In 2017, Helena Member Robert Swan, together with his son Barney, made the 600 nautical mile expedition from the western coast of Antarctica to the South Pole using nothing but renewable energy sources. The trip was entirely carbon neutral, with all emissions offset by forestation and Climeworks-powered direct-air carbon capture.
The expedition was the largest, most public piece of a larger, ongoing effort to raise awareness about the necessity and urgency of preserving the Antarctic continent, and of the devastation that is already occurring.
Ninety-nine percent of the world’s freshwater ice is contained in two places: the Greenland ice sheet in the north and the Antarctic ice sheet in the south. The Greenland ice sheet is large—1.7 million square kilometers—but it is dwarfed by the Antarctic one, which covers 14 million square kilometers and contains 30 million cubic kilometers of water.
Throughout world history, the size of the ice sheets have ebbed and flowed significantly—in the last Ice Age, for example, they covered roughly a third of the planet—but they have been relatively stable for much of the past few millennia. There has always been ice loss—generally on the coasts of the ice sheets, where the surrounding water slowly melts the fringes, and underneath them—but that has been replaced by snowfall, leaving total mass in a steady state.
This is no longer the case.
With global temperatures increasing (Antarctica saw its warmest day on record in February of 2020, when it was warmer than it was in Los Angeles) and changes in ocean currents and wind patterns, both ice sheets are losing mass much faster than they can gain it back. Since 1992, the Antarctic ice sheet alone has lost roughly 2.7 trillion tons of ice.
In 2011, a team of scientists from the European Space Agency (ESA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched the Ice Sheet Mass Balance Inter-comparison Exercise to better monitor the levels of Earth’s ice sheets. In 2019, they published a pair of alarming studies in Nature (“that showed that the rate of loss has increased fivefold in the last twenty years, now topping 450 million tons, accounting for a third of the world’s sea level rise.
This tracks almost precisely with the most dire scenarios envisioned by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In these scenarios, they forecast a sea level rise of 60cm by the year 2100. For context, this would submerge the homes of roughly 400 million people.
The sanctity and health of the ice sheets has never been of greater importance, but climate change is not the only threat. The Antarctic region, in particular, is rich in biodiversity and natural resources, making it incredibly valuable. And since it is an autonomous territory with no indigenous population, it is ripe for colonization and exploitation.
Fortunately, it is almost entirely protected. At least for now.
On December 1st, 1959, twelve nations—Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America—signed the Antarctic Treaty. The twelve nations—the only countries to have established scientific research bases on the continent—agreed, over 14 simple articles, “that it is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.”
The Antarctic Treaty was the first international treaty signed during the Cold War that included arms control provisions: it established that no military equipment, even that used for scientific research, would ever enter its territory, and it would never be the setting for international discord. The treaty went into effect on June 23, 1961, and was binding for 30 years.
As the end of the 30 year period approached, it became clear that the Treaty would have to expand. Protocols on mining and drilling were becoming increasingly necessary as nations were competing with each other for resources.
So, in 1991, the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty was established.
It was signed by the 26 Consultive Members of the Parties of the Protocol (to be Consultive Member, a nation must agree to the treaty and establish a research base in the territory) and, among other things, established that
— “The Parties commit themselves to the comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment and dependent and associated ecosystems and hereby designate Antarctica as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.”
— “The protection of the Antarctic environment…shall be fundamental considerations in the planning and conduct of all activities in the Antarctic Treaty area.”
— The Parties would co-operate and share information.
— All proposed activities would be evaluated beforehand for their environmental impacts.
— All mining would be prohibited.
The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty was put into effect in 1998. It has a term of 50 years.
On January 11, 1986, Sir Robert Swan, OBE, touched the South Pole. It would not be the last time. That day marked the culmination of a journey that had commenced more than two years before, on November 3rd, 1984, when he had first set off for Antarctica. The expedition was called “In the Footsteps of Scott,” because it mirrored that of Robert Falcon Scott, who, with his team, was the second person to reach the geographic South Pole in 1912. Scott did not survive the return home.
After spending the Antarctic winter hunkered down in a self-made shelter by the Jack Hayward Base on the west coast of Ross Island, Swan and his team made the 833 nautical mile trek to the Pole. Over the course of 70 days, with no radios, no help, hauling 350lb sledges behind them through the most inhospitable conditions on Earth, they completed the longest unassisted march in recorded history.
Three years later, on May 14, 1989, Swan solidified his legacy as one of the greatest explorers in history. That was the day he completed a 500 nautical mile march to the geographic North Pole, becoming the first man to make both trips on foot. He was accompanied by a team of eight people from all seven continents.
This arctic expedition was dubbed “Icewalk,” though that was a bit of a misnomer, because the most dangerous aspect of the trip was the distinct lack of ice. Slipping and sliding across ice that should not have been melting for six more months, Swan and his team nearly turned back for fear of drowning.
What Swan observed corroborated the growing consensus in the scientific community about what was happening to the planet. The discovery of the hole in the ozone layer was first published in Nature in 1985, studies were showing that ice was melting from both poles, and the IPCC was established in 1988, with their first Assessment Report released in 1990. People were starting to take notice.
Still, the information—and, perhaps more importantly, the potential consequences—was not yet in the public eye. When Swan returned from the North Pole, “global warming” as a term had not yet been coined (or at least used publicly), and widespread acceptance of the phenomenon was being undermined and obfuscated by biased studies and inconclusive assessments funded by fossil fuel companies.
To Swan, though, the evidence was clear. After all, he had nearly drowned in it. In 1991, timed in concordance with the signing of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, the famous Jacques Cousteau, explorer, environmentalist, inventor (and grandfather of Helena Member Fabien Cousteau) issued Swan a challenge: fifty years to save Antarctica.
Fifty years from 1991 is 2041. Thus, the name of the organization Robert Swan launched after speaking with Cousteau: the 2041 Foundation.
The Foundation’s mission is “to engage businesses and communities on climate science, personal leadership, and the promotion of sustainable practices,” and it does so through a combination of youth programs, community outreach and expeditions, all of which are aimed to spread awareness, to educate, and to make the climate fight personal.
Since its inception, Swan and the 2041 Foundation have engaged with hundreds of schools and given lectures in over 160 countries. Swan has spoken in front of the World Economic Forum, the United Nations, BNP Paribas, Unit 4, and Corporate Eco Forum, and his TED Talk has been viewed over a million times. The Foundation has set up “E-Bases” (Education Bases) all over the world, each one powered entirely on renewable energy.
The expeditions, though, are what the 2041 Foundation is most famous for. In the last 14 years, the 2041 Foundation has put on 22 separate expeditions—most to the South Pole, but there have also been yacht trips (on a vessel, powered by renewable energies, called the 2041) and bike rides—that have allowed 3500 people to see firsthand the ongoing devastation of climate change.
Most of these adventures are protected and safe, a way for tourists to experience and connect with the environment without the 350lb sledge drags and frostnipped fingertips. In 2014, though, with the world’s climate forecast looking increasingly bleak, Swan decided to do something bigger, something he hadn’t done for 30 years: he decided to walk, again, to the South Pole.
Together with his twenty-one-year-old son, Barney, Swan committed to the South Pole Energy Challenge (SPEC): not only would they make the trek, they would do so using only renewable energies, and the entire expedition—including air travel—would be entirely carbon neutral.
Preparation for the expedition took almost three years. The training was intense: the Swans had to prepare their bodies for two straight months of trekking across an ice sheet, covering 10 nautical miles per day, in temperatures that would be consistently 40 below, hauling 200lb sleds (thankfully technology had streamlined the weight down from the 350lb behemoths of Swan’s past); and they also had to prepare their minds for two straight months of endless ice, with no sunset or respite.
What was just as important was all the work surrounding the trip. The point of the expedition was not just an endurance test, the end result not just a testament to the fortitude of the human will; the point of the expedition was to demonstrate the effectiveness and viability of renewable energy systems while also giving a visible, emotionally-galvanizing image both for the importance of the fight against climate change, and for our capacity for success. For the expedition to accomplish these things, partnerships had to be made, technology acquired, and travel logistics hammered out.
For the expedition, the 2041 Foundation partnered with Helena, along with some of the leading names in conservationism, fuel technologies, and climate change awareness, including the WWF, Shell, Toyota, and the W-Foundation. The SPEC team arranged to use NASA-designed ice melters, advanced bio-fuels, and solar-powered lithium batteries. (Their sleds were affixed with solar panels to take advantage of the 24-hour sunshine.)
The renewable energies would only make the peripatetic leg of their trip carbon neutral. In order to make the entire trip—including travel—carbon neutral, Helena connected the 2041 Foundation with Helena Members Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher, the two founders of Climeworks, a direct-air carbon capture company based in Switzerland and the basis for Helena’s Factory in the Sky project. In order to offset some of SPEC’s emissions, Swan arranged to pay Climeworks to remove from the atmosphere twenty tons of CO2 and sequester it underground. The 2041 Foundation became the world’s first commercial customer of direct-air carbon capture.
On November 23rd, 2017, the SPEC team—Robert and Barney Swan, Martin Barnett, the team’s navigator, and Kyle O’Donoghue, the videographer—packed their sleds and set off from Union Glacier for the Pole. The plan was to cover the 600 nautical miles in 60 days, with a small group of six additional people—called the Last Degree team—joining the SPEC team for the final 60 miles (covering the last degree of latitude on the globe).
The trip was harrowing.
The team started off at a good clip, generally staying around 9-10 nautical miles per day, but their pace started to lag as they passed two weeks. They kept a daily blog—usually updated by Barney or Robert, but occasionally by Martin or Kyle—and the tone became bleaker. On Day 3, Robert wrote excitedly, “We skied an incredible and enthusiastic 9.1 nautical miles today.” On Day 14, he wrote, “following our impressive day of 10.1nm yesterday we exceeded our expectations and travelled 10.3nm today!”
But then, on Day 17, Barney: “This place finds weakness.” On Day 25, Kyle: “The team was far more tired than we thought after the past non-stop 25 days.” And, most ominously, on Day 26, Robert: “My body has not recovered as well as I had hoped but my only concern is that I don’t slow the others down. This weighs heavy with me tonight. We must make good time and I hope I can keep pace.”
The schedule was not something that could be missed; the team had rationed out the specific amount of resources that would sustain them for 60 days. To go over was not an option. Due to this constriction, Robert returned to base camp with a little over 300 miles to go. Barney, Martin, and Kyle, continued on. On day 29, they covered almost 11nm, on day 30 more than 14.
This was not the end of Robert’s expedition. He had set out to make it to the Pole with his son, and that’s exactly what he intended to do. Upon returning to base camp, he elected to wait for the Last Degree group, then, with them, rejoin the SPEC team for the last 60 miles to the Pole.
On January 12th, 2018, on day 51, the Last Degree and SPEC teams connected. Then, on day 56, January 17th, the combined groups successfully made it to the South Pole. Robert Swan, at 61 years old, was again at the geographic bottom of the world.
SPEC was never intended to be a one-off event. It was designed to be a catalyst, part of the larger thrust of the 2041 Foundation: a visible, publicized way to inspire climate change awareness and education, and, ideally, an image of hope and motivation for making the necessary changes to avoid climate catastrophe.
Its goal of publicity was clearly achieved: it has received almost 400 pieces of news coverage and reached an estimated audience of 570 million people. Barney Swan was invited to speak at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2018. Robert Swan spoke in 27 different countries in 2018-2019 alone.
Its goal of expansion was also clearly achieved. Barney used SPEC to help launch a sister organization: ClimateForce, which focuses on funding carbon removal efforts—usually through forestation and direct-air carbon capture. It has a goal of removing 320 gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere by the year 2025 and offsets every ton of CO2 Barney and Robert accumulate emit on their speaking tours and expeditions.
Neither has stopped adventuring. In the summer of 2019, both Swans led a group of scientists, business leaders, and youth climate activists through the Arctic (and the hottest summer ever recorded in the area). Then, in December of that year, Robert, on a new hip, set off again for the South Pole, as part of the Last 300 expedition. The hip did not make it, but Swan remains undeterred.
In 2022, he plans to embark on Undaunted: Southpole 2022. Over the course of his career, Swan has skied 1,460 nautical miles across Antarctica. With Undaunted, a 65-year-old Swan will complete the last 97 to have traversed the entire continent.
There are less than 20 years left until 2041, which will mark 50 years since the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty was signed. Through efforts like SPEC, progress has been made toward protecting the continent, but, with temperatures continuing to rise and ice sheets continuing to melt, there is much work to be done.
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