Melting Footsteps

100 years after Ernest Shackleton’s death, the future of Antarctica is at stake. And it may not last another century

Antarctica is one of the most pristine places on the planet. This gigantic region of the southern hemisphere – which contains about 90% of the ice and 70% of the world’s fresh water – plays a crucial role for the Earth’s climate and marine ecosystems: the Antarctic ocean absorbs 75% of the excess global heat and almost a third of the CO2 emissions captured by the seas around the world.

In 2022, exactly one hundred years after the end of the so-called “Heroic Era of Antarctic exploration”, and exactly as many years after the death of the famous explorer Ernest Shackleton, who wrote some of the most significant pages of that era (and whose ship Endurance was recently announced to be found, after 106 years underwater), the ice continent is at risk. Climate change is causing visible impacts on the region’s biodiversity and potentially irreversible and devastating impacts on the entire planet.

Over the past 30 years, Antarctica’s temperature has risen by 1.8°C, three times the global average. In 2020, the continent registered a new record temperature of 18.3°C. As a main effect, sea ice has declined rapidly. But in Antarctica, rising levels of greenhouse gases and a shrinking ozone hole could result in temperatures rising by as much as 3°C over the next century. If this happens, the resulting melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet will contribute to a rise in sea levels that is expected to reach 1.4 meters by 2100.

The Antarctic Treaty, stipulated in Washington in 1959, and to which 53 countries adhere, establishes that the continent of ice can be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and scientific research, preventing any form of commercial exploitation, territorial claim or military activity. However, some countries adhering to the Treaty, such as China and Russia, which heavily exploit the fish resources of the continent, seem to want to hinder projects to create new marine protected areas in order to preserve the Antarctic ecosystem and, with it, the future of the Earth.

The heroic era of Antarctic exploration was ‘heroic’ because it was anachronistic before it began, its goal was as abstract as a pole, its central figures were romantic, manly and flawed, its drama was moral (for it mattered not only what was done but how it was done), and its ideal was national honour. It was an early testing-ground for the racial virtues of new nations such as Norway and Australia, and it was the site of Europe’s last gasp before it tore itself apart in the Great War.”
Tom Griffiths, Slicing the Silence: Voyaging to Antarctica