Confronting climate change face to face in Antarctica


NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana — On a day when the dominant news in the city where I live includes a senseless armed robbery and murder, a dangerous convict on the lam and an overdue conviction for police brutality in the days after Hurricane Katrina, it can be hard to conjure concern for an issue like climate change. 

Climate issues feel distant and abstract in the face of the immediate tragedies in the community around me, even if there is real reason for concern.

But there is a photo I keep on my desk now, and it brings the urgency of climate change’s repercussions right on home. It’s a picture I took last month on assignment at the bottom of the world for The GroundTruth Project.

GroundTruth sent me to Antarctica with British polar explorer Robert Swan’s organization, 2041, to investigate the meaning and impact of climate change in one of the world’s last pristine landscapes. One morning on the expedition, our group was awoken early over the PA system of the ship that served as our journey’s home base. There was something to see that we couldn’t miss, the voice boomed.

Eighty people from 29 countries groggily suited up in outdoor gear and climbed to the top deck of our ship, the Sea Spirit. The morning was clear and very cold. We were near Brown Bluff, on the northernmost point of the Antarctic Peninsula, and the vast brilliant whiteness spread out endlessly on the horizon.

Robert Swan was waiting for us up top. When we had assembled, he pointed gravely off the ship’s starboard side. There, an enormous tabular iceberg, over half a mile wide and half a mile long, loomed before us. It had broken off of the Antarctic ice shelf, and was now floating free —and melting — in the Antarctic sea.

I took a photograph of the disintegrating iceberg that morning, exactly one week before catastrophic news about climate change in Antarctica circled the globe. In late March, a team of researchers published unprecedented findings in the journal Science showing that west Antarctic ice shelves are melting much faster than previously understood. The iceberg I was staring at that day is part of a 70 percent increase in ice shrinkage over the last decade.

What’s most disturbing, however, is that this iceberg is just a canary in the coal mine. The west Antarctic ice shelves serve the important purpose of holding back masses of land ice that cover the continent. If the shelves continue in the direction they appear to be headed, melting to the point of collapse, there will be nothing to hold back land ice from flowing in to the ocean. Once that new ice melts, the world’s overall ocean levels will undoubtedly rise. The land ice in west Antarctica alone could raise world sea levels more than 9 feet, scientists say. 

Up until that moment when we stood aboard the Sea Spirit gazing out at the iceberg, the theme of climate change on the expedition had been lurking intangibly; a cloud over our heads, always theoretical, just out of concrete grasp. Now, finally, here we were: confronted face to face with the central problem that our expedition leader has dedicated his life to solving.

For Robert Swan, the mission of polar preservation has always been personal. He is a world-class narrator of his own history, and one of his most frequently recounted tales aims to illuminate how he began his journey almost 30 years ago to save Antarctica from its potentially devastating fate. The tale is his explorer origin story, when he trekked on foot to the South Pole with two others in 1985-86, crossing 900 miles in 70 days.

By the time he reached the Pole, two extraordinary occurrences had befallen Swan. His eyes had permanently changed color, and, as he puts it, his “face had burnt off.” Unbeknownst to them at the time, he and his team had been walking directly beneath a gaping, growing man-made hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. The sun, blazing with a fearsome strength, had altered Swan physically, spiritually and irrevocably. He knew he had to do something.

Thirty years later, Swan muses on how he has gone about taking action. “We are pioneering something here,” he says, referring to his 2041 Antarctica expeditions. “It may be all over the place. It may be really odd. But…if you do the same, you get the same. And the world’s doing the same. People want purpose, in a purposeless world.” The purpose and urgency Swan wants to impart to his odd mix of expeditioners, and to the world, was driven home that early morning on the top deck of the ship.

Back home in New Orleans, as I look at the picture on my desk of the iceberg Swan insisted we see, a local news story comes on the radio.  This time, it’s not about murder or robbery. A reporter interviewed coastal Louisianans about one of the most critical issues they face today, and that is the strong possibility that sea level rise will result in the eventual destruction of their homes and way of life.  

I now realize that the question of melting ice and rising waters is no less theoretical on the Gulf Coast where I live than it was that morning in Antarctica. If the west Antarctic ice shelf continues to melt, and sea levels continue to rise as projected, southeast Louisiana is expected to be under more than four feet of water by the end of the century.

Like Bangladesh, the Maldives and New York City, it is one of the places on earth at the front lines of threat from climate change. In fact, researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded in 2013 that Louisiana will be a contender for “the highest rate of sea-level rise on the planet.” Entire communities run the risk of being completely wiped out.

I’m reminded of an idea that is at the core of what Swan wanted to convey to us during our time in Antarctica. When you start really engaging with climate change, the global becomes local, the political becomes personal, and the theoretical becomes concrete very quickly.  I’m also reminded of another great storyteller’s thoughts on the universality of the matter. “You wait,” said Thomas Pynchon. “Everyone has an Antarctic.”