London, England. I am sorry to report that I didn’t have access to the Internet on the ship, so I was unable to blog as promised. However, here is a summary of what I experienced and learnt.
On the day after our glacier walk, we set off down the Beagle Channel on a Russian scientific ship from Ushuaia, accompanied by a dolphin, and then out into the Atlantic. The Drake Passage, often the roughest stretch of water in the world, was extraordinarily calm – no discernable waves and very little wind – so we began to refer to it as ‘the Drake Lake’. For much of the time, there were albatrosses flying alongside the ship and, as we entered Antarctic waters, we saw many small icebergs and three humpback whales close to the ship. Despite working for Greenpeace for six years, I had never actually seen a whale before! They were truly magnificent, displaying their tails and then swimming right under the ship. I believe that whaling is unnecessary, cruel, and should certainly be stopped. However, the greatest threat to whales is now climate change and the warming, acidifying oceans. Therefore, to save whales, the Antarctic and, indeed, ourselves, we must move as fast as possible to a renewable economy.
Two days after leaving Ushuaia, we arrived at Bellingshausen, on one of the islands north of the Antarctic Peninsula. This is the site of a Russian scientific base. Antarctica is crucial for scientific research and much excellent work has already been done. For example, ice cores have revealed global temperatures and atmospheric carbon concentrations for the last 740,000 years. In addition, the hole in the ozone layer was discovered by scientists working in Antarctica. The ozone layer should also give us optimism about humanity’s ability to tackle global crises. The hole is not yet mended, but is no longer increasing, and technological change resulting from the Montreal Protocol on phasing out CFCs has played a major part in this. Of course, phasing out fossil fuels will be considerably more challenging than phasing out CFCs, but the Montreal Protocol does show that failure is not inevitable.
However, the scientific bases in Antarctica are not wholly about science. They are also about territorial claims – by the Russians, Americans, Chinese, British, Argentineans, Chileans and others. Therefore, if the Antarctic Treaty lapses in 2041, or is abandoned before then, these nations will stake a claim and start mining for minerals and fossil fuels. The Russians’ behaviour in the Arctic is an example of what not to do. The Arctic ice is melting, caused largely by burning of fossil fuels like oil. As the ice melts, it becomes possible to explore for oil underneath the Arctic Ocean. So the Russians have planted a flag on the ocean floor, as a territorial claim. (This is not anti-Russian prejudice – the Americans and British have done equally indefensible things to feed their oil addiction.)
The beach at Bellingshausen used to be covered with metal and plastic rubbish, so no penguins came ashore there. Robert Swan was a keynote speaker at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and, afterwards, he began a project to clear Bellingshausen beach, in line with the “think global, act local” motto. After clearing 1,500 tonnes of rubbish from the beach and seeing the penguins return, the 2041 team decided to use the same island as the site for an educational and environmental, electronic base. This ‘e-base’ is 100% powered by renewables. It is located next to an impressive, but rather bizarrely-located, Russian Orthodox Church, which was assembled in Russia, then taken apart and transported to Antarctica. The e-base has three wind turbines, which generate electricity no matter how strongly the wind is blowing, so generate a very significant amount of power throughout the year. It also has solar photovoltaic panels, which produce electricity, and solar thermal panels, which heat water. These obviously don’t work in the winter, when the sun simply doesn’t rise over Antarctica!
The e-base is now working 365 days a year, transmitting pictures. The amount of energy created and used isn’t enormous, but the symbol of a 100% renewably-powered base in one of the harshest environments on earth is extremely impressive, and 2041 are committed to spreading the message as far as possible. We picked up the team who had been at the e-base for a few weeks to set it up. They were cheerful and said that the technical difficulties had not been enormous. Next year, 2041 plan to expand the renewable capacity of the e-base and also to improve the technology to store electricity. And after that, they intend to take the e-base further south, onto the Antarctic Peninsula itself.
We duly admired and photographed the penguins on Bellingshausen beach. However, any penguins still in Antarctic waters this late in the autumn will almost certainly die during the winter – the more sensible or healthier ones have already migrated north. We also saw an enormous leopard seal slowly circling in front of the beach, in the hope that one of the penguins would venture into the sea. None did.
Two days later, we visited the Argentinean Brown Base, in the appropriately-named Paradise Bay. This is a large bay, almost entirely surrounded by mountains and glaciers, with only a narrow outlet to the sea. While we were there, we saw and heard many enormous pieces of ice calving off the cliffs at the snouts of the glaciers. Of course, pieces of ice have always broken off glaciers, but Antarctic calving is nevertheless a powerful visual image of climate change. Robert Swan is considering moving the e-base to Brown Base in 2011.
As well as the e-base, 2041 is also running a ‘voyage for cleaner energy’. This is to be by a yacht, made of recycled plastic, with solar panels on the sails. Their current yacht is ten years old and no longer very sea-worthy. Therefore, it will be sailed back across the Atlantic from Florida to Europe. The plan is that a new yacht will be launched in December in Copenhagen, during the climate summit. It will then be sailed around Europe, through the Suez Canal to India (which has high and rapidly growing overall carbon emissions despite tiny per capita emissions), then to Indonesia (which is crucial in forest protection terms), then to Singapore for the September 2012 Earth Summit and finally to China for the 2012 Beijing Climate Summit at which the Kyoto Protocol will be replaced. I will be helping 2041 raise money for this, and there were 15 Chinese students on the Antarctic trip who will help mobilize popular support in China between now and 2012.
Meeting Chinese people determined to help tackle climate change was, for me, one of the most rewarding parts of the Antarctic trip. Some of them have agreed to contribute to Climate Answers, as have people from the US, Canada, South Africa, Europe and Pakistan. The Pakistani man I referred to in a previous blog (see Antarctica Blog – 15 March 2009) believes that installing renewables in Pakistan and Afghanistan will make a contribution to stopping the wars and violence in those countries. Of course, providing poor people with energy is not the whole answer, but may help by increasing levels of welfare and happiness, so reducing popular support for extremism and violence.