Swan at base camp on the 2013 expedition. Photo: 2041.com.
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Operation Deep South
7th February 2014
Robert Swan - the first person to walk to both North and South Poles - will lead his 10th annual International Antarctic Expedition this coming March as part of his Antarctica 2041 campaign. Isabel Sepkowitz discovered what it's all about.
I might be the first person to have walked to the poles, and one day might be the last: the ice is melting.
To single handedly walk to both poles is a tremendous endeavor. One that requires stamina, strength, and sheer will - all qualities that Robert Swan OBE possesses in spades.
And this coming March he will return to Antarctica, leading an international team of professionals, entrepreneurs and adventurers. Once there, Swan hopes they will become as passionate as he is to preserve the world's only wilderness continent.
"We are an expedition that's out to produce champions that will lobby to preserve this continent for science and peace", says Swan.
United in protecting this fragile land
His exploration team all speak different languages, work in different fields and live in different countries. But they are united in their excitement at what lies before them - the experience of Antarctica, its cold, danger and wild beauty, and learning of the threats it faces.
"With our onboard experts, team members will gain first hand knowledge of the continent's fragile ecosystem, experience its unique wildlife and observe the magnificent landscape of Antarctica", says Swan, "all while learning about climate change and what we can do to protect the last great wilderness on Earth."
Mixing exploration, education, and self-reflection, the team will embark on a glacial journey and endure the chilling Antarctic temperatures to glimpse migrating whales, witness the march of the gentoo penguins and watch majestic albatrosses on their lonely ocean vigil.
2041 - a year to prepare for
Signed by twelve nations into international law in 1959, and effective in 1961, the Antarctic Treaty establishes the principle that all land and ice below 60 degrees South should be forever committed to peace and scientific research, without a military presence.
"The Antarctic Treaty is without doubt one of the most successful treaties in history", says Swan. "Going forward, we need to build from it to make sure one last place on Earth is left alone forever."
But in 2041, the terms and conditions in the Protocol on the Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty - also known as the Madrid Protocol - is up for renegotiation. And environmentalists fear that the ban on mining Antarctic resources could be questioned.
The Madrid Protocol was signed in 1991 in order to establish stringent rules for environmental protection, and came into force in 1998. But the mining prohibition becomes eligible for review 50 years after its signature, in 2041.
Good reasons for the mining ban
There were excellent reasons for the mining ban, despite the frozen continent's rich mineral resources that include oil, coal and iron. The Antarctic environment is simultaneously remote, hazardous and fragile, not to mention very expensive to work in.
Oil drilling and other mineral exploitation would create enormous risks, and in any case there were plenty of other high quality minerals to be exploited around the world in much more accessible and low cost locations
Moreover, complex geopolitics and competing national claims to sovereignty over slices of Antartica's territory meant that opening the continent up for mineral exploitation would be a recipe for conflict - much as we are beginning to see in the Arctic today.
But that may change ...
But how long will the concensus continue? Two principal factors mean that the Madrid mining ban may not but unanimously supported beyond 2041.
First, a combination of climate change and new technologies developed in the Arctic may mean that it is technically possible to operate mines or drilling rigs in areas that were previously closed.
Second, growing resource constraints may mean that the world is rather more desperate to develop new sources of fossil fuels and other mineral reserves in 2041, than it was in 1991.
With countries like China wanting a piece of the Antarctic research pie, there is now even more international pressure on the continent's future.
Inspiring a new generation
Antarctica is going to need all the friends it can get - people prepared to fight for the preservation of this frozen wilderness and sustain Antarctica as a scientific resource for future generations.
Hence Swan's main focus today - inspiring the younger generation to become agents of activism and ambassadors for Antarctica.
The 2041 Antarctic Youth Ambassador Programme gives young explorers the opportunity to convey the importance of preserving this frozen wilderness in their homes, in their workplaces and in their communities.
Swan's 2041 campaign and expeditions have raised awareness of Antarctica's problems by reaching out to individuals, corporations, NGOs and policy makers. For example, he succesfully orchestrated the removal from Antarctica of 1,500 tons of trash - over a period of five years.
Powered by clean energy, he sailed his 2041 sailboat around the world, educating communities and nations along the way about the importance of Antarctica - and ending his route in Rio De Janeiro to speak at the latest United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20).
Swan and his team also pioneered 'low impact living' in Antarctica - in small but well insulated 'eBase' buildings (see picture). Bright orange, the size of a shipping container, they are 100% renewably powered and he and other explorers have lived in them for weeks at a stretch.
This demonstrates the feasibility of these novel - and climate friendly - energy sources, even in the most remote, extreme environments. "If we can survive off wind and solar here in one of the most hostile environments on Earth we can do it anywhere!"
The melting ice
Swan is also passionate about climate change - and the need to act rather than argue about it.
"Climate change is definitely happening, and you can see this in Antarctica. This may or may not be contributed by humans - but it's happening - and we need to be ensuring against the fact that we could be causing it.
I have seen these changes, first-hand, over the last 20 years. Every year the ice caps are diminishing in size - it's quite frightening."
"I might be the first person to have walked to the poles, and one day might be the last: the ice is melting."
Isabel Sepkowitz is a freelance writer for the environment. She previously worked on the film GMO OMG. You can follow her thoughts @isabelsepkowitz.
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