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Back to Antarctica

Hoca

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As those familiar with this blog may recall, I have been fortunate to visit the Antarctic Peninsula on more than one occasion. These visits have been part of a long standing relationship between Shell and the 2041 Foundation. The 2041 Foundation is named for the point in time that countries may begin to consider reopening the Antarctic Treaty, or 50 years on from its agreement (2041) and eventual ratification (2048). The treaty currently prevents any use of Antarctica for commercial and development purposes, other than limited tourism and scientific research. The preservation of Antarctica has become 2041’s raison d’être, which also broadens into the subject of climate change given that surface temperature warming represents a direct threat to Antarctica.

In mid-March, after two years of COVID-19 deferments, a group of 170 people set off from Ushuaia in southern Argentina on board the Ocean Victory, headed for the Antarctic Peninsula. The group came from many backgrounds and countries, including entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, YouTube influencers, corporate staff, students, artists and academics and led by Robert Swan, the founder of the 2041 Foundation and the first man to trek on foot to both the North and South Poles. I was there, along with others, to give some talks on climate change and the energy transition to the broader group. Much of the material from various blogs I have posted over the last two years featured in the sessions.

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The Ocean Victory in Antarctica

While the learning opportunity is excellent and the group of people were outstanding in so many respects, the scenery, wildlife and conditions of Antarctica loom large over everything. The continent, and noting that we saw just a tiny fraction of it, is majestic and presents itself on a scale that is unmatched anywhere else I have ever been. Having crossed the infamous Drakes Passage and experienced 7+ metre waves, the relative calm of the Peninsula and its accompanying archipelago awaits. The sights are astounding, from vast ice formations slowly edging their way into the sea where they end their days as haunting sculptures on the shore line, to penguins in colonies going about their business preparing for the winter. Whales can be seen on a regular basis, although on this trip it was primarily humpbacks that were spotted. We even managed a very quick dip in the ocean at Deception Island, the site of a long abandoned whaling station in the caldera of a dormant volcano. The water was at 2°C, so when I say “very quick”, I mean it.

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A particular highlight for me was to travel with my son, who took the spectacular sunset photograph below. It was good to see him relaxing after a long two years of COVID tension as an NHS Junior Doctor.

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As someone who has been to Antarctica several times over the space of more than a decade, I am often asked if I have noticed a change in the environment. The honest answer is no, but on this trip we did experience something that nobody on board had ever experienced before in Antarctica, rain. That was highly unusual, even for Robert Swan who has been to Antarctica many times over a near 40 year time span. But perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised as while we were there the deeper continent experienced the largest temperature anomaly ever recorded, a swing from -50°C to -10°C (see below). These anomalous readings are becoming more common as the global surface temperature rises, which could ultimately threaten the stability of ice shelves and lead to faster and earlier rises in global sea level. During my visit in 2015 we were passing by an Argentine weather station on the day and at the time it measured and reported the highest ever recorded temperature on the Peninsula.

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Image from Climate Reanalyzer (https://climatereanalyzer.org), Climate Change Institute, University of Maine, USA.

For now, Antarctica remains a pristine and largely untouched wilderness, still looking the same as when explorers first sighted the continent and when intrepid expeditions led by the likes of Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton trekked across the continent. It’s important for the sake of all of us that we ensure this remains the case.

For additional photographs from the expedition, click here.
 
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