Who’s afraid of 2041?

 Helen Thew has a unique opportunity to visit Antarctica and finds out why 2041 might be the most important year in the 21st Century. 

An opportunity

In March 2017 two members of the Bangkok Patana School community, Rebecca, a Year 10 student, and I were invited to accompany polar explorer Robert Swan on his 2041 mission to Antarctica. Why “2041”? This is the year that the Treaty protecting the world’s last great wilderness expires, leaving it vulnerable to exploitation.

Robert Swan, the first man to walk to both poles unassisted, has dedicated his adult life to raising awareness of the continent’s plight and the terrible effect climate change is already having on Antarctica, whilst also inspiring people to consider the impact that they have on this faraway wonder. Robert’s hope, and now mine, is that countries of the world will re-sign the Treaty, which prevents any country from claiming ownership over Antarctica and keeps the region as a place of peace and research.

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A Mission

Bangkok Patana has joined Robert’s mission for a number of reasons. Firstly, as an already environmentally conscious school, with students dedicated to taking small steps towards positive change, taking on such an adventure felt natural. Secondly, we pride ourselves on creating responsible global citizens, and this project emphasizes and supports that focus. When he visited in October 2016, Robert told us, “You can’t all do everything, but you can do your 1%” – Bangkok Patana 2041 is our 1%. As Swan said, “If Antarctica continues to melt, we will swim.” And here in low-lying Bangkok we would be some of the first to get wet, making the Antarctic’s problem our problem.

 

Venturing forth

Getting to Antarctica takes a while. First we had to get as far south as possible. For us, that meant flying from Bangkok to London to Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, Argentina, fin del mundo. From there, we boarded our ship, the Ocean Endeavour, and then hoped for the best! The Drake Passage is one of the most inhospitable regions of open water in the world. The journey across can take several days. We were fortunate to experience what is called “Drake Lake” – placid seas that expedited our journey and got us to Antarctica half a day early.

 

 Exploring

During the five days of the expedition, we grew to appreciate how the environment is still comparatively undisturbed. Here in Antarctica, the wildlife is living quite peacefully as it has for thousands of years. There is no permanent human interference and the humans that do traverse the land and water here do so in a respectful way.

There are specific guidelines for approaching wildlife – you have to keep a certain distance away. However, if you remain still and a penguin approaches you, that is absolutely fine. The purpose is to leave as little impact as possible. This is THEIR home, not ours. Plus, penguins do not know the guidelines, so you can’t really tell them off if they get too close!

Other amazing wildlife that we were fortunate enough to see included the wandering albatross with its impressive 3-4 metre wingspan. From the seal world, we saw many crabeater, leopard and fur seals. The leopard seals are the apex predator of Antarctica. They kill penguins and small seals by grabbing them with their feet. We actually witnessed this event – a very graphic illustration of the circle of life.

The last major animal group that we had up-close and personal interactions with were the whales. From the Ocean Endeavour we were lucky enough to see a pod of Type B killer whales swim past us. Every time we had a zodiac boat ride, we would have an encounter with humpback and minke whales. Both are very curious creatures and they liked to swim around our zodiacs to observe us.

Throughout our time on the Antarctica peninsula we saw icebergs in all shapes and sizes. Icebergs are large pieces of freshwater ice that have broken off from glaciers or ice shelves. Seeing the Larsen B ice shelf was a real eye opener in terms of its sheer size. When it broke off in 2002 it was 3,250 km2 of ice 220 m thick. What we were looking out on was a section that was over 1.5km long.

When you started looking around you could see chunks of the Larsen B ice shelf all around, showing just how much it has already broken up. As Robert Swan said, “If people do not believe in climate change, they just need to come and see this”. He also added very powerfully, “It should not make us depressed but give us the positive energy to continue sharing the climate message”. 

What next?

As Robert and his son, Barney, prepare to walk to the South Pole in November 2017, using just renewable energy, it must make us consider that if they can use renewable energy in such a hostile environment, then surely we can in our home countries. I hope that by sharing my journey and photos others may learn about the last earthly frontier and come to care about protecting it as much as Rebecca and I do. Remember, “You can’t all do everything, but you can do your 1%”. I have started my ‘ditch list’ in terms of saying no to single use plastic and takeaway coffee cups and monitoring my own energy consumption at home. I hope that you will join me in my journey and make your own pledge to the environment.

Helen Thew

Biology teacher and diver Helen Thew is Assistant Principal Student Welfare at Bangkok Patana School, Thailand. She is committed to raising awareness of the unique ecosystem in Antarctica.

For more information about Robert Swann and how to get involved with the 2041 mission,  and possibly visit the 7th continent, see http://2041.com/

 

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