Riding the axis – from one pole to the other

I have recently returned from a splendid place. In a way, it wasn’t very different from my usual business meetings; it seemed that I was surrounded by men in black suits – only that they were very short and with beaks. If you haven’t guessed it yet, I was with the penguins at the South Pole!

The poles are very rarely left out of any discussion on climate change. To talk about it, is one thing – I wanted to experience the real deal. So, last year I visited the North Pole and this year we (my family and me) went a pole apart. The distances might set them apart, but the crisis faced by them – and us – dims the extent of their polarity. It’s quite ironic that the human race can threaten the existence of a place that it doesn’t even occupy.

The absence of human life results in blissful silence. To add to it, we were completely cut off from the rest of the world – no networks, no communication. The feeling was quite unnatural – it felt like we were the only people on this planet. It was very unsettling in the beginning but we got used to it surprisingly quickly. It was very evident that we were the visitors here and possibly unwelcomed; I think I got the look of utter disdain from more than one species of the wildlife flourishing there. There were so many of them – penguins, sea lions, whales, and many more.

To say that it was beautiful would be a gross understatement. Words are quite inadequate to explain all that we experienced. White land everywhere, reaching the horizon; sometimes flushed with green and pink algae as if the white canvas was just too inviting to not be splashed with colors. The icebergs were within touching distance, with the sea lions lounging on them and quizzically looking at our zodiacs (inflatable boats). There were also gigantic blue whales that would momentarily surface threatening to topple our miniscule – in comparison – boats over.

The thrill of Antarctica is like no other. The continent is barely four per cent of the total land area on earth but houses 90 per cent of the planet’s ice cover. This uniqueness, regrettably, also makes it very vulnerable to global warming; the Antarctic is warming five times faster than the global average. The coldest desert is getting warmer, every minute – which means that these beautiful ice caps are melting.

The rising temperatures – undeniably due to carbon intensive human activities – cause the ice shelves to break into pieces. Antarctica is covered with ice an average of 2,133 meters (7,000 feet) thick. If all of the ice melted, sea levels around the world would rise about 61 meters (200 feet). The recent, very tragic, tsunami in Japan witnessed waves only a couple of meters high – and the destruction is for all to see. I leave it to you to do the rest of the calculations.

I am glad that I made this journey; it makes the enormity of our situation very real and present. Did you know that the Adelie penguin populations have shrunk by 33 per cent during the past 25 years in response to declines in their winter sea ice habitat? It would be disgrace if these curious little animals and so many other species become extinct.

My commitment to a greener future is now even stronger. On our very bumpy cruise back from the white continent, I couldn’t help but think of August Hare’s words, “Thought is the wind, knowledge the sail, and mankind the vessel.” We have the resources and we have the knowledge; now it’s up to us – the mankind – to deliver the solution.

I believe we can.