By Natalie Long, Social Media Specialist, WWF-Australia
Antarctica is the last genuine wilderness area left on the Planet. It’s cherished for its raw, pristine beauty and the smorgasbord of unbelievable wildlife that call this landscape home. It’s a land iconic for some of the roughest weather conditions in the world, but among these severe conditions lives some of the most incredible wildlife that have evolved not only to be beautiful, but also tough, agile, and adapted to some of the toughest conditions on Earth. However, what makes Antarctica truly breathtaking is not just its raw, wild nature, or its remarkable landscapes and phenomenal wildlife. The most extraordinary thing about this continent is that its well being is in the interest of all humanity.
I remember the first time I ever learnt about the polar regions, I was about eight years old and my teacher told us about a range of unique animals that lived far away on snow and ice. This was the first time I had learnt about Antarctica, and from that day I spent years envisioning the continent as a land of beauty, curiosity and excitement. I knew it was always going to be the most remote and wild adventure I could go on. This first lesson on the polar regions was followed closely by lessons of melting ice and the impacts this has on the vulnerable animals that called the region their home. It wasn’t long before Antarctica was not only an icon for spectacular beauty and wildlife but also an iconic symbol for climate change and the fragility of the Earth.
Sixteen years after this first lesson, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit the remote continent this past January. I was welcomed by enormous icebergs and glaciers, and within seconds of the announcement that we had arrived, a pod of about 50 orcas circled our boat (an inflatable thing called a zodiac). Over the coming days, I found myself in complete disbelief of the sheer quantity of wildlife that thrived in the area. I observed endless groups of penguins leaping in and out of the water around me, and spotted the bubbles of feeding humpback whales who would suddenly emerge on either side of my zodiac. The region is full of colours and sounds I didn’t know existed; the simple colour blue had a whole new meaning in Antarctica. It can be loud and chaotic, or it can be silent and still with nothing more than a light breeze to interrupt your thoughts. Very quickly Antarctica became a symbol of the planet’s raw, wild and pristine potential. I felt like my eyes just weren’t big enough to take it all in. Antarctica truly has to be seen, heard and felt for anyone to truly grasp its magnificence.
As I floated around these landscapes, I had to wonder how much had changed, and what was in store for the future? It has become clear that our collective actions have reached this remote region of the Earth. Our experienced guides, who had spent decades exploring the region, told us stories of where the glaciers once stood, and compared to where we see them now, having retreated hundreds of metres into the land in their lifetime. It was completely evident that Antarctica was losing ice and has been for years. What’s alarming is the trend showed no signs of turning around. It appears that despite visible evidence, a debate over whether the climate was truly getting hotter was stalling action and continues to.
The undeniable truth is that Antarctica is changing, and I will not be able to return to see it as I have been lucky enough to experience this year. When I imagined the greatest adventure of my life, I never imagined comfortably stepping outside in my t-shirt. I never imagined vast fields of mud. I never imagined sadness in the voice of the field experts as they spoke of once-mighty glaciers. I never imagined I would be there to find and take photos of plastic, and I never imagined it could be the last time I would see some of these species. I am grateful to have had the chance to experience this continent as it is today. The one thought that continued in my mind was how would Antarctica look if I were to return in five years, or 10 years? We can no longer debate whether or not the polar regions are changing. Instead we could focus on protecting extraordinary regions.
It wasn’t long until I realised that standing around and wondering what the future holds isn't helpful. The future is still untold and every day I have an impact on it. I can do more than wait and see. I have the potential to take action and to change myself to help the remaining wild places and beautiful creatures that call it home, we all do. The future of these remarkable natural places is relying on us to realise our potential for change. All our actions have value, no action is ever wasted.
Whether or not an individual believes in climate change, gives no one the right to treat the Earth like rubbish. We need to begin to view the environment from a more holistic standpoint to properly address the issue. Let's push world leaders to take on the issue and act, let them know the environment should be a priority. This is not an issue for striking school students to solve alone. Denial of climate change cannot be used as an excuse to avoid making changes for our only home. Whether you believe the rapidly warming globe is human-induced or not, when the situation is so urgent, and the consequences are so dire, isn’t it sensible to take the side of caution and follow the best available science we have to protect nature and people? We are so lucky, to live in a time where we have the opportunity to turn it around, and to protect and rebuild these incredible wild places for ourselves and future generations.