Why Antarctica is Vital to the Future of Earth

People close to me know that travel is my passion. It has been a priority for most of my life. As the number of trips I’ve had the opportunity to take has risen, my destinations have gone farther off the beaten path. A trip to Antarctica pushed the boundaries to their farthest reaches.

The idea of traveling to Antarctica started with a desire to reconnect to my father, who passed away in 2005. In the early 1980’s he worked at McMurdo Station, the United States Antarctic research center on the south tip of Ross Island. He was an electrician whose efforts added to our global communication capability. My decision to travel onboard National Geographic’s Explorer was to share, in some small way, what he had experienced so many years ago.

The original intent of this voyage was deeply personal. In that regard, this journey did not disappoint. What I did not expect was how immensely it would add to my professional perspective of future-focused leadership.

Antarctica's Past

Intellectually, I have always understood that Antarctica does not belong to any one country. Until my travels, however, I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of this arrangement. Nor did I really understand the impact of the Antarctica Treaty, which was signed on December 1, 1959, by 12 countries with the purpose of protecting the continent as a scientific preserve and banning military activity on the continent. Today, 53 countries have signed the treaty. No sovereign nation has a claim on any part of the Antarctic territory. The continent is dedicated to peace and science. In every way possible, the agreement holds a delicate ecosystem in balance that, if disrupted or destroyed, could have devastating effects for all of us.

…it is in the interest of all humankind that Antarctica continue to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord…

- Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting XXXII, April 2009

Antarctica's Present

The Antarctic is a hidden, natural, critical infrastructure for the Earth. Whether or not we know it, our lives rely on it. Unlike the roads that we drive on, the financial system we expect, and the internet we take for granted, the Antarctic is not commonly known, understood, or even seen. In fact, only about 50,000 people each year have the opportunity to visit. It is far away, difficult to reach, physically taxing, and prohibitively expensive for many. Despite how distant it is from our daily lives, we are each connected to this place by our shared interdependence of water, climate, and decisions that ultimately impact the ownership and use of this wonderful place.

Today, Antarctica is made up of 98% ice and only 2% actual land. This ice sheet covers approximately 5.4 million square miles and contains roughly 6.4 million cubic miles of ice. These numbers are almost incomprehensible. Antarctica is the largest single mass of ice on earth. As perspective — approximately 90% of the earth’s fresh surface water is held in the Antarctica ice sheet.


Antarctica's Future

In 2048, the governing treaty that has secured this pristine and powerful place will come up for possible renewal, leaving it vulnerable to modification. Already, a few countries and companies have begun to make arguments for opening up the treaty to allow for drilling, mineral exploration, and mining. If this allowance occurs, it will accelerate the impact of climate change on the already melting glacier and ice sheet. The consequences could be severe for all of us.

We need a call to action for future-focused leadership to stand in the future to see what needs to be done today to protect this incredible place. The Antarctic serves all global citizens. Its health — now and in the future — will have a ripple effect on the health of our planet and our people for centuries to come. Though 2048 may feel like it is far in the future, it is not too soon to be vigilant in making decisions today and tomorrow that do not introduce any intentional or unintended consequences to this vital and critical global infrastructure.

Antarctica teaches us that we have limited resources that must be protected and shared. It is a harbinger of our planet’s wellness. We must collaborate and learn from history, that we can change a bad situation into a good one. We are all interconnected in this effort. Nothing is too small or localized to help with our global challenge.

Use your voice, your vote, and your dollar. Write to your elected leaders and the companies you buy from every day. Make sure they know what matters to you and to our shared future. Reduce your plastic footprint by redesigning a lifestyle that is plastic-free. Seek education and get involved with viable current efforts like National Geographic Climate ChangeWhy Antarctica Matters, the Antarctic and Southern Oceans Coalition, and Parley.

No doubt, you have causes that are meaningful to you personally. This one is meaningful to us all — to our shared global citizenship and to our future. I encourage you to get to know and come to protect this vital source of life on our shared planet.

Engage a human-centric perspective

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