When Delhi-based Rozita Singh caught the first glimpse of Antarctica in March, she felt wonder, awe and dismay, all at once. As a sustainable development professional, she wasn’t completely oblivious to the fast-pacing impacts of climate change on the pristine land, yet, looking at the white sheet of ice spread across the vast sea was enough to disquiet her.
“Surreal,” says Singh, who is head of solutions mapping at Accelerator Lab of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as she recalls her first day in the southern-most part of the world. “We often talk about it – warming and its impacts — but to see it happening so soon, and in this far-off ice-bound land with such a fragile ecosystem — was unsettling.”
Singh was among the 26 Indians out of which 18 are currently based in India who were aboard ‘Ocean Victory’– the ship that sailed from Argentina to Antarctica on March 17 on a 36-hour journey for a 12-day expedition to the no-man’s land. The ‘2041 ClimateForce Antarctic’ expedition led by British polar explorer Robert Swan had more than 150 people on board from across 39 countries. Each of them were selected after a long intensive process with multiple interviews and a rigorous fund-raising exercise culminating in a commitment to work on sustainability to combat climate change.
“One of the days, it rained for hours. Swan who has been regularly visiting the continent for 30 years told us that it was unusual, and these unexpected rainfall events are on rise,” recalls Singh who is also a mentor at an online climate school Terra.do.
Rain in Antarctica in March is disconcerting because most of the precipitation that Antarctica gets is mostly in the form of snow. However, the rise of global temperatures over the past decades has led to occurrence of rains over the continent – a warning sign, that can have huge ramifications on the global weather patterns. Recent studies project that such events are more likely in wake of global warming– a serious cause of concern which could hasten the melting of ice sheets, and disrupt the ecosystem.
“We were also told that one of the islands has lost so much ice that it’s now a foot and a half higher than the ocean. These changes are happening, and they are happening now. So, we must do everything to protect the 2041 treaty,” she says emphatically.
In year 2041, the 1961 Antarctic treaty that prohibits any kind of resource exploitation in Antarctica might come for review. The 2041 Foundation was started by Swan, one of the first persons to have walked to both the North and South Poles, to inspire definitive action to mitigate climate change and gather support to protect the treaty while bringing attention to Antarctica’s vulnerable situation.
Breaking Mental Barriers
For 2011 batch Karnataka-based Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer, Deep Jagdip Contractor, it was an opportunity to challenge herself, and understand the climate crisis unfolding before her eyes. A reluctant adventurer, Deep braved through health challenges, including appendicitis, and a close call with Covid to embark on the expedition this summer.
“As a woman in her late 30s, we put a lot of mental barriers on us, and lay down things that we think we cannot do. But I’m glad that this gave me a chance to override all that,” she smiles. Currently posted as a deputy conservator of forests, Deep now has a series of presentations lined up, where she will be discussing climate solutions with IAS/IFS officers, and UPSC aspirants. One of the key concerns being the depleting population of Krill in the continent.
A small shrimp-like creature, Krill, is among the most abundant marine species on the planet, yet is facing a stark drop in population due to melting of ice. It forms the backbone of the food chain in Antarctica, and its plummeting numbers can have cascading effects on the population of penguins, seals, whales and the entire ecosystem. “We may lose all of this wildlife if we don’t do anything. Loss of ice is bad news, and just weeks ago we learnt about a massive ice shelf that had collapsed in the far off east,” says Deep, with palpable concern.
It is this concern, that Swan and his ‘Leadership on the edge’ training program is tapping into to inspire action among people including students and professionals, who can perhaps become advocates for this last great wilderness on earth.
But, the expedition and people on-board have their own carbon footprint – a challenge that the organisers claim to offset by strictly integrating certain standard protocols — using Tier III engines that limit the amount of nitrous oxides, marine gas which emits less CO2 and green technologies on-board and ensuring that the voyage is “carbon negative”. The organisers also carry out on-ground projects with participants in various parts of the world to ensure that they are removing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than they put through this Expedition.
Individual Solutions to Global Crisis
Most often people are conscious of the problem that exists but fail to recognise or implement measures to mitigate it. For Bangalore-based sustainable practioner, Avinash Narayanaswamy, the expedition was about witnessing the impact of these individual actions, which he himself had been rooting for years.
An entrepreneur at Green LAW, a start-up firm for eco-friendly products, he has been living a sustainable lifestyle, using bio-fuel for his cars, rooftop solar for activities, and ensuring minimised emissions. He has previously covered over 2,000 km on biodiesel across India and Europe to drive the message of sustainable living. Narayanaswamy plans to share his learnings from the expedition through a documentary that will capture the concerns around the vulnerable ecosystem.
“It was raining in Antarctica. We never hear of that. The temperatures were not as low as we would have normally expected. It should have been much cooler than that. The receding population of Krill, and penguins darting around – seeing that ecosystem with bare eyes was humbling, and yet disconcerting at the same time,” says Narayanswamy, who aspires to make people aware of how their individual lifestyle choices could help avert the impending environmental crisis.
Urgency of Action
After witnessing the calamitous impacts of warming on the ice-bound continent, the participants, which included environmentalists, government servants, entrepreneurs and even school students — are now back to tell their tale. Each of them with a mission of their own to drive the message of climate urgency home. The world is already warmer by 1.2 degree Celsius over pre-industrial levels, and its impacts are already intensifying.
“As people working on sustainability on climate change, it was even hard-hitting for us to see the imprint of climate change on Antarctica. We want to bring this learning back home, and team up for climate change action across borders. But, most importantly, to drive an understanding among people that our individual actions and lifestyle choices are more important than ever, if we want to do out bit to save this ecosystem,” sums up Singh.