In my early twenties I declared it my personal mission to reach all seven continents before turning thirty years old. After two years of planning and saving, that goal was realized in December 2016 when I set sail from Argentina to Antarctica.
This journey to what was—not just for me, but also to the great polar explorers—the “last continent,” proved to be much more than just the end of a bucket list of travel destinations. It was, instead, the beginning of a pilgrimage into what Pope Francis describes in Laudato Si’ as a moment in which “God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness.”
After departing from the southern tip of Argentina and spending two full days on the rocky Drake Passage, we caught our first glimpse of land as we approached the South Shetland Islands, just north of the Antarctic Peninsula. It’s a strange thing to go for several days without seeing any form of land, but it’s particularly bewildering to realize that the next time you see it, you will behold an area so far removed, so rarely trafficked, and still so untouched and pure that the standard images of “land” that the mind conjures up fail to truly capture reality.
It also proved to be a spiritual reminder that being isolated and literally at the bottom of the world was an occasion for entering into greater communion with it.
Since the time of the ancient Greeks, the White Continent has been the source of endless speculation and intrigue. The discovery of the Antarctic continent is a muddled and disputed one. The British explorer James Cook was the first to cross the Antarctic Circle in 1773, sparking a global contest that would play out over the next century until the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first person to reach the South Pole in 1911.
Though nations from around the globe have vied to lay claim to the continent, today it remains an almost hallowed place of international cooperation—neither owned nor a territorial sovereign of any one particular nation. In 1953, the Antarctic Treaty was signed by twelve countries proclaiming it a place for “peaceful purposes,” “scientific exploration,” and “global cooperation.” Since then, the treaty has been signed and upheld by a total of 53 countries.
But the Antarctica to be discovered today is one quite different than the one that was found by the early explorers. Today it is under siege—not from nations seeking to plunder it, but from the ravages of climate change. The West Antarctic Peninsula is considered to be one of the most rapidly warming areas on earth, with the European Space Agency estimating an unprecedented rise of more than 4 degrees in the past fifty years.
The forces of climate change that imperil the continent have global ramifications that must be reckoned with, too. Ninety percent of ice on planet earth is found in Antarctica and earlier this year it was reported that a massive crack has occurred in the Antarctic ice sheet, likely to break off in a matter of weeks or months.
That ice will eventually float into the ocean and melt, resulting in what could be a devastating rise in the sea level. As a New Yorker who lived through the havoc of Hurricane Sandy, I know this was just an appetizer for what the world will endure if we fail to take the effects of climate change seriously.
During my two-week sojourn, my days were filled with a firsthand survey of these realities. Shrinking glaciers defined the landscape and rising temperatures have resulted in a diminished supply of fish and krill—essential nutrients for Antarctica’s most beloved inhabitants, the penguins. Wrecked colonies, built on puddles of water rather than ice, dot the shorelines, jeopardizing their ability to breed.
Prior to this trip, friends would hear of my upcoming adventure and most were puzzled by what was drawing me to it. “What are you going to do? Stare at ice all day?,” they would ask. And while I understood this attitude, for me it was the equivalent of asking someone who plans to spend a few days exploring the diverse offerings of the Louvre if all they were planning to do is stare at paint and stone. Presumably the Louvre’s treasures were less fleeting than those I had gone to observe.
Sailing around the Antarctic Peninsula was a stunning, surreal experience, evoking sentiments of gratitude and awe. Snow covered mountain peaks make for an unearthly skyline where birds, penguins, and seals serve as its only denizens.
On the Antarctic shores, I mostly trekked around in a light down jacket—rarely having to don the parka, gloves, and multiple layers I had prepared to wear. When I returned to New York, I compared the temperatures at home with that of Antarctica. With only a few days exception, Antarctica was warmer. While we basked in sunshine and a lack of a snow and wind, our expedition leaders were quick to remind us that this luxury was being had at the cost of a warming planet.
Back on our ship, I listened to talks given by expert glaciologists and zoologists describing what would happen if the world failed to recognize this impending devastation and act. Here Pope Francis’s call for “global ecological conversion” echoed in my mind—and his demand that Catholics and non-Catholics alike change the way we live and recognize both the spiritual and physical consequences of our environmental stewardship.
One night over dinner I asked a glaciologist whether she ever encounters passengers who are climate change skeptics. “All the time,” she informed me. “Just think about it. This trip isn’t your average vacation—it’s expensive and for many passengers just another exotic destination to see. Many of the people that come down have political and financial ties to the very same individuals and corporations who want to turn the other way and ignore what’s happening to our planet as a direct result of their actions.”
Incidentally, I set sail for Antarctica just weeks after the world continued to process the unlikely victory of Donald Trump. On our boat, the aftershocks of the election season filled many of my conversations with fellow passengers from around the globe—and with the backdrop of Antarctic grandeur—I couldn’t help but to ponder the question Francis posed: “What kind of world do we want to leave those who come after us?”
For far too long, those of us in the Western world—both collectively and individually—have lived lives defined by greed and boundless consumption with a selfish shortsightedness toward the generations that will follow our own. The Paris Climate Agreement of December 2015 offered a first step to reversing this pattern but that too is now under siege. A radical change in our policies and our personal ways of living is needed.
In the same way that Laudato Si’ serves as a rallying cry for humanity to work together to combat environmental destruction, the very existence of Antarctica is representative of that vision. The fact that an entire continent—one that is almost twice the size of Australia—exists as a place of international cooperation should serve as a model for global conduct and offers a blueprint for an integrated way of living.
As I conquered my final continent, emboldened by the privileges of going where so few have gone before me, I was surprised to be struck by the sobering reminder of my own limitations. When planning this trip, my travel agent asked if I had any interest in camping one night. I signed up for this extra excursion not asking many questions but assumed tents and a campfire would be involved. And perhaps if I were lucky, I’d have the company of a flask too.
When it came time to camp, we were given two items: a waterproof sleeping bag and a shovel. The sleeping bag served its obvious function but the shovel was for digging a hole in the ground to place our sleeping bag. The snow walls served as a barrier to protect me from the wind, though I’ve since referred to the experience as a night in my ice coffin.
As I laid awake—surrounded by walls of snow on each side of me, looking upward at an Antarctic summer sky that never darkens—I wasn’t as much proud of fulfilling my travel goals, but humbled by the fact that this effort was inconsequential if not properly understood. Ironically, by surpassing such boundaries and traveling to such an extreme location, I had discovered the truth of the warning in Laudato Si’ that, in fact, the false notion that “human freedom is limitless” is what not only plagues the world, but myself as well.
“If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world,” Francis cautions, “our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.” To some extent, that was me, motivated by a checklist of continents and personal ambition, rather than an appreciation for what had been given.
“By contrast,” he continues, “if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously.” At the edges of the earth and removed from much of civilization, the capacity for beauty to soften the hardened heart and allow for a greater openness to both God and our fellow neighbors was very much made real. And what this openness allows—if we’re willing—is the possibility for the right relationships with God’s creation and with each other.
Along with that realization, however, was the reminder that this beauty that I was beholding was all so fragile and could very well disappear. In Antarctica, the truism that “beauty will save the world” never felt so real. Yet it came with an urgent and haunting conviction that the world must work together quickly to save such beauty, as well.