Evoking images of calving icebergs, and endless white icescapes, Antarctica has been described as a “silence deep with a breath like sleep”. Some say that its profound beauty haunts you for the rest of your days. And, one man who understands this better than most is Robert Swan OBE.
In 1986, he made the longest unassisted walk ever to the South Pole. Three years later he went onto the North Pole and by the age of 33, he became first person in history to walk to both the top and bottom of the world. And, after nearly losing his life on those treks, Swan vowed to never go back.
But, some three decades later, for the sake of our deteriorating climate, he is retracing his footsteps back to the South Pole together with his 23 year old son Barney. Passing on the baton of polar exploration from one generation to the next, the duo are the first father and son team to make the 600 mile trek, and the only people to do so using nothing but renewable energy.
Their mission: to prove that if green power can be used in the most inhospitable place on earth, it can be used anywhere:
“I had no intention of walking anywhere again in cold weather, ever,” says Robert: “But three years ago we went to see our friends at Nasa and they warned that areas of Antarctica are now disintegrating much faster than even the most pessimistic people thought. So a plan was hatched to get me out from retirement.”
Parts of the white continent are melting at record pace: since 1950, average temperatures in the Antarctic Peninsula have risen by 0.5 degrees Celsius each decade. Several of its ice shelves have now crumbled into icebergs, and the glaciers they once pinned back, have washed into the sea. Although they are fairly small icecaps, their rapid demise has triggered concerns that the same thing might happen to the far larger West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
Twice the size of Texas and two and a half miles thick, it has two of the largest and fastest melting glaciers in Antarctica: Pine Island and Thwaites. Stretching over 150 miles long, “together, they act as a plug holding back enough ice to pour 11 feet of sea-level rise into the world’s oceans,” writes Eric Holthaus in Grist.
That’s enough water to inundate every coastal city on the planet. Although there is no doubt that this ice will melt as the planet warms up, the important question is: when?
And, the bad news is that when we look back to the end of the last Ice Age, (when temperatures were similar to where they are now), both glaciers collapsed very quickly. That’s because the ocean floor there is so deep that each new iceberg that breaks off exposes higher and higher cliffs which eventually buckle under their own weight.
“And, once they start to crumble,” writes Holthaus: “The destruction would be unstoppable. Minute-by-minute, huge skyscraper-sized shards of ice cliffs would crumble into the sea, as tall as the Statue of Liberty and as deep underwater as the height of the Empire State Building. The result: a global catastrophe the likes of which we’ve never seen.”
With half of the world’s population living within 50 miles of the coast, such a seimic event would create hundreds of millions of climate refugees, whilst wiping out trillions of dollars of property. And, although scientists used to think that it would take millennia to melt these ice sheets, the work of two prominent climatologists suggests that it could happen as early as this century if carbon emissions continue along their business-as-usual trajectory.
“Antarctica used to be the sleeping elephant”, notes Mark Serreze, the head of the National Snow and Ice Data Center: “But now the elephant is stirring,” begging the question: will we heed its warming? In a rational world, humans would do anything to prevent this nightmare. Instead, as Jeff Goodell writes in Rolling Stone:
“Americans elected a president who thinks climate change is a hoax, who is hellbent on burning more fossil fuels, who installs the CEO of the world’s largest oil company as secretary of state, and who wants to slash climate-science funding and instead spend nearly $70 billion on a wall at the Mexican border.”
Ever since Donald Trump took over the White House this year, our odds of surviving this planetary crisis have considerably worsened: the property tycoon pulled the US out of the Paris climate accord this summer. The treaty, though short on ambition, represented humanity's best chance of survival as it committed world leaders to limiting global warming to two degrees celsius. Endorsed by over 190 nations when it was signed in 2015, it was hailed as a “historic" victory for mankind.
Without it, according to the UN’s latest climate study, world temperatures will race past the four degrees Celsius mark well before the turn of this century. This will usher in changes not seen since the last Ice Age, marking the end of civilisation as we know it. And, to make matters worse, 4C is only the median forecast: the upper end of the curve goes as high as 8C.
It’s hard to imagine what an 8C world will look like. Needless to say, humans may not be around to witness it. Standing at this cross roads however, it’s important to remember that we do have a choice: what we do now determines how quickly the world warms, and whether Antarctica (as we know it) remains intact.
A rapid transition towards a clean energy economy in the next 30 years could be enough to stave off this catastrophe. And as Holthaus points out, “that’s a decision worth countless trillions of dollars and millions of lives.” In fact, the future of our children and their children depends on it.
So, let’s hope that the Swans inspire with their South Pole energy challenge, for in Robert’s own words: “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.” After all, with a steep temperature rise sitting on our collective horizon: “The last great exploration on Earth is to survive on Earth.”
The Swans are expected to reach the Pole on January 15th. You can follow their journey here: http://www.2041.com/blog/