The Essence of Survival: Hope

“To hope!” Iver Iversen toasts Danish polar explorer Ejnar Mikkelsen in Against the Ice, Netflix’s survival drama based on the true story of a harrowing ordeal in the Arctic.

Amidst the insurmountable white masses of Greenland, hope was their closest companion. Setting sail on the Alabama in 1909, their mission was ambitious: to map the northeastern coast of the region, disprove the notion of the Peary Channel to affirm Denmark’s claim over Greenland, and recover the remains of Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen and Niels Peter Høeg Hagen, explorers of the ill-fated Denmark expedition.

Ejnar Mikkelsen and Iver Iversen photographed in 1910

Left behind by their teammates, these men weathered two winters in Greenland. Remarkable… Yet their story is but one of many etched into the polar ice, tales of explorers making sacrifices in pursuit of charting the unknown. Whether their motivation is fame, patriotism, or else, their dedication deserves praise.

As I pulled my sledge across the desolate Antarctic plateau during my eight-day journey to the South Pole, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between past explorers and today’s scientists, both groups leading the way to unknowns with enduring hope. In the early 20th century, explorers hoped to find answers and survive the journey to return home. Similarly, scientists today are driven by the hope of understanding the polar regions to find answers to the pressing environmental challenges we face.

Forging connections with science

In our quest for answers, knowing where to look is crucial, much like how explorers chart their course forward. Sometimes the answer is down rather than ahead. Who would ever think that ice layers kilometers below the surface hold insights into one of the most complex challenges of our day: the climate crisis?

Ice, though seemingly simple, possesses a mysterious nature, serving as a time capsule and offering clues to our planet’s past. With each subsequent snowfall, the accumulated layers compress under the weight of the snow above, gradually transforming into ice.

Particulates and dissolved chemicals that were captured by the falling snow become a part of the ice, giving each layer of snow a unique composition and chemistry. As author Jon Gertner describes in his book ‘The Ice at the End of the World’, an ice core might contain traces of ash that blanketed the earth after the volcanic explosions of Krakatoa in Indonesia (in 1883), Laki in Iceland (1783), or maybe even Vesuvius, near Pompeii (79).

In Antarctica, scientists are working to unravel the secrets embedded in the oldest ice ever discovered. While the existing continuous ice core record only goes back 800,000 years; COLDEX—the Center for Oldest Ice Exploration—aims to extend it to 3 million years—a time when temperatures on Earth were last as high as they are projected to rise over the next 50 years. The focus is to trace the levels of GHGs, particularly carbon dioxide, over time. The ratio of heavy to light oxygen isotopes unearths temperature variations: the fewer heavy isotopes in a polar ice core, the lower the ancient temperature.

Another research conducted recently in Antarctica on ice cores reveals alarming insights, providing evidence of the startling rate at which the Antarctic ice sheet can melt and send sea levels soaring. The ice core analyzed in the study, drilled in 2019, showcases that a portion of the ice sheet thinned by 450 meters—exceeding the height of the Empire State Building—over a mere 200-year period at the conclusion of the last Ice Age.

A piece of ice core drilled from West Antarctica, showing the air bubbles trapped within. University of Cambridge/British Antarctic Survey

As ominous climate forecasts loom every day, the breadth of potential solutions expands in tandem. Studying ice cores is only one facet of today’s ever-advancing climate science.

Sometimes the answer can come from above, as well. Recent strides also include the testing of drones in Antarctica. Once effectively deployed, these drones would help overcome the logistic hurdles of the region while surveying marine ecosystems, tectonic structures, and glaciers. Using drones could not only reduce CO2 emissions by approximately 90% but also save time—the biggest constraint in our battle against the climate crisis.

A new Chinese satellite, Fengyun-3E, is using a novel approach to monitor Antarctic sea ice in order to help scientists better understand the changing climate at the poles. Using a radar to measure wind patterns at various altitudes, scientists can distinguish new sea ice from the old ones, enhancing our understanding of ice formation and loss.

The imperative of prioritization

Under a 2°C warming scenario, almost all of Greenland, along with the significant portions of West Antarctica and even vulnerable portions of East Antarctica, are forecasted to undergo serious changes, triggering long-term sea level rise. Studies show that even if air temperatures decrease later on, or if we cease emitting CO2 into the atmosphere, a warmer ocean will retain heat for longer than the atmosphere.

For the cryosphere, 1.5° isn't just better than 2°C or more; it's clearly the only way forward. As each day goes by, the need to protect the cryosphere with the implementation of impactful projects becomes more urgent.

While all the projects aimed at securing a sustainable future are well-intentioned, it's important to evaluate their effectiveness and impact. As an example, the idea of building a 100km-long curtain on the bed of the Amundsen Sea to block the inflow of warm water and protect Antarctic glaciers doesn't seem feasible.

While geoengineering projects may propose bold solutions, they also entail significant costs, time, and risks. It is essential to remain focused on solutions that yield tangible outcomes.

Sea level rise poses a major threat, capable of potentially reshaping the world map and adversely affecting millions of people. To mitigate further melting and adapt, our priority must be the global decarbonization of all industries and systems. The responsibility, without a doubt, extends to the business community. From insurance and real estate to banking and manufacturing, our systems must undergo a significant transformation. Given the substantial damage already done, robust adaptation measures become critical in saving lives. Soon, we will find ourselves identifying safe habitation areas to adapt to the new climate reality. (This is an issue demanding ample focus, but let’s delve into this in a separate piece)

Humanity’s drive to understand our planet, whether to explore its unknowns or to find answers in its most unexpected corners, is a testament to our innate instinct for survival. Mikkelsen and Iversen exemplified hope as they courageously pushed the boundaries of what was deemed possible against overwhelming odds. Their story serves as a call to trust our inherent capabilities and maintain optimism in the face of challenges and uncertainty.

In the words of Sir Ernest Shackleton, “Optimism is true moral courage.”

Hakan Bulgurlu CEO