From late January to early February, I was at sea in the Southern Ocean, onboard a ship called the Magellan.
Hi! I’m Anna Mason, the Romero Institute’s Development Associate. I recently had the opportunity to take a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Antarctica, an experience that was made all the more meaningful due to my work in the climate space with the Let’s Green CA! team. So, when I read that eastern Antarctica is currently experiencing temperatures 70 degrees above normal, I wanted to take some time to tell you my story. I also asked our Senior Research Analyst, Dr. Jon Conway, to help me share some of the science behind the temperature extremes and what it means for those of us in California.
As the Magellan crossed the polar circle, the first thing I was struck by was the color. I expected the landscape to be pure white: I was wrong! The sea ice includes the most remarkable shades of blue: turquoise, aquamarine, and the palest of pale blue (I later learned from Jon that water is blue). Beyond the color, I was fascinated by the sounds of Antarctica: everything looks immobile, but the ice is shifting and changing constantly. It crumbles, it grumbles, and it’s loud! The south pole is ancient, but it’s constantly in a state of change.
It wasn’t lost on me that human activity is partially responsible for Antarctica’s state of change. In fact, both poles are currently experiencing heat waves, even though they’re in opposite seasons! Though we can’t directly attribute these weather events to climate change, it’s worth noting that greater temperature extremes are a long-predicted consequence of climate change. These wild fluctuations, even if they aren’t a direct signal of how fast the climate is warming, are still a sign that we are on the verge of crisis.
I’ll admit I felt conflicted during my trip, knowing that my presence was leaving a direct environmental impact. I felt grateful to be in an extraordinary place that so few have the opportunity to visit; at the same time I felt melancholy wondering if my children would ever behold the glacial sights I saw.
It’s important to remember that what happens in Antarctica impacts all of us: as glaciers melt and oceans warm, sea levels rise. Recent projections show that under all but the lowest emission scenarios, melting Antarctic glaciers alone could ultimately cause sea levels to rise by more than 40 feet. In the near-term, climate scientists expect to see approximately 10 inches of sea-level rise in California within the next 30 years. That means every high tide along the California coast could flood areas where 37,000 people live and 13,000 people work. Furthermore, Antarctic ice preserves more than just water: researchers have confirmed that ancient bacteria and viruses, currently trapped in ice, could reinfect organisms upon revival. In the Arctic in particular, thawing organic material decomposes into methane gas, the release of which will lead to a major climate tipping point: hotter temperatures melt more ice, which releases more planet-warming methane, which melts more ice, continuing a devastating cycle.
During my final day on board the Magellan, one of our guides became tearful as he discussed the impact of climate change on Antarctic animal populations. I saw in his eyes his deep desire to protect Antarctica, and his deep grief at the radical change he was observing. He ended his presentation by telling everyone on the ship that each of us are now ambassadors for Antarctica. Since my return, it’s become my responsibility as an ambassador to share the story of Antarctica, and to help protect it.
The largest lesson I took away from my trip is the raw power of nature. I used to call her “Mother Nature,” and I’ve now decided “Queen Nature” is a more fitting title. I feel incredibly grateful and privileged to have been able to witness Queen Nature in all of her vast, icy, raw glory. My experience encourages and inspires me to do what I can to protect the beauty and power that I experienced.
During one of my evenings on the ship, I laid in bed after a long day of adventure. I watched my window like a television as I unwound for the day. Remember: the sun doesn’t set when you’re near the South Pole during the summer months! In order to capture the feelings that these scenes inspired, I wrote a haiku (and have paired my poetry with one of my partner Robert Knight's incredible photographs):
Thank you for reading, and thank you for the work you do to protect our Queen Nature.