Lessons from Antarctica: the frozen continent on the frontline of the climate crisis

Emma Wilkinson

“Now you know you’re alive!” said our expedition guide as the wild Antarctic weather turned and we were soaked by each wave. 

Last month, I was incredibly fortunate to join the 2041 ClimateForce expedition, led by polar explorer Robert Swan OBE, and journey to the Antarctic – Earth’s last great wilderness. Representing Global Choices’ youth-led action network Arctic Angels, and supported by the natural lifestyle brand Vivobarefoot, I participated alongside climate justice activist Zanagee Artis. The expedition team included over 160 community leaders, industry game-changers, activists and scientists from 35 nations, all united by a common goal: to preserve Antarctica. We convened in the world’s southernmost city, Ushuaia in Argentina, before spending a week exploring the western Antarctic Peninsula. 

Our expedition was the journey of a lifetime, and an experience that has changed my understanding of what it means to be alive on this wondrous planet. 

The rhythm of Antarctica 

After heading across the Drake Passage, the roughest seas in the world, we arrived in the harsh Antarctic region, home to whales, penguins, and other fascinating wildlife. We were entering their environment and our activities depended entirely on the changeable, sometimes erratic, weather conditions.  

Our days in Antarctica were split between living on board the Ocean Victory ship and exploring the Southern Ocean and continent. On the ship, we participated in climate solution workshops, heard talks from the participants about their initiatives at home, shared meals together, and spent time outside on deck. On our first evening in Antarctica, I raced to the deck when I saw pink light shining in. A sunset I will never forget welcomed us. 

Sunset in the Antarctic.

On our way to shore, in smaller zodiac boats, we listened to the rhythm of Antarctica. A few days in, having so far failed to be in the right place at the right time, I was part of the group that found sleeping whales as they slowly glided along. Hearing the whales breathe, feeling the current beneath me, I was mesmerised. In that moment there was nowhere else to be. The leadership team encouraged us to not bring the weight of the world with us south – to be present. And with the whales, I was. 

When on shore we observed the wildlife, we hiked, and we were still. Standing on the continent of Antarctica was surreal. It was humbling to be surrounded by the vast ice, immersed in a landscape so unlike anything I had experienced.  

Group of people whale watching from a boat in Antarctica.

Why Antarctica matters 

On the journey, we experienced erratic weather and even heavy rain – an alarming occurrence when autumn is already being felt in the continent. We heard glaciers calving and stayed away from the water’s edge when visiting Neko Harbour, wary of tsunamis caused by falling ice.  

Antarctica is critical to global climate stability, yet it is the frontline of the climate crisis. Major news of the change unravelling in Antarctica overshadowed our expedition. On the 18th of March, scientists recorded a temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit above normal in eastern Antarctica. Shortly after, news surfaced that the Conger ice shelf – the size of New York City – had collapsed into the ocean. Every 40 hours, Antarctica loses a billion metric tons of ice. The diminishing white, reflective ice unveils a darker surface, which absorbs more sunlight and results in further warming. This positive feedback is known as the albedo effect and means that ice loss is now not only a symptom of climate change, but also a driver. In short, Antarctica is a key part of our interdependent natural systems, and its rapid change impacts communities across the globe.  

Antarctica also belongs to all of us. Legally recognised as our global commons, it is protected by an unprecedented international treaty. I heard from war veterans how the unique treaty, declaring it a place for only peace and science, made them connect to Antarctica. The Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959 and adopts a precautionary approach, stopping the exploration and exploitation of Antarctic minerals. It is a testament to the power of international cooperation to protect nature that we can and must learn from. Due to be renegotiated in 2041, the Treaty is why Swan created the 2041 Foundation: to inspire meaningful action to preserve Antarctica, both now and when the pivotal year arrives.  

Bringing Antarctica home 

Returning from this striking continent that so few will visit, I shoulder the responsibility to share the story of our expedition and connect people to Antarctica. The conflict of visiting Antarctica but wanting to protect it was not lost on the team. Whilst the expedition was carbon negative and the ship was 60% more efficient than others its size, our journey had impact. We recognise this, and we are resolved to use our experience to power positive impact for Antarctica. 

This year and beyond, I will continue collaborating to protect the Polar regions. Having built and previously coordinated the Arctic Angels network, striving and adapting to connect people in diverse locales to the Poles has been key to my advocacy. I will continue to support Global Choices, who are working to prevent the exploitation of the Central Arctic Ocean – an ecosystem inextricably linked to the Antarctic, and a global commons beyond national jurisdiction. 

The experience has shifted my perspective on communicating the climate and ecological crisis. Whilst in Antarctica, I was struck by the rhythm of nature. With each year, the Antarctic sea ice expands and contracts and the whales migrate north and south. I am led by the belief that we must embed in our lives a deep recognition that we exist in reciprocity with Earth. Experiencing Antarctica has made me question how I can reconnect my community to these concepts of rhythm and seasonality which are so essential to our existence.  

Above all, I have returned hopeful. The people I met reminded me of our inherent goodness. The beauty I witnessed reinspired my commitment to the environmental movement. I know this journey will shape my life and advocacy in ways I can’t yet see, and I have deep gratitude for Global Choices and Vivobarefoot supporting me on this journey.

Learn more and advocate for the Polar regions with Global Choices and the 2041 Foundation

Did you enjoy this blog? For more on Vivobarefoot, take a look at ‘why transparency belongs at the root of regenerative business.’