News Story

July 23, 2012

Destination: Antarctica

In late January 2012, Dan Schrag embarked on an expedition to the icy, snowy realm of Antarctica. For 10 days he and a team of 140 explored the wild, barren landscape of the south polar region. He chronicled his journey in the reflective account below, complete with photographs he captured during the expedition together with photographer Dawn Jones.

Antarctica was never my idea of a vacation. As a geologist, I might go there for work; indeed, many of my colleagues have done field studies in Antarctica, working on ice cores, or the geology and microbiology of the dry valleys. But taking a vacation in Antarctica? That was never on my list.
   Yet here I was, setting off by ship from Argentina, and heading across the Drake Passage, bound for the Antarctic Peninsula. I had been invited by former Vice President Al Gore to participate in a voyage there, along with 140 of his friends and associates. The passenger list included industrialists, venture capitalists, philanthropists, politicians, writers, publishers and musicians, all coming together to visit the frozen continent and talk about climate change. The trip was part of the Vice President's new initiative on climate change called "The Climate Reality Project," and the invitation was too good to refuse.
   When we gathered in Buenos Aires, I admit I was intimidated by all the celebrities, but once we boarded the ship, most of that dissipated. Spending eight days on a boat together made our everyday lives fade into the background.
   I should make clear that this was not “roughing it” by any standard. The Vice President had chosen Lindblad Expeditions’ ship, National Geographic Explorer, outfitted with every comfort one could imagine. Part of me hoped we might experience an adventure crossing the Southern Ocean, sharing the adversity faced by those famous polar explorers, Shackleton, Scott, and Amundsen. But in fact, the seas were so calm on our voyage south across Drake’s Passage that it could have been the ferry across Nantucket Sound. 
   On the third day, we awoke to find ourselves in Antarctica. The weather was warm—a balmy 35 degrees (so much for all the cold weather gear I had proudly carried in my duffel). And we were ready for our first visit ashore to see penguins.  Whatever expectations I had for this trip were dashed as soon as I stepped out of the Zodiak inflatable and onto land. Surrounding us were thousands of penguins—Chinstraps, Adeles (we would see three other species before the trip was done)—with chicks still too young to swim. Encountering these creatures in the wild is nothing like observing them in the New England Aquarium. The parents were scurrying back and forth to the water, stepping around and sometimes over us, while the bolder chicks would poke at my boots, completely unafraid of our invasion. Their lack of fear was a reminder of just how remote we were in this place, where no land predators could reach them. 
   Our visits to shore twice a day were the highlights of the trip, but the activities on the ship were also rewarding. The organizers had prepared a series of group discussions and presentations about climate change, about sustainable investing, and about the geology and ecology of Antarctica. As a climate scientist, I was encouraged by how much people already knew about the science of climate change. What surprised me was how much the Antarctic Peninsula was already being affected. Scientists who had studied Antarctica for decades described the changes in ice cover, in the size of penguin populations, and in the marine ecosystems surrounding us. Many of the ecological changes were also due to overfishing, a problem that seems mostly invisible until you are confronted by a continent with no land plants, and where the entire ecosystem depends on marine life. 
   There was one moment aboard ship that was particularly memorable. This took place on the first evening in Antarctica, after dinner, but when there was still plenty of light in the sky. The captain had steered the vessel into a narrow passage full of icebergs, and as we dodged these massive blocks of ice, the passage became more and more filled with pack ice, apparently blocking our way. Instead of avoiding the ice, our ship plowed right through—the special hull made it almost an icebreaker—and cries of jubilation came from all the passengers, who had crowded up on the bow, even as it reached midnight and the sun set for a few hours of darkness. I will never forget the sounds and sensations of the ship cutting through the ice, bouncing off a small iceberg now and then, and proceeding toward a horizon of seemingly endless white. In that moment, our group experienced a sense of shared euphoria, creating a bond that persisted throughout the rest of the trip. Even as we exited the passage, many of us stayed up, talking and sipping coffee, hot cocoa, or whiskey, and savoring the magic of the experience.  
   On the final day of our stay, I became obsessed with capturing the perfect image of Gentoo penguins “flying” through the sea. Seeing these streamlined creatures jumping out of the water fully excused their ridiculous appearance when waddling across the land. Dawn Jones, a talented photographer, helped me craft and compose my images. Her photographs of penguins (also reproduced here) capture the mystery of these animals in a way that brings me back to Antarctica every time I see them.
   During the trip home, I finally got my wish for a nautical adventure, as Drake’s Passage was not so kind on our return. For more than 30 hours we were buffeted by 30-foot seas, and although I was not seasick, I admit that thinking of Shackleton crossing from Elephant Island to South Georgia in an open lifeboat made me happy we were aboard a 370-foot ship. The most challenging part of the crossing came when I had to give a 30-minute talk on energy technology and climate change solutions while the ship rolled up and down in the waves. Imagine giving a lecture and feeling as though you and your audience are attached to bungee cords. That was probably not my finest performance, but it was wonderful to be able to share my thoughts about how to fix the climate problem with such a knowledgeable and thoughtful group. 
   Returning to Boston and the spring semester, I immediately became re-immersed in academic life—classes, research, meetings. But every now and then, I stop and look through my photographs and remember that feeling of standing on the bow as we sailed through the pack ice. Antarctica is so remote, so difficult to get to, and yet is now affected by the greenhouse gas emissions we continue to put in the atmosphere. For me, it is a reminder of the scope of human activities, and how profound is our influence on the planet. I want to return to Antarctica, perhaps when my small children are old enough for such an adventure. Seeing the wildness of Antarctica while simultaneously witnessing our influence over it puts our work on environmental science into inspiring and sobering perspective.

Antarctica 2012 Photos


This article has been adapted from Environment@Harvard, Volume 4 Issue 1.

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