes. The treaty prohibits military activity (except in support of science), nuclear explosions and disposal of nuclear waste while promoting Scientific Research and data exchange.
It is to be renegotiated in 2041 and Robert Swan realized that the state of the world could mean that people start looking to to exploit Antarctic. The vision of the 2041 Foundation is to ensure that despite this thirst for resources, the continent remains protected.
“I think traveling there and seeing it firsthand is really important to sharing that message,” Artis says.
He thinks seeing the continent in person will really help climate leaders like him tell the story of this environment being impacted by human activity.
But he acknowledges that it’s also important for people to know that they don’t need to go there to understand why Antarctica is so important.
“They can understand the science, they can look at the pictures, see this environment and know it has inherent value to act and engage with us.”
Beyond their role as essential climate stabilizers, the duo hope their stories can help people realize that this unique environment is worth protecting.
“I think it impacted our ability to capture other people who may not have had an interest in the polar regions,” adds Wilkinson, “to connect them to the incredible wildlife and ecosystem. “