Ask Southern New Hampshire University’s President, Paul LeBlanc, “How is Antarctica?” and he will tell you why we should care.
Through the power of social media and digital communications, I have been in touch with SNHU’s President, Paul LeBlanc, during his dream trip to Antarctica. His expedition is on my bucket list as well. He has been writing and sharing his experience in real time and he edited down for Manchester Ink Link readers the long campus blog he did throughout his 15-day trip.
“Should one travel to Antarctica?”
I love the fact that he asks the hard questions of himself in his conclusion. His questions of how to counsel a would-be traveler and whether he would go again are perfectly framed for the times we live in.
What follows is an edited version of LeBlanc’s travelogue created especially for Manchester Ink Link readers. The views expressed here from his social media accounts are his own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Southern New Hampshire University, its students, staff or Board of Trustees. But we love the fact that he is willing to share his experiences and observations and climate concerns with our readership. (KS)
A President’s Reflections: “How was Antarctica?”
by Paul LeBlanc
If you follow my Twitter account, @snhuprez, you’ve seen me posting lots of photos of adorable penguins, humpback and killer whales, icebergs, and majestic polar landscapes. That’s because I was in Antarctica to kick off 2023, going solo (well, along with about 200 other travelers on the ship) on a trip I’ve long wanted to do.
Antarctica in the summer is teeming with life. The confluence of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern Oceans produces waters so rich in plankton and krill, the base of the food chain, that their green plumes can be seen from space. Marine animals and birds migrate from around the planet, from as far away as the Arctic in the case of the diminutive and champion distance flyer, the Arctic Tern, to feed. We saw whales every day, often in abundance: humpbacks, killer whales (orcas), and even an elusive Minke Whale.
However, the penguins really are the star of the show in Antarctica. Unbelievably cute and comical, with a delightful waddle and form, they have no predators on land, so care not at all about humans. Often, they would divert from their well-trod “penguin highways” and join us on our prescribed pathways and because we were instructed to keep 15 feet of distance, we sometimes had to back up or, when they simply decided to stop on our path and look around, all human traffic had to stop and wait for them to get on their way.
I read Ed Jong’s marvelous 2022 book An Immense World on the way down, a delightful look at animal sensory abilities. One has to be struck by how limited we are in or own sensory abilities (okay, we score pretty high for sight acuity), how little we understand and feel the ways other animals experience the world, and how magical is the ability of an Arctic Tern to find its ways across thousands of miles, or the ability of humpbacks to use infrasounds to communicate across whole oceans (yep, whole oceans!), or the ways deep sea creatures adapt to life in utter blackness. The ways that animals have adapted to Antarctica’s extremes are astonishing. We’d last five minutes.
The animals were pretty great.
My Antarctica Adventure: Part 3. The Ferocious Beauty
I read somewhere that people go to Antarctica for the animals, but return for the landscape. For the ice. Generally speaking, I’m more of a city and town guy than a nature guy. I like a majestic mountain, a deserted beach, or a good blizzard as much as the next person, but 9 times out of 10 I’ll take a Paris café over a campfire dinner, an ancient ruin over an ancient desert, and painted ceilings over “painted” canyon walls. Of course, I knew this was going to be a nature trip and I was eager to see the glaciers, icebergs, and aforementioned creatures. Spending almost more money on cold weather gear than the actual trip, I was hoping for extreme weather, wanting a “real Antarctica experience” like those described by those early explorers – minus the frostbite, snow blindness, and early death, of course. I had done so much reading I knew this was a place of extremes: the worst seas, the lowest temperatures, the highest wind speeds. As more than one commentator said, it is the closest thing to another planet we can experience on earth. I was ready.
I wasn’t ready.
Antarctica overwhelms. First, the scale is astounding and quickly dwarfs anything manmade. Glaciers go on for miles, with rifle shot cracks echoing off nearby mountains, glaciers calve new and immense icebergs. The icebergs themselves are objects of endless fascination. Many are larger than the ship or whole buildings, revealing only a small portion of their actual size. They came drifting out of the fog, they lit up like beacons in the morning sun, they shifted through hues of blue depending on the light, and they revealed different textures depending on if a surface had been sculpted by wind or waves. And then they sometimes flip, they create massive waves and reveal new shapes.
The mountains, ancient volcanic peaks, often rise sharp and saw-toothed. Over millions of years, glaciers have shaped them with endless variety. At almost every turn, we came upon another unnamed peak that would be the star attraction in any of the fifty states. Like the icebergs, their character changed depending on the light, the fog that often enshrouded them, or the way the wind spiraled snow from their tops.
Then there is the weather.
We went from eerie polar fog to bright blue skies to blizzard conditions all in the same day. Hiking on a sunny day, we actually broke a sweat. When glacial winds would kick up, often with no warning, (called katabatic winds, they flow down the slope of glaciers picking up the cold of ice that can be miles deep and move with ferocity), the temperature might plunge 30 degrees and have us scrambling to add layers.
We navigated the Lemaire Channel, sometimes called Kodak Canyon, it is so narrow and picturesque, with a howling 50-knot wind and icebergs all around us, and the sharp-sided peaks shrouded in fog. We rode zodiacs through newly broken-up pack ice, gliding between icebergs at water level. Visiting a penguin colony in a blizzard, my iPhone’s interface so slowed in the icy cold that I held a hand warmer to the back of it. I also put foot and hand warmers in my boots and gloves before leaving the ship. The weather is its own dramatic character in the play that is Antarctica; some would argue the protagonist.
Then there is the sea, the weather’s active co-conspirator.
The Drake Passage is fabled, the confluence of three oceans with no landmass to slow down the polar winds that circle the continent and act as the engine room for the rest of the world’s climate. Big rolling swells kept our ship moving up and down in ways that sent a lot of people to their cabins and the comfort of seasickness medication. Instead of heading south to Antarctica in a straight line, the captain charted a big sweeping arc of a course to stay east of a massive and menacing low-pressure front off to our west and had the ship’s stabilizers deployed. I’ve never suffered from seasickness and was lucky to not be laid low, but many others were less fortunate. The passage back was worse, as we fought our way into the wind, with the bow rising and plunging, the latter sending a shudder throughout the ship. Ice formed on rails and windows. I had the front-facing library to myself for most of the time.
Anyone walking anywhere had to keep “one hand for the ship,” grabbing railings and furniture to stay upright (it did make it look like a ship of drunks, which I should have captured on video), and barf bags were distributed along all the rails on each deck. Seats at dinner were easy to come by and plates and glasses would occasionally go sliding off tables with a great crash. Some of the crew who had done multiple crossings said that was one of the worst (a week earlier, a sister ship did the Drake in a massive storm with 100-knot winds and was “hammered,” to use our captain’s technical term). It’s easy to see why the Drake is legendary.
While Antarctica’s scale overwhelms any individual human being, our collective impact as a species poses a dire threat to the continent and the ways we live as a species is very much connected to the ways life is unfolding in Antarctica.
We now live in the Anthropocene, the geological epoch that starts with the human species and has accelerated with our presence in almost every part of the planet. We have overrun the place and the rapid warming of the planet is being felt in Antarctica too. Glaciers are melting too fast and those amazing icebergs are majestic, but also a warning sign. Ice shelves are the glacial end zones that extend out over the ocean and their presence slows the movement and melt of glaciers. They are now breaking apart in worrying ways, as evidenced by those massive icebergs we saw.
Scientists are worried about the Thwaites Ice Shelf, the size of Florida, and signs that it may be destabilized. Should it break off and melt, ocean levels might rise as much as 2 feet, and its destruction would destabilize the rest of the western ice sheet with catastrophic effects globally.
People loved the pictures of the penguins I posted on Twitter. They are incredibly charming. They are also in danger. The large Gentoo penguin colony we visited is in trouble, as higher temperatures mean more evaporation, which means more snowfall. With more snow on the ground, the penguins struggle to keep eggs dry and thus viable. Chicks that are born are not yet well insulated, and if they get wet in those temperatures they quickly perish. The scientist that led our visit to the colony worries that it is in trouble; we saw no chicks and very few eggs, while the short window for breeding and incubation is quickly closing. Summer in Antarctica is cruelly short.
Disruptions to the environment
Disruptions to the environment there are changing the conditions faster than evolution can address, so animals are trying to adapt and many are now struggling. I think we all came away with a greater sense of urgency around the health of Antarctica and the state of the planet’s climate generally. I read Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment: Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape while on the trip (when it takes four full days to get to or back from a place, you can squeeze in a fair bit of reading). As she points out, a doubling of the human population has led to a tripling of consumption. We need to arrest the increase in the temperature of our atmosphere before the planet’s feedback loops get locked into irreversible and catastrophic change. Otherwise, the massive flooding we now see in the West, the “once in a hundred years” hurricanes that now wreak havoc across the Southeast every year, and the droughts that are already making vast regions of the US, India, Australia, and other countries uninhabitable, will feel quaint.
And we had just taken planes and a ship, with a massive carbon price for our enlightening experience. The irony is not lost on me. Each of us on that one week of being on board the ship exceeded the annual carbon footprint of the average European. That doesn’t count the impact of our multiple flights there and back. About 10,000 people visit Antarctica annually, so the collective impact is that of a 10,000 European town for a year. In the end, that will have no real impact on the future of Antarctica and maybe the collective consciousness raising will even have a much greater positive off-setting impact, but as an individual trying to be conscious of my individual responsibility, it was hard not to feel a bit hypocritical. Buying carbon offsets, as I routinely do now when traveling, helps, but it still didn’t feel quite right and it is an indirect act, while the black smoke of the ship’s smokestack was an all too immediate reminder that our presence had a cost.
What would I counsel someone who asked should they go?
I’ve been now, so who am I to suggest others should not? Minimally, I guess I’d say to do so as a conscious traveler, finding ways to offset the impacts of that decision, to be a better human being both for the planet and for those who travel there to feed their families instead of feeding their lust for adventure. And if going, to give oneself fully over to the experience. And then when home, fight for Antarctica, as I will do now.
Would I go again?
It was so powerful an experience, it’s tempting to immediately answer yes. But right now, the answer would be no. It’s not a “been there, done that” response. It’s the opposite. It will take me quite a while to know what that trip really was for me. Antarctica may have done all it could for me or all that I can fairly ask of it. If it’s fair to use my pilgrimage analogy, one doesn’t just do the laundry, pack the knapsack, and set out on another pilgrimage. This has to set for a while.
All I know in this moment is that Antarctica is like no other place on Earth.
You can read the full, unabridged, campus blog post here.
Manchester’s Ink Link has expanded its Arts and Culture focus. What we thought might just be a supplement to the weekly arts roundup has quickly grown into another opportunity to drive Carol Robidoux’s Solutions Journalism principles along with demonstrating the power of a community to effect change. Our first series has been addressing Climate Change.