The mere mention of Earth’s polar regions brings to mind frozen ice masses, hostile conditions and a general absence of living things. This is unfortunate: though the parts of Earth above and below the Arctic and Antarctic circles are so remote, they are teeming with all sorts of life, from microflora to megafauna.
I was a part of an 86-member team that journeyed to the Arctic region to study climate change in real-time as part of the Climate Force Arctic 2019 expedition. This expedition is conducted every year, led by Robert Swan, the first man to walk to both of Earth’s poles. He also launched the 2041 Foundation, whose mission is to develop leadership skills among individuals by helping them take responsibility, be sustainable and act for a more resilient future.
The Antarctic Environment Protocol, signed in Madrid in 1991, bans all drilling and mining in Antarctica. It will reopen for negotiations in 2048, and Swan hopes to increase awareness and gather support by 2041 – the 50-year anniversary of the signing.
The Arctic is composed of all areas north of the 66°33’44” N latitude. After three days of briefing in Oslo, we set off to Svalbard, an archipelago in the Arctic Sea between Norway and the North Pole. At Svalbard, we boarded a ship that sailed around the islands for a week, exploring different parts.
Each day on the ship began with a series of talks where participants shared inspirational stories. Then experts on the ship spoke about the Arctic landscape and how it the climate crisis has been altering it. After that, we would go on hikes, photo walks and cruises, each of which brought us insights into the Arctic realm. Every afternoon, there were discussions on the Paris Agreement, climate change mitigation and carbon trade involving climate experts. In the evenings, we would recap the day’s events before undertaking free-ranging trips or speaking to the other participants.
Climate change is not new to any of us. The surface air in the Arctic, however, is warming twice as fast as in the rest of the world. Arctic ice (like all ice) strongly reflect solar radiation. But as it melts, it exposes the underlying tundra soil and ocean to heat, and the latter absorbs the heat instead of reflecting it. The tundra soil is very rich in organic matter because decomposition is slow. So as the soil warms, the permanently frozen subsoil melts and releases a large amount of methane into the atmosphere, which causes Earth’s atmosphere and surface to warm further. As a greenhouse gas, methane is more potent than carbon dioxide.
Another conspicuous consequence of a warming Arctic is the loss of sea ice. Sea ice forms each winter when the ocean surface freezes. Some of this ice melts in the following summer and some doesn’t, to weather another winter. But in a warmer world, more ice melts each summer, and ice forming in the winter does so later and breaks up earlier than it has before. The ice build-up also isn’t as thick.
Less sea ice means a smaller feeding habitat for polar bears. So the bears are forced to concentrate over ever-smaller patches of the surviving ice, leading to heavy predation pressure on the local seal population.
Our group was lucky to encounter a lot of wildlife on our expedition, some of which hadn’t been spotted in the Arctic for over 30 years. These included the beluga, bowhead, humpback and fin whales, bearded seals, arctic walruses and polar bears. Each of these species is facing a loss of habitat, declining food sources and sea acidification thanks to global heating.
At the start of the trip, we had been given a list of clothing items to carry on our persons for the trip but we didn’t use many of them by the end. The temperature on some days was as high as 12° C, and the average was around 1-3° C. This is significantly high for this region, and a passive yet persistent reminder of how the world was changing.
However, there was one day when the reminder became a terrifying jolt: when, during a hike, many of us came across pieces of plastic strewn across the Arctic tundra. These items included discarded fishing equipment, cans and containers and plastic wrappers. Both experts and journalists have documented the menace of single-use plastic but none of us had expected to find it in this part of the world. No part of Earth is untouched by the activities of its humans.
This expedition was in all an eye-opener. We returned home inspired by the beauty and serenity of the Arctic landscape, and more motivated to protect it – together with the rest of Earth. While the world debates the grainier terms of a global shift to an eco-friendly life, there are many smaller solutions that we can practice every day to drive change from the bottom, including giving up single-use plastics, shifting to buying and eating local, creating awareness among your friends and family, and voting for leaders that have a strong environmental mandate.
All individual action will eventually drive community action, which will go a long way towards preserving life on this planet.
Sukriti Kapur is a research scholar at the School of Environmental Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.