Visitors to Antarctica are often amazed and humiliated by its size and extreme climate. But it also prompted BBC’s Justin Rowlatt to reflect on human ability to solve problems together and hope for the future.
We take off from a glacier near McMurdo, the main US research center in Antarctica, headed for the center of the West Antarctic ice sheet.
After an hour all you can see from the small circular window is the ice that extends to the distant horizon.
An hour later, the same.
The next hour, no change …
Get the picture.
We finally land after three and a half hours in the air.
The closest human habitation – the American scientific base from which we flew – is now as far away from us as Moscow is from London … and there is only ice in the middle.
The vastness of the ice sheet makes it almost impossible for visitors not to reflect on the insignificance of a single human being.
“It makes you feel so small,” is what everyone says.
But dig a little deeper and find that many people don’t mean they feel a sense of threat; Antarctica does not diminish you.
In fact, many people find that there is something reassuring about being in the presence of something much bigger and stronger than them.
Gabrielle Walker, the author of my favorite book on Antarctica, talks about it.
We all like to think we are important, he says. But that feeling carries some responsibility: if you are important you have something to prove.
“You have nothing to prove here because you can only present,” says Gabrielle.
You can’t feel important in this vast place.
And if you’re not important, things get a lot simpler.
Antarctica gives you the freedom to ask yourself the questions that really matter, he says.
What is important to me?
What am I supposed to do with my life?
Who do I really miss while I’m here and why?
And who am I missing?
Many people are probably asking similar questions as they crouch at home facing the threat of coronavirus.
But when I finally arrive in front of the huge glacier that the scientists I’m accompanying are here to study, that sense of insignificance dissolves.
It seems to me that I have reached the forefront of climate change: the place where the balance that has kept our world in balance for tens of thousands of years is starting to slip and crash.
It is impossible to confuse the epic forces at work here.
It is like a cry of anguish captured in the single frame of a photograph.
The glacier is torn and shattered.
In some places the ice is almost a mile high and is collapsing into the sea at a speed of three miles per year along a front more than 100 miles long … and the whole process is accelerating.
Needless to say, this acceleration – which is affecting the entire ice sheet of the western Antarctic – is the result of the global warming gases that our lifestyles produce.
The impression that the ice here is overwhelming explodes.
In fact, the opposite is true, we overwhelm the ice.
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I am surprised at how much I am moved by what I have seen.
A colleague interviews me for a program that we are carrying out and I burst into tears.
It takes me days to process my emotions.
I think of the chain of people who made this expedition possible: the pilots and the crew, the people at the research station who sift the garbage and cook meals, the men and women who drive the trucks and run the ice rinks.
We wouldn’t be here without them.
Or the people who agreed on the project and signed the checks.
Or the people who paid their taxes, raising the money in the first place.
Or, moreover, my wife takes care of the children at home.
Our small team was able to reach the front of this glacier only thanks to a huge human endeavor.
It is only by uniting as a community that we can reach remote places like this and only by arriving at places like this can we understand what is happening in our world and what it is likely to mean for all of us.
And of course, only by getting together in a community can we reduce the emissions that cause global warming.
I am flying back to McMurdo’s research station when I feel a sensation for something I haven’t felt in a while: hope.
Sometimes greed, violence and conflict are said to be the key features of humanity, but this is wrong.
The human characteristic that defines history is actually our ability to cooperate.
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