Thanks to NextGen Climate America for the opportunity to write this guest blog! I am a legal intern with the team, but took some time off in March for a two-week voyage to Antarctica. It was an eye-opening and inspiring trip, which left me with fear of the magnitude of climate impacts, awe at the power of nature, and hope for building a future completely powered by clean energy.
I traveled to Antarctica with the 2041 Foundation, a climate change advocacy group that aims to educate young people about securing the permanent preservation of Antarctica and mitigating global climate change. Its name – 2041– refers to the first year the Antarctic Treaty can be renegotiated to allow commercial exploitation. The treaty protects Antarctica as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science” and prohibits development of mineral resources, including fossil fuels like oil and gas.
The trip brought together 140 people from 30 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, India, Brazil, Mexico, China, Vietnam, United Arab Emirates, Italy, Spain, and Afghanistan, among other countries. We met in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, located at the tip of Argentina and embarked on a two-day crossing of the Drake Passage, known for having some of the roughest seas on the planet. We weathered the Passage (some better than others) and reached the Antarctic Peninsula. For the next week, we traveled up and down the Peninsula. Our days included shore landings on the ice, outings in small boats to see whales and icebergs, and sessions on leadership, communications, and climate change. There were too many beautiful experiences to recount them all, so I’ll focus on three in particular.
Beautiful Harbingers of Climate Catastrophe
We passed through the Antarctic Sound early in the trip and saw massive floating tabular icebergs.
A brief glaciological interlude: Glacial ice is formed from snowfall on land. Layers of glacial ice resting on a landmass comprise an ice sheet. Ice flows from the center of the sheet outward toward the sea where it calves in small pieces, forming icebergs. Sometimes, however, the sheet extends outward over the top of the sea without calving – this part is called an ice shelf. When ice shelves collapse en masse, they form tabular icebergs, like those in the picture above.
It is natural for some ice shelf collapse to occur, but in recent years such collapses have been occurring far more frequently due to increased global temperatures. In fact, soon after our trip ended, new scientific reports were released showing that ice shelf collapse was causing Antarctic ice sheets to disintegrate faster than expected, which could double the amount by which sea levels are projected to rise by 2100. So, while beautiful, these tabular icebergs are a foreboding sign of dangers to come.
A Reason for Hope
Energy was a central theme of the trip or, more specifically, how energy transitions occur. The 2041 Foundation believes that one of the main ways to protect Antarctica is to develop clean, alternative sources of energy, so that we will never have to exploit the Continent in search of more fossil fuel reserves. In this vein, we heard lectures from energy experts on past transitions, and discussed the clean energy transition that is underway now and what we can do to accelerate this transition. Some of the team members from India shared their efforts to electrify rural villages in India using solar power and others presented on energy efficiency initiatives in European schools. There was significant optimism from the group about both the Paris Agreement and the dramatic decreases in the price of wind and solar.
In fact, 2041 founder Rob Swan is planning an expedition to demonstrate the feasibility of these clean energy sources. In partnership with NASA, Rob and a small team are planning the South Pole Energy Challenge, an effort to walk the ~900 miles to the Pole using only renewable energy. The team is testing technology now (including some experiments with thin-film solar panels during our trip) and plans to make the all-renewable attempt on the Pole in 2017.
The Power of Nature
On our final day, we woke up to a spectacular sunrise at Neko Harbor, shades of pink and purple reflecting off the ice and sea. Later in the morning, we hiked up a glacier onto a knoll overlooking a small bay in the harbor. As we were sitting there, a huge block of ice weighing several hundred tons (as estimated by the ship glaciologist) calved off the glacier below and into the sea. The impact started a four-foot wave, which crashed into the bay, sending the penguins scattering.
I spent a good deal of time considering the power and beauty of it all – nature’s ability to move so much ice and water intertwined with the question of how our human meddling is upsetting natural balances such as these. I took away an admonition – Antarctica and the wider planet are far greater and more powerful than any one of us or even all of humankind put together.
In the face of this power, the appropriate response is a mix of love, fear, and respect. The appropriate action is to take care – to be good stewards of the Earth and protect both wild places like Antarctica and our own communities. Part of this care means shifting away from our reliance on fossil fuels and adopting clean energy sources.
We can do so by changing behaviors in our daily lives, by advocating for policies which accelerate the shift to clean energy, and by holding leaders accountable who fail to live up to their responsibility to truly lead on climate. I have returned home to the United States with a renewed commitment to advancing these clean energy goals and sharing the message of Antarctica and what it signifies, which I hope to have done here!
Jackson Salovaara is a legal intern with NextGen Climate America, focusing on federal regulations for power plants and coal mines. He is currently pursuing a Law degree at Yale in conjunction with a Masters in Environmental Engineering degree at Stanford.