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The Students on Ice Antarctic Expedition is taking place December 25th, 2014 to January 8th, 2015. To learn more and follow the expedition through photos, videos and student journals visit the expedition website and follow journey updates on Facebook and Twitter.
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Wow. That is the only word I can use to describe my return from the Great White Continent. What a startling transition. One day we’re sitting among the ramparts of nature, listening with reverence to the sounds of silence and penguins. The next, it’s the lethargic airplane fight – reluctantly carrying us away from the place which carried our spirits to unbelievable heights. The next, it’s the daily grind: school, homework, books, job, test, ISU, exams… Returning from the trip, regular life was an illusionary dream incompatible with the realities of Antarctic life. I don’t need my zodiac to get to school? I don’t have Geoff’s voice serenading me out of sleep through a P.A system? I don’t need to wear seven layers of clothing every time I go outside?
However, as time passed, I began to feel as though the majestic Antarctic wonderland existed merely as a figment of my imagination. Its transformative and mystical aura was still present in my mind. But I could not believe that it actually existed, that I had actually been there. The memory of Antarctica has become surrounded by metaphorical clouds. In one regard, these clouds hoist the continent onto a pedestal of otherworldly heavenliness. But at the same time, these clouds are distorting. Obstructing. Obscuring. They prevent me from stepping back into the Great Wonderland and distinctly remember all of its nuances and details. But this is okay. Sometimes, reality is best remembered as a dream. The dream maintains its integrity as an appendage of reality, but retains an aura of shrouded mystery and awe that cannot be contemplated by the mere human mind. It is very important that the spirit of Antarctica – its mystery, its grandeur, its complexity, its beauty – remains seared into the fabric of our minds.
I believe that above all else, Antarctica’s paradoxical nature will continue to resonate with me for the remainder of my life. In the realm below 60 degrees south, as I have thoroughly noted throughout the course of the expedition, nothing ever has just one meaning, or just one interpretation. Penguin guano can be considered unhygienic and disgusting. But at the same time, it is the most beautiful shade of pink ever to don the face of this planet. The elephant seal is massive, dominating warrior – able to crush its prey with only the slightest movement. But at the same time, it is one of the most timid and anxious creatures on the continent. The glacier is a mighty and tremendous sheet of ice – able to effectively decimate surface features and dominate an entire landscape. Yet, they are susceptible to imminent destruction from a mere 1.5’C warming of the planet. The albatross is one of the most venturesome birds alive, travelling thousands of kilometres per day in their quest for food. But it is also one of the laziest, refusing to move its wings throughout the course of its journey by one smidgen. In every case, two contradicting and opposing truths manage to reconcile themselves into a single entity. In this regard, again, the continent is very much like a dream. We deludedly acknowledge the contradicting impossibilities presented to us in dreams as being coherently sensible. We do the same while trying to contemplate the complex realities of Antarctica.
Ever true to its nature, the continent of Antarctica is in itself a paradox. In one regard it is a barren, desolate wasteland of ice and snow. However, Antarctica is also a place of bountiful resources. Some of the world’s largest coal seams exist on the continent’s periphery, and its abundant marine life is suitable for human consumption. These two contrasting identities have hitherto remained in balance. However, this is liable to change, and to change quickly. Several countries have begun fishing for krill in Antarctic waters. Since krill is the base of the food chain for all of the larger charismatic Antarctic animals, like whales, seals and penguins, destroying its populations could have a dramatic effect on the continent’s ecology. Less directly, the impacts of climate change are further hastening the movement and melting of glaciers along the Antarctic coastline. Both these factors in tandem pose a serious threat to Antarctic ecology and geography. While the beauty of Antarctica may be a dream, we are teetering near the edge of a rude awakening into a rude reality.
So is it worth humanity’s collective effort to protect this Antarctic dream? I believe so. Planet Earth has been blessed, blessed with the ability to sustain life. We have clean water, moderate temperatures and extremely varied biodiversity. No other planet in the universe, at least that we know of, can provide our planet’s nurturing environment. Outer space is a cold and desolate reality of our universe. Since the ability to sustain life is such a precious gift, it is our duty as citizens of the universe to maintain our dream-like circumstances. It would be shameful to destroy our remarkable fortune because of our own personal indulgences and gluttony. Moreover, environmental stewardship breeds long-term prosperity for all of humankind. Alternative energy is cheaper than fossil fuels. Ecological conservation will provide us with sustainable food sources. Removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere will reduce instances of extreme weather, which cost millions of dollars to mitigate and cause millions more people to suffer. Through preserving our planet’s natural gifts, we are able to economically benefit by fulfilling our moral obligations.
But most importantly, the aforementioned spirit of Antarctica is immeasurably valuable as a symbol of human identity. Civilization, the accomplishment of our species over the last 6000 years has prided itself on disciplines such as science, art and literature. All these fields are driven by one central idea – the idea that there are bigger things in the world than ourselves. These things are the real-life “dreams” of the universe: fantastical ideas that are so complex that they can only be truly understood through the human imagination. Our own individual survival is not the be all and end all of existence. Instead, it is our pursuit to understand and artistically express these dreams of the universe that gives meaning to our lives. Antarctica is the most profound example of such a dream on planet Earth. I distinctly remember my first time setting eyes on the continent, while zodiac cruising through Elephant Island. I simply sat in the vessel and mouthed the term “wow” to myself over and over again. Wow, wow, wow. The admiration and utter awe I experienced were expressions of my true revelation: that some aspects of our world that are too complex in their grandeur for our minds to comprehend. Through this understanding I became truly human. I became one with our fundamental need to acknowledge, appreciate and strive to understand elements of the world that exist beyond ourselves.This, above all else, is the reason why Antarctica must be preserved as the collective heritage of humankind. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet once said, “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than dreamt of in our philosophy”. The pursuit of acknowledging and understanding these things are what drive us to confront the perils of everyday life. Without symbols like Antarctica to admire, we are nothing more than sleeping, eating collections of atoms.
With the threats against the great White Continent mounting and its importance to human existence established, we must all band together in order to save the ultimate embodiment of the human spirit. Educational programs such as Students on Ice, I salute you. Thank you for giving me and students from around the world an opportunity to understand the importance of Antarctica and planet Earth in our daily lives. Visionary governments of the world who have taken measures to protect the Antarctic environment – I salute you as well. You have beaten a path for rest of the world to follow. But at the end of the day, the choice is up to us. Every single one of us. As we are all the stewards of our planet, we ultimately determine the nature of its fate . So ask yourselves, do you want to be rudely awoken into a world of cold destruction? Or do you wish to remain immersed in the profound beauty of the Antarctic – the ultimate dream? Our individual voices collectively become a mighty roar. And together, though at first we may be a minority, though at first our victories may be small, we can make a positive change in this world. As the great Canadian band Rush once sung, “And the men who hold high places. Must be the ones to start. To mould a new reality. Closer to the heart.”
Hello Students, Parents, & Educators! Our 2015 Arctic Scholarship applications have officially launched! The deadline is approaching – March 15, 2015 at 5pm EST - so apply now! There are many opportunities to apply for a variety of scholarships that will bring students
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