On Thin Ice: A Journey of Hope

"I believe it is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown. The only true failure would be not to explore at all.” —Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, Antarctic Explorer

In August 1914, Ernest H. Shackleton, the world-famous Antarctic explorer, embarked on an audacious expedition with his crew in an attempt to cross the vast Antarctic ice sheet via the South Pole. However, their journey took an unexpected turn soon after nearing the Antarctic mainland. Their ship, Endurance, encountered polar pack ice and became immobilized. From that moment on, a riveting story of survival began…

Stranded 1,500 miles away from the nearest human contact, Shackleton and his crew found themselves in a precarious situation, cut off from communication with the outside world. Ice floes held Endurance captive for months until its dramatic sinking in October 1915. Despite the adversity, Shackleton and his party showed impeccable resilience, camping on the ice floes for an additional five months. Eventually, they sailed to Elephant Island and organized the rescue of the remaining crew members. Against all odds, the entire team survived and returned to their homes safely in the end!

The Endurance trapped in ice in 1915 before it sank. Photograph: Bettmann Archive, via Guardian.

Shackleton’s extraordinary journey is extensively studied at Harvard as a prime example of exceptional leadership. While many might perceive Shackleton’s expedition as a failure, it’s a gripping tale of perseverance and the sheer will to survive. It reveals the profound human desire to explore our planet and the risks we are willing to take in pursuit of this innate curiosity.

I previously heard about the heroic—and tragic—age of Antarctic exploration from my Professor, Boris Groysberg, at Harvard Business School. Over a century ago, seasoned explorers Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott engaged in a race to be the first to reach the South Pole. This rivalry, also known as ‘the Race to the South Pole’, concluded with a victory for Amundsen and his team, but it was a total tragedy for Scott's party, as they all died on the return journey.

Unfortunately, today’s Antarctica starkly contrasts with the land Shackleton, Amundsen or Scott aspired to explore and risked their lives for.

The chilling truth

Antarctica, the realm of unparalleled isolation and pristine wilderness, is grappling with the severe impacts of the climate crisis. Spanning nearly double the size of Australia, this continent holds enough ice that its meltdown could literally reshape our coastlines and, so to speak, redefine the world map.

After the record-breaking summer, global average temperatures surged by 1.8°C in September, heightening the likelihood of 2023 being recognized as the hottest year on record. With the full impact of global warming underway, the natural processes in substantial portions of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are undergoing detrimental changes.

Typically, Antarctica’s sea ice reaches its maximum extent each September. The average between 1981 and 2010 was 18.71 million sq km. However, the preliminary analysis from September this year indicates that the sea ice had only reached a maximum of 16.96 million sq km, and it has further receded since then. To provide context, the difference in size of Antarctica’s winter sea ice this year from the 1981–2010 average roughly equals the size of Alaska.

Since 1997 alone, Antarctica has lost over 40% of its ice shelves, amounting to a staggering 7.5 trillion tons of ice. What is more alarming, research indicates that accelerated ice melt in west Antarctica—capable of pushing up the oceans by 5 meters if lost completely—is inevitable for the rest of the century, regardless of how much emissions we cut. With approximately one-third of the global population dwelling within 100 km of coastlines, millions of people from Shanghai to New York and Mumbai are vulnerable to sea-level rise. The destiny of Antarctica is inextricably entwined with our own.

Even the shipwreck of the iconic Endurance, which was later discovered off the coast of Antarctica in 2022, is threatened by the climate crisis due to ocean acidification and melting ice. The list of threats is unfortunately as extensive as it is urgent. What happens down there in the continent matters a lot. To all of us!

As Shackleton once said, leaders must keep going and lead change. So, as a business leader and climate advocate, I am gearing up for an expedition to Antarctica. My mission: to cast a global spotlight on the ongoing destruction of our planet’s ecosystems, emphasize the pressing need for collective action, and spark inspiration among individuals and the business community, as well as the organization I lead. My journey will begin with the ascent of Mount Vinson, the highest peak in Antarctica, standing at 4,892 meters, and also one of the coveted Seven Summits. Following this ascent, I will ski the last degree to the South Pole, reaching the most southerly point on Earth.

I see Shackleton's historic expedition on the Endurance as a powerful metaphor for our current struggle against the climate crisis. Just as Shackleton and his men navigated treacherous icy landscapes, we find ourselves entangled in a global challenge, facing the consequences of a changing climate. Yet, Shackleton's belief that failure lies not in exploration of nature but in its abandonment resonates profoundly.

Crisis and adversity are not new, after all; we have confronted them before, and we are bound to face them again. What truly matters is our response to these challenges. In our case, the icy expanse is the climate crisis, and I firmly believe that we can prevail and build a sustainable future for our children. I hope that this journey will inspire not only admiration for the untouched beauty of Antarctica but also a collective determination to safeguard our planet.

A few weeks ago, my 9-year-old daughter, Sasha, approached me with a mixture of curiosity and concern, saying, “Baba, are you really going to Antarctica? Please, don’t die.” I solemnly promised her that I would do anything to return safely, and that promise is one I intend to keep.

Now, it is time for all of us to uphold our promises to future generations—before it’s too late.

Hakan Bulgurlu CEO