Saving Antarctica (and Us)

Some days (ok, most days), I have to dig deep to push myself to make the 1.5 mile round-trip walk to the local coffee shop. I try to convince myself I make up for my sloth by parking three rows away from the door at Trader Joe’s.

Then there’s Robert Swan.

archAt the age of 11, he became fascinated with Antarctica, and the pull did not wane as he grew up. The great era of polar exploration was over, but Swan decided he could achieve a first—walk from the edge of the continent to the South Pole, a distance of 900 miles, while pulling all the supplies he would need on a sledge. Swan and two others accomplished that feat in 1986 (with Swan losing 69 pounds in the process), then a few years later Swan and a different team made a similar trek in the Arctic, crossing ice sheets on foot to reach the North Pole—a hike of about 700 miles. Swan remains the only man to walk to both poles with no outside assistance along the way. He doesn’t call himself an explorer; instead, he’s a “polar traveler.”

I went to hear Swan talk about his past exploits and his upcoming project because later this year I’ll be writing two books on the polar regions. While most of the information Swan shared probably won’t make my books, I enjoyed seeing his pictures and hearing the challenges he faced as he made his two trips.

To give some perspective on the size of Antarctica, Swan put up a photo showing a member of his team surrounded by a huge expanse of white. In that moment, he explained, it would have been as if he and his partners were standing in the geographic center of the United States and they were the only people in the country. And to navigate that icy wilderness in the days before GPS and smartphones, all they used were a watch, a sextant, and the sun. If they missed their target, a U.S. research base at the pole, they could have been lost forever. Experts said they would die. Instead, they survived and missed the base by only a few hundred yards.

Swan made his journey shortly after NASA discovered the growing ozone hole over Antarctica. Without the protection of the ozone, Swan’s skin burned and his eyes turned grey. Global changes made since then have stopped the expansion of the ozone hole and eventually it should return to its earlier, healthier concentration. But that experience led Swan to see the impact human activity has on the atmosphere and climate and how the effects are pronounced at the poles.

Before his first trip to Antarctica, Swan turned to Jacques Cousteau for help. The underwater explorer said he would aid Swan if he promised not to leave behind any garbage or other signs of the walk to the pole. Swan agreed, even when that meant salvaging his ship, which sank before it could take him and his team to New Zealand at the end of the trip.

Cousteau also gave Swan the idea for his current project: 2041.  That year will mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Madrid Protocol, an international agreement that makes the continent a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.” That means countries and private companies can’t exploit Antarctica’s natural resources, as is well underway in the Arctic. Swan wants to ensure that the limits set out by the protocol (which actually took effect in 1998 and so run until 2048) remain in place. “No one owns Antarctica,” he said, and he wants to make sure it stays that way.

Since his polar walks, Swan has taken part in three global environmental summits, helped remove tons of metal detritus left on Antarctica by Soviet researchers, and used his 2041 company (yes, he’s trying to earn a living with this, after his earlier trips left him deeply in debt several times) to organize trips to Antarctica. Swan wants to preserve the continent’s pristine nature and tell others about the effects of global warming on the polar regions and how changes there can affect the whole planet. A key goal going forward, he said, will be to work with China and India to reduce their emission of greenhouse gases and seek green sources of energy.


Swan’s E (for Educational) Base, which is powered solely by renewable energy.

Swan is also taking the renewable energy effort to Antarctica. Next year, Swan will lead another walking expedition to the South Pole. His team will meet its energy needs with special solar energy panels designed to work at extremely cold temperatures and biofuels made from food and wood pulp. Swan wants to highlight the need to move away from fossil fuels and show that if the can work in “the most inhospitable place on Earth,” they can work anywhere.

Years ago, I dreamed about going to Antarctica, before scientists knew the full extent of the challenges global warming presented to the continent (and the world), before traveling there became an item on more people’s bucket list. Maybe I’ll still get there (I would love to go before I write these two books and then deduct the trip as a business expense, but that probably ain’t gonna happen). So for now, I’ll live vicariously through people like Swan, and be glad they are not content to be simply polar travelers. They’re actively working to preserve the unique, frozen environments at the ends of Earth.