The long road to Antarctica

Apr 222009
Authors: Phoenix MourningStar

Arriving in Buenos Aires airport, it was great to be immersed in another non-English speaking culture and to meet up with the rest of the team.

By the time we arrived in Ushuia a few hours later, the bonding had already begun. You could hear the two-minute resumes flying around and the beginnings of networking and idea exchanges. We had all answered the same “call” to Antarctica to bear witness to the beauty and grandeur of the southern continent.

We spent two days in a conference-like environment laying foundations of common knowledge for the days to come: What is climate change, what role does government and policy play, is human behavior a component to be addressed, how much can we rely on technology and what does leadership and collaboration look like in attempts to minimize climate change?

The mainland portion of our journey ended when we boarded the Ukrainian research vessel that would be our home for the next 12 days.

On board, we shared tight dorm-like living quarters, a single dining room that held about 80 people and a medium sized presentation room. The ship also sported a small library, lounge and, of course, a bar.

As we made our progress to the Antarctic Peninsula, we spent the time continuing conversations and getting to know one another. The quick resumes turned into life stories of how we came to be doing the research, the degree programs we were in and how the work we do impacts the health and education of the planet and its inhabitants.

The second day on the ship saw a massive spike in seasickness — likely due to the fact we were sailing into the tail end of a cyclone.

50-knot winds from a Gale-force 8 storm sent massive waves crashing over the bow of our ship. The vessel rocked the sick back and forth to their sinks.

When we arrived inside the protection of the South Shetland Islands, the skies had cleared and conversations and presentations were held without so much need for tethers.

Although a few of us braved the storm, we now had plenty of company on the ship decks watching the continent rise in the distance. The excitement of seeing the first penguins, seals and icebergs filled the air.

Upon the maiden call to load the zodiacs (inflatable boats), excitement and anticipation quickly turned serious as safety and the multiple training sessions flashed through our heads.

For the remaining eight days, we came to enjoy multiple landings on the islands and main continent of Antarctica. Evening talks turned from climate change to briefings of where we were heading next, what we might expect to see in terms of wildlife, glacier, iceberg formations and historical accounts of explorers, whalers and sealers who staked everything to get to where we were.

After dinner, we found ourselves captivated by the stories of the group leader and polar explorer, Robert Swan, about his quest to walk to the South Pole, the founding of the 2041 Organization and the trials of making the journey to the North Pole.

His is a truly extraordinary tale, from how he lost his first ship to the sea ice of Antarctica, once having to request Chilean military rescue and how he walked directly underneath the hole in the ozone layer at the same time it was being discovered — and that was just the South Pole stories.

By the time we began our journey back to South America, the surrealism of the trip had fully struck us all — we were standing on the bottom of the Earth.

The 2041 team had brought us to this remarkable place. They no longer needed to ask us if Antarctica was worth preserving — we nearly demanded they allow us to join in finding solutions to ensure that this content isn’t destroyed by the search for fossil fuels. We were ready to be the leaders of not just green energy and preservation, but smart energy use and reliable action.

Phoenix Mourning-Star is an environmental health graduate student. His column appears Thursdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to

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