Fighting for the Polar Regions in Rio
“My first sight of Antarctica basically changed my life. That first sight of nothing but a solid, glacier-covered, mountainous continent–I felt like I was on a different planet.”
Unfortunately, international policy seems designed as though the polar regions were actually located on another planet. That’s why Jenna Gall, Communications Director for the Students on Ice Rio+20 Delegation, works with other students who have experienced these regions to advocate for them and the people who live there.
In the Arctic, the dangers posed by climate change are even more immediate than elsewhere. Consider, for example, Kivalina, an entire community now being forced to relocate due to the global warming-caused erosion of the island on which they live.
To make matters worse, oil drilling in the Arctic will soon be in full swing, disrupting the migrations of sea mammals–thereby damaging communities’ ability to live off the sea (their main food source). What’s more, Arctic communities are not equipped to protect themselves from oil spills, which would further devastate their ability to feed themselves.
Students on Ice is a Canadian-based organization with participants from 35 countries. It was founded in 1999 by Canadian environmentalist Geoff Green, who sought to foster a concern for the polar regions among adolescents and young adults. His goal was not only to communicate how sensitive these particular regions are, but also to demonstrate how our choices impact people and places that are thousands of miles away.
In 2009, Jenna Gall visited both the Arctic and the Antarctic. To do so, she spent months raising the necessary funds–writing letters to potential sponsors and speaking in public about her reasons for wanting to participate in the expeditions. Funding came from various sources, from a company interested in renewable energy to her dentist.
While Gall was always interested in pursuing a career related to the environment, she says her experience helped refine her focus. Given the urgent need for international policy regarding how the polar regions will be developed, she now plans to study environmental law.
“Sailing past a community that’s entirely folded into the ground because of melting permafrost…seeing these massive ice shelves breaking off continuously, every day…it gives you a unique perspective on why this is important.”
So the impacts of climate change are immediately visible to a visitor to the Arctic and Antarctic. But members of the expeditions also gain an appreciation of long-term effects from discussions with polar scientists, researchers, and elders from local communities.
Gall recalls meeting Fred Roots, a Canadian researcher credited with helping make the Canadian Polar Commission a reality and influencing Canada’s decision to adhere to the Antarctic Treaty. “When I met Fred he was 89, and he was still coming on these expeditions and climbing the same mountains we were climbing. When we were in Neko Harbour in Antarctica, he showed us a photo of himself standing on the same glacier three years earlier, and he was hundreds of meters further into the ocean from where we were standing.”
But what seems to have affected Gall the most was witnessing the disruption of cultures that have endured for centuries. “Elders talked very matter-of-factly about the fact that their lifestyles are being ripped out from under them. Hearing them say ‘my lifestyle is being changed because of your actions’…that helped me come home and make better decisions.”
Gall hopes that by attending the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil, the Students on Ice Rio+20 Delegation can communicate the new sense of urgency their experiences in the polar regions have given them. The delegation consists of 28 students–14 travelling to Rio and 14 on the home team. For the past year they’ve been working on the recommendation paper they’ll present in Rio, which details their recommendations for sustainable development of the polar regions.
Arctic sea ice, 1980:
Arctic sea ice, 2012: