No Man’s Land; Lets Talk Antarctica
They say that when you’ve been to Antarctica, you view a map of the world differently, with your eyes naturally falling to the bottom of the map as your starting point. Having returned a week ago from 12 days on the southern side of the Antarctic Peninsula, I can’t yet confirm if this is true, but I can confirm that this mysterious wilderness changes your perspective on pretty much everything.
There are few places in the world where there has never been war, and which remain protected from exploitation and development. Antarctica owes this title to The Antarctic Treaty, originally signed by 12 nations in 1959, which constitutes fourteen articles agreeing to maintain Antarctica as “a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”. Since coming into effect, the Treaty has grown to 52 signatories and is considered one of the most successful international agreements ever. In 2041, the Treaty is up for re-negotiation and thus one of the goals of my recent Antarctic expedition was to bring together global climate and sustainability professionals, students, scientists, engineers and business leaders to collaborate on ways to ensure this Treaty is extended.
Coincidentally, or maybe because I am now noticing it more, Antarctica has been a hot (!) topic coming into 2022. In March, Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, was discovered after 107 years at the bottom of the Weddell Sea, with unseasonably favorable weather and low sea-ice levels making it possible for the search vessel to reach normally ice-covered waters. Meanwhile, the UK’s new polar research vessel, the RRS Sir David Attenborough, successfully completed its first ice trials for polar exploration. On the scarier side, the Concordia weather station on the Antarctic Plateau recorded temperatures at 40°C / 70°F above seasonal norms, and just as we disembarked in Ushuaia last week, the news about the collapse of the 450 square mile Conger Ice Shelf on the eastern part of the continent had also just been released. While some of these tales are thrilling and some of them more chilling, they all carry more weight when you’ve seen just experienced ice shelves calving in front of you and felt rain in Antarctic waters, where it would normally be snow. Numerous Antarctic ice shelves are under the threat of collapse, each of which currently acts as a bottle-stopper to prevent Antarctic glacier ice from being exposed to sea water, which would cause it to melt. It’s the most vicious of vicious cycles, and it’s now happening in front of our eyes.
I’ve come away from this journey very conflicted about our presence in the Antarctic, in how wonderous it is to experience this wilderness but equally how our footprint as humans is so starkly obvious — from historic whaling stations to the mere presence of our modern-day ship on the horizon, so far from the rest of the world. The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IIATO) has stringent guidelines for the way in which private travel in conducted to the continent, and maintains that, if managed correctly, some tourism is ultimately to the benefit of the Antarctic’s protection and conservation. First and foremost, this benefit will come from visitors gaining a better understanding of the last great wilderness on earth and returning home as “ambassadors of goodwill, guardianship and peace”. With the current challenges facing our world, Antarctica seems like an apt metaphor for everything we’re currently fighting for.
Hayley Mole, Vice President, Private Investments
In our field, we like to look for investable solutions to tough global challenges — including wilderness protection. When it comes to Antarctica, the best investment might be no investment. The Australian government recently abandoned a proposal to build a 2700m concrete runway in an Australian-claimed territory of east Antarctica, based on environmental impact assessments — however, the country will still look to invest $804 million over the next decade to “strengthen Australia’s strategic and scientific capabilities in Antarctica”, which will include significant investment in drone capabilities — or the “Antarctic Eye Network” — to allow surveillance of the continent for its protection.
For those looking for a career pivot, the Antarctic post office is looking for a new management team. The UK Antarctic Heritage Trust is hiring a team of five people to run the Port Lockroy Post Office on the Antarctic Peninsula for five months, starting in November 2022. Among other tasks will be a daily penguin count. What more could you want, really?
While we undertook this expedition to learn about Antarctica and with a climate-focused mission in mind, I am not under any pretenses that polar travel (even with a positive impact goal at heart) is guiltless in its impact. Pre-COVID, in the 2019–2020 season, 74,000 people visited Antarctica, mostly by ship, and there are now 70 research centers stationed across the continent housing thousands of researchers. While regulations are strict on waste removal and prevention of extractive activities such as mining and installing infrastructure, all actions in Antarctica (including that of getting there) burn fossil fuels. To cut to the chase, every visitor to the continent is directly contributing to the accumulation of black carbon, and consequent snow melt, estimated by the World Economic Forum at 83 tonnes of snow-melt per visitor. From my perspective, this only means that the time I was privileged enough to have spent there has to convert into some long-term solutions for Antarctica and for climate change more broadly.
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