Zanagee Artis’ fun fact about Antarctica is that the biomass of krill is roughly equivalent to the biomass of humanity.
Emma Wilkinson’s fun Antarctica fact is that whales sleep with half of their brain awake so they don’t drown.
That was about it for the “fun” facts that they brought home with them after their recent 10-day expedition to Antarctica as part of their full-time work as climate activists. The rest of the information they gathered was mostly grim in nature, underscoring the urgent threat facing the region as greenhouse gas emissions cause global temperatures to rise and ice melt to accelerate at a catastrophic rate.
Artis and Wilkinson were a part of a group of more than 160 scientists, community leaders, corporate executives, and youth activists visiting Antarctica to learn more about the climate crisis. The trip was organized by the nonprofit Global Choices and the natural lifestyle brand Vivobarefoot, and it was led by the legendary explorer Robert Swan — the first person in history to walk to both the North and South Poles.
The trip took place in the heart of the climate emergency, and the group saw freak weather events firsthand, such as extreme rainfall and heat waves. They participated in workshops, lectures, and scientific expeditions to gather data. For 10 days, they received a crash course in one of the most extreme but essential environments in the world.
“Before we arrived there, I learned that Antarctica was a polar desert and I took that to mean that it would be a desolate wasteland of ice, and that was the opposite of what we experienced,” Artis, who co-founded the global youth-led climate justice organization Zero Hour, told Global Citizen. “It was incredible to be on the peninsula and see life everywhere.
“We saw whales almost every day,” he added. “We saw penguins, birds, seals, all different kinds of species. And that was really memorable to me because, in thinking about Antarctica, we think about the interior and the ice sheet which is just flat, white everywhere, and we don’t think about the vibrant coastline as much, and all the biodiversity.”
Both Wilkinson and Artis had never been to the poles before, and Artis had only left the United States once before — to attend the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow last November. Wilkinson, for her part, had more experience campaigning on behalf of the world’s poles as a member of Global Choices’ Arctic Angels team. Both polar regions face the same threats, ultimately, and depend on radical interventions by humanity to survive.
Artis and Wilkinson watching whales
Being there in person strengthened Wilkinson’s resolve.
“While there, I thought about how well adapted the animals are to this ecosystem,” she said. “It was incredible to see a region that's so hard on us, cold and intense, and they’re perfectly adapted — just chilling on the ice. We are collaborating and advocating to increase recognition of how interconnected all of our global commons are, and how we can act locally to protect them."
The idea of a global commons is especially urgent in the era of climate change, Wilkinson stressed, as our shared atmosphere becomes inhospitable to human life. The more countries invest in global climate action — mitigation, adaptation, and a just transition — the safer this commons will be for future generations.
It may seem odd to consider Antarctica as part of our shared heritage, but it’s true from a legal perspective. In 1959, 54 countries signed the Antarctic Treaty to commit to the region’s protection. The treaty is set to be renegotiated in 2041, and countries have an opportunity to create a vast sanctuary protecting polar species while also phasing out the fossil fuels that are causing such harm.
In recent years, however, countries have wavered from the treaty’s mission, as efforts to prospect for oil and harvest resources proliferate. The group saw the impact of these incursions firsthand.
“We went to Whaler’s Bay, which is where people were stationed to participate in whaling activities in the 1940s and 1960s, and we saw these giant tankers where they were storing oil. And it was this really harrowing reminder that humans have always been extracting from and exploiting the environment,” Artis said.
“In the past it was whale oil and we hunted whales to near extinction, and now it’s fossil fuels. It seems like history is repeating itself with the fuel sources we extract from the environment having devastating impacts for ecosystems.”
The region’s biodiversity, they learned, is under profound stress from the climate crisis.
A series of increasingly alarming developments shadowed the trip. In the middle of March, scientists recorded temperatures 70 degrees Fahrenheit above normal in eastern Antarctica. Around the same time, an ice shelf the size of New York City collapsed into the ocean. If the frozen water in East Antarctica alone melted, global sea levels would rise more than 160 feet, which would endanger the more than one-third of humanity that lives within 60 miles of a coastline.
And while that may seem like a distant possibility, ice melt rates are rapidly accelerating around the world. Every 40 hours, Antarctica loses a billion metric tons of ice. Since the early 1990s, the continent has lost more than 3 trillion tons of ice.
Rising global temperatures set these trends in motion, but once they begin, they achieve a sort of internal momentum as feedback loops take over. One feedback loop is known as the albedo effect. Clear ice reflects sunlight back into the atmosphere, but as it melts and exposes more of the darker ocean, more sunlight gets absorbed, creating more warmth and driving more ice loss in an expanding process.
"We are facing a polar ice crisis, having lost 28 trillion tonnes of ice in less than 30 years, which is equivalent to a sheet 100 meters thick covering the UK,” Wilkinson said. “Globally, the impacts of this will be exponential — from biodiversity loss and sea level rise, to droughts and food insecurity."
Antarctica’s decline has global impacts. Already, global sea levels have risen more than 9 inches, which has caused coastlines to retreat and given more force to tropical storms. The enormous amount of cold air being pushed off the continent as ice melts is disrupting the global jet stream, resulting in harsh cold spells in areas such as Texas that are poorly equipped to deal with freezing temperatures.
Wildlife that have relied on stable conditions for tens of thousands of years are being harmed by the abrupt changes.
Krill, in particular, depend on the algae that grows under ice sheets. They also use ice as cover to raise their young. As ice sheets shrink, this food source and nursery disappears. The effects have been dramatic. Since the 1970s, documented krill have declined by 80%.
“Overfishing and sea ice habitat loss for krill will mean loss of a major keystone species that supports life in the region,” Artis said.
Countless animals rely on krill for food, including blue whales, penguins, fish, squids, and leopard seals. They anchor the entire ecosystem. Krill also sequester carbon emissions by eating phytoplankton that store carbon and then pooping out carbon-containing waste that falls to the ocean floor.
“Whales that consume the krill are a huge source of carbon removal and sequestration down to the seafloor — this whole cycle process that prevents CO2 from going to the atmosphere for hundreds of years,” Artis said.
Although the magnitude of the climate and biodiversity crisis overwhelmed them at times, Artis and Wilkinson both channeled the determination of Swan himself as they vowed to work tirelessly to advocate for Antarctica.
“We want to bring Antarctica to people,” Artis said. “It’s a place most of us will never be able to experience, so we want to share what it was like to be in such a remote place.”
He said that Zero Hour will work to protect the Central Arctic Ocean ice shield and urge people to talk to their elected officials to protect the Arctic from commercial activity and climate change.
Wilkinson also saw the experience as part of her larger trajectory of activism.
“When I was doing my undergraduate research on conservation volunteers' motivations, the notion of direct experience being needed to motivate action to conserve biodiversity arose,” she said. “But we have so many creative forms of storytelling to share the wonder of Earth and the life it sustains with others, to inspire them to protect it.
"We are really contemplating how we can use our story of the magnificent Antarctic landscape to connect our communities to the polar environments and drive climate action forward, because we both want to protect this ecosystem and recognize its critical role in global climate stability."