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Due south: Gearing Up

Jonathan Shopley | 11 March 2014 |

I am in Ushuaia, Argentina -- southern most city in the world -- gearing up for the 2041 International Antarctic Expedition.

Due south: Gearing Up

For the last 3 days the 100 people from 30 countries from ages 16 to 65 have used Ushuaia as base camp before heading due south to the Antarctic. Lots of safety briefings, gear checks, practicing roping up for walks across glaciers.

As part of the programme, Mallika Ishwaren from Shell and I have given our first of three lectures each on the principles of sustainability, and the science, policy and responses to climate change. Those will set us up for informal discussions with this remarkable group of people as they use this amazing experience to engage with these issues in their academic, work and private lives.

Yesterday, we did a live practice walk across ice and snow at the foot of the Martial Glacier which provides Ushuaia with all its fresh water. It has retreated dramatically over the past 50 years, and at current rates, will have completely melted away sometime between 2020 and 2030. Quite a stark example of the consequences of our changing climate.

Martial Glacier – retreating steadily and likely to disappear completely between 2020 and 2030, after which time Ushuaia will be without its sole source of fresh water.

To get under the skin of this Terra del Fuego region, I spent a fascinating hour or two in a small local museum which gives an overview of the Yámana (Yahgan) way of life. The Yamana were the indigenous natives of the area who have died out or been absorbed into new world societies under the relentless onslaught of missionaries, colonial expansion, and economic progress in the region. Remarkably, until their demise as a self-sustaining peoples in the 20th century, they survived the harsh weather in this inhospitable land without clothing or much shelter. A little seal blubber smeared on their bodies, and a patch or two of animal hide to fend of the biting winds. They fished with fires in their canoes to keep warm.

What a contrast to lumbering clothes of skin and wool worn by the early polar explorers. And even more so to the clothes we modern day adventurers can access. My light-weight thermal clothing of manufactured fibres, wind and water-proof gortex outer shells, fleeces made from recycled bottles, and second skin-like gloves are a fraction of the weight or bulk of Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen’s wardrobes. My many layers make up a toasty ensemble which also squashes up into a handy duffel bag that I’ll be hefting aboard the Quark Expeditions ‘Sea Spirit’ this afternoon, when we set sail down the Beagle Channel, past Cape Horn and across the choppy waters of the Drake Passage to the world’s fifth largest continent, driest, coldest and largest (almost untouched) wilderness. Heading: “Due South”…