From The End Of The World To New Beginnings: My Journey To Antarctica, The Last Great Wilderness

From The End Of The World To New Beginnings: My Journey To Antarctica, The Last Great Wilderness

As a child, I was never conscious about climate change, probably because at that time schools did not shut down because of pollution and masks were not an essential accessory. The earliest memory I have of becoming more aware of it is during the Maharashtra floods of 2005 that drowned many parts of the state including Mumbai. The city had come to a stand still leaving me stranded on my way back home from college. I remember sleeping in a bus that night, volunteers offering food and water, someone flagging at the pothole, the whole city under water. The next morning I was in neck deep water on Sion highway and had to resort to swimming. I was fortunate to make it back home but over 1,000 people were not. You could probably call this an isolated incident of natural calamity. But if we look at what has happening in the last decade, extreme weather and other climate-related impacts are becoming more frequent not just globally but also in our country and in our immediate environments. We all share stories of how our cities have changed for the worse over the years, but we feel helpless or do very little about it. Just like many of you, I often felt frustrated and wondered what I could do.

 

“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.”

In conversation with Sir Robert Swan

In conversation with Sir Robert Swan

A few years ago, I came across Sir Robert Swan's TED talk. He is the only man to have walked to both the poles and someone who has dedicated his life to the preservation of Antarctica. He said, “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.” Currently, there is a treaty that bans drilling and mining in Antarctica but this agreement will be reviewed in 2041 when it could be altered, changed, modified or even abandoned. Robert’s goal is to increase awareness now and build support by the year 2041 to ensure the continued protection of the treaty. On 26th November 2016 I was selected to be part of the International Antarctic Expedition led by Sir Robert Swan along with 85 other individuals selected from 32 countries. But to make it on this expedition, I was faced with the challenge to raise 10 lakh rupees within one month in a country dealing with the repercussions of demonetisation. What fundraising really teaches you is to deal with failure and rejection but not give up on your dream. After a gruelling month of fundraising, with plenty of disappointments, rejections and sleepless nights, I finally managed to raise 80 percent of the funds with two sponsors and crowdfunding.

After a 37-hour flight to South America, I met with Sir Robert Swan and the team in Buenos Aires. We boarded a private jet to the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, where we embarked on our two-day voyage to Antarctica through the roughest seas in the world.

Humpback whales

Humpback whales

Two days later, I woke up to find our ship surrounded by icebergs and snow-covered mountains at a near distance. The very first time I saw snow in my life was only few months back on my journey to Nubra Valley in Ladakh so you can imagine how thrilled I was to see my very first iceberg and set foot on the frozen continent!

The first landing was really an emotional moment for a lot of us. It was spectacular to watch a colony of chinstrap penguins, the wadding Gentoo and Adélie penguins that curiously tugged on our clothes, gear and cameras. They never fail to bring a smile to your face. We watched and observed the fur seals on the shore, the crabeater seals on floating icebergs and we were fortunate to witness a leopard seal, considered to be one of the top predators on the food chain. The feeding humpback whales that emerged from the water at regular intervals went right under our tiny zodiacs.

A colony of chinstrap penguins on Half Moon Islands

A colony of chinstrap penguins on Half Moon Islands

Antarctica - the coldest, driest, windiest continent on earth is almost untouched by humans. Looking at the incredible wildlife of Antarctica in its natural habitat made us reflect that maybe we shouldn’t be here. The icy expanse that stretches out to cover more than 14 million square kilometres - an area almost double the size of Australia - can make you feel really insignificant. Yet it is so fragile.

One morning from our front deck, we witnessed a massive tabular iceberg the size of a football field, really only a fragment of one of Antarctica’s ice shelves. But the question that haunted us all was: how do these ice shelves that have existed for thousands of years start disintegrating from the mainland?

A tabular iceberg from our deck.     Image courtesy Trenton T Branson

A tabular iceberg from our deck.     Image courtesy Trenton T Branson

As explained by Sir Robert Swan, due to climate change the warming ocean water from below and the warm air from above make the ice shelves weaker. This results in thinning and calving (breaking of ice chunks from the edge of a glacier) which eventually leads to the collapse of the ice shelf. In the last three decades, two massive sections of the Larsen ice-shelf (Section A in 1995 & B in 2002) in the Antarctic Peninsula have already collapsed. It was widely reported by the media that the Larsen C ice shelf will soon break away, resulting in rising sea levels. It is true that Larsen C is currently at its final stages of becoming one of the world’s biggest icebergs. But according to the glaciologist on board, Colin Souness, Larsen C’s collapse will not by itself contribute to sea level rise as the ice shelf is already floating in water. However when the ice shelf collapses, the glaciers it holds back will be unleashed into the ocean, directly increasing sea levels.

Schematic diagram of an Antarctic ice shelf showing the processes causing the volume changes measured by satellites. Ice is added to the ice shelf by glaciers flowing off the continent and by snowfall that compresses to form ice. Ice is lost when icebergs break off the ice front, and by melting in some regions as warm water flows into the ocean cavity under the ice shelf. Under some ice shelves, cold and fresh meltwater rises to a point where it refreezes onto the ice shelf. Source

Schematic diagram of an Antarctic ice shelf showing the processes causing the volume changes measured by satellites. Ice is added to the ice shelf by glaciers flowing off the continent and by snowfall that compresses to form ice. Ice is lost when icebergs break off the ice front, and by melting in some regions as warm water flows into the ocean cavity under the ice shelf. Under some ice shelves, cold and fresh meltwater rises to a point where it refreezes onto the ice shelf.

Source

Although disintegration of Antarctica's ice shelves alone will not lead significantly to sea level rise, accompanied by the ice loss of gigantic ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland as well as melting sea ice in the Arctic, it will contribute to substantial sea level rise in the near future.

On the last day of the expedition, Sir Robert Swan gathered all of us on the deck and asked us to observe the untouched landscape of Antarctica around us. He then asked us to imagine the same landscape with mining stations, industries and concrete structures. The bond that we developed with this place is difficult to describe with words but when you experience a place like this, you realise the need to protect it.

Crabeater seals

Crabeater seals

The best takeaway from this expedition was connecting with some of the most inspiring people doing some spectacular work to protect the environment. Being the only designer on board, the experience was absolutely refreshing as it exposed me to so many new perspectives and possibilities. We all remain connected and inspire each other to do more within our personal and professional lives. Robert Swan and his son Barney Swan are preparing for the South Pole Energy Challenge (SPEC). On 15th November 2017, they will embark on a 600 mile, 8-week journey on foot to the South Pole, powered solely by renewable energy. Their goal is to set a simple example for the world: if they can sustain on renewable energy in the harshest environment on earth then why can’t we?

 

You do not need to be an activist or an environmental leader to find solutions and make a change.

 

One of the crucial learnings from this expedition is that you do not need to be an activist or an environmental leader to find solutions and make a change. Whether we make an effort to change one small habit or to take on a bigger challenge to inspire change within our industries or societies, each step forward is for our own survival and the survival of the future generations.

Images: Author

Tanisha was selected as a climate change ambassador by Sir Robert Swan, OBE to represent India at International Antarctica Expedition, 2017. She is a graduate from National Institute of Fashion Technology and currently heads the visual merchandising department at Restore Design, Bangalore. She also works closely with Protsahan India Foundation to use creative education and art to empower street children and adolescent girls.