In Antarctica, Our Time is Now
This place is harsh. Its strength and unpredictability may be the reason it remains so pristine. To those brave enough and able to fly to the edge of the world, embark across the careening Drake Passage, and take a smaller Zodiak boat through the icy air and katabatic winds to shore, you are rewarded with unimaginable, indescribable beauty. I had to pleasure to do so with a world of a team - 140 participants joined this year’s 2041 International Antarctic Expedition from 30 different countries, including Afghanistan, Egypt, India, China, Singapore, the Philippines, and Iraq, amongst many more. We also had global engagement from Bain, Shell, and many other corporations. In addition, for the first time, there were more women than men. Our host and hero Robert Swan explained at the beginning of our expedition that we are all leaders by choice, not by admission. And we were told that life begins at the end of our comfort zones.
“I’m going to tell you a story,” he said to us. “And don’t forget that this is now your story too.”
Robert Swan became the first person to walk to both the North and South Poles by age 33. His 900-mile journey to the South Pole stands as the longest unassisted walk ever made on Earth. 30 years ago, he and his companions treaded for 9 hours a day on the ice, 7 days a week, for 70 days. Because they had to. The team’s unwavering fortitude allowed them their record-breaking expedition and also exposure to the effects of climate change firsthand.
In Antarctica, Swan’s eyes forever changed color after prolonged exposure under the hole in the ozone layer. And in the Arctic, his team survived near-death encounters with a frozen sea melting before their eyes. Ever since, Swan’s mission has been clear, and he has dedicated his life to advocating for the preservation of Antarctica as the last great wilderness on Earth.
Antarctica is emblematic of our potential. It is the one remnant of wilderness that we have left and it is the one place we all share. Its beauty and austerity reflect nature's patience and craft, in contrast to our current destructive habits and consumptive behaviors.
On March 22nd, our last day on the Antarctic continent, I had a moment to reflect after reaching a summit in Neko Harbor. This is what I wrote:
They consider me a “communicator.” But I don’t know what to say. It’s the team’s last day treading through Antarctica before heading back through the Drake Passage. But I can tell you this: I am writing from the summit of one of the glaciers at Neko Harbor. My gloves are off and I regret this so much. And we arrived this morning on the vessel to a sunrise that crested over the mountains, and blushed across the ice. Every edge and every peak glowed.
From where I am sitting right now, I can see, hear, taste, and feel the strength of this landscape. The tips of my fingers are losing feeling. I can see the crevasses line the slopes as if they were cut with a dagger. The harbor is silent, except for the periodic crack and ricochet of icebergs calving in some distance, and then presumably tumbling into the sea. I can see the wind collect fresh snow from the peaks and toss it into the air, causing the mountains’ lines to blur with the white-blue sky.
But what I don’t know how to express is the sheer incredulity and bewilderment I have felt throughout this entire journey. The bliss I feel as I take in the fact that I am writing from the most beautiful and uncultivated place on Earth. Us humans, we didn’t create this. And we don’t own this. It is so much bigger than us and so much more powerful. In the grand scheme, Antarctica has taught me that this world doesn’t need us.
We need it.
nd how can I express to those back home that every decision we make — whether in Atlanta, Cairo, New York City, New Delhi, Charleston, or Beijing— effects a paradise most of us will never visit.
As I am writing this, I am also witnessing my very first calving event. A chunk of ice, possibly twenty stories tall, broke off from the edge of the glacier. It is not going quietly. It cracked and crashed into the water with a roar, and its weight has forced a small tsunami to bulge and ripple out across the harbor. The waves are colliding with the shore, and the sound of that first crack is reverberating for miles. It will echo within me for much longer. This moment has secured in me a sense of urgency. I am watching this paradise crumble before my eyes. Time is of the essence.
And maybe, just maybe, I can convince others that through our collective decisions, we can all experience a piece of Antarctica’s beauty. Although most may never see a humpback whale grace the surface, or enjoy penguins play amongst their mates, or hear this silence; we can however experience our own “Antarctica” if we so choose. You don’t have to go to the edge of the Earth to find yourself a spectacle. By respecting all of our landscapes in the way that we respect Antarctica, we can begin to unveil the manifestations that exist everywhere else. And they’re there. And in doing so, we will inevitably save the last wilderness we’ve truly got.