Why we travel: Felicity Aston on the power of polar regions to teach vital conservation lessons

Wonder and science intersect on an expedition to Earth’s frozen poles, says the polar explorer. Each trip offers unique challenges that have the power to teach vital lessons — not just about the human spirit, but about our role in protecting the planet.

Thursday, July 2, 2020,
By Felicity Aston
Emperor penguins at Snow Hill Island, located east of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Emperor penguins at Snow Hill Island, located east of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Photograph by Getty Images

Of all my polar expeditions, the trip that completely changed my world perspective was the one I did in 2018 to the Arctic. Being up there, seeing the reality of sea ice change was dramatic. This isn’t hypothetical, it’s already carved into our history. Talking about this in real terms, it won’t be possible to mount ski expeditions to the North Pole in about five years. The first person to have crossed the ocean’s surface to stand on the pole — having got there on two feet — was in 1969. In the space of 50 years, we’ve gone from the first to the last.

My reason for continuing to return to the poles is to collect data. I’ll be going back to the Arctic with another team of women in 2022; we’ll be among the last humans to get out on high-latitude ocean sea ice. Changes are happening so fast, there are still so many things we don’t know about Arctic sea ice — and we won’t ever do so, unless we collect data immediately. The world relies heavily on computer models to predict future scenarios, and those are only as good as the data we can collect.

Polar explorer Felicity Aston MBE is an Antarctic scientist turned author, speaker and expedition leader.

Photograph by Felicity Aston

Humans are completely vulnerable to the forces of nature. When you’re out there, actually standing on the ice, seeing it move around, it brings home how inconsequential we are. I don’t just mean the power of sea ice or ocean currents but, say, the gravitational magnetic fields that cause aurora borealis and australis. When you witness that one sunrise a year in Antarctica, or when you’re in Siberia and it’s –60C and you see materials like rubber suddenly become as pliable as clay, metal as brittle as plastic, you realise most humans have a very limited vision of our existence.

“The vanishing of the world’s sea ice? It’s a story that still needs to be told.”

by Felicity Aston

On each expedition, I learn something vital about myself. Everyone is a different person year to year, so while expeditions may be on similar terrain, they throw up different challenges. That’s why they’re so addictive. The 2018 trip was probably the first time I thought I’d perhaps pushed things too far. I took a large team — 11 women plus guides and camera crew; 16 in all, which is a lot of people to co-ordinate anywhere in the world. We got dropped on the ice by helicopter, not having had any sleep for 24 hours. Everyone was quite intimated to be out there in the open Arctic, and I wanted to keep moral up, not have us hiding in tents trying to sleep. So, we set off for a couple of hours’ skiing. Of course, it was an absolute shambles: kit failures, no coherence, and everyone’s confidence plummeted. It took me the rest of the day to dig us out of that, but at one point we managed an hour-and-a-half moving together, as we’d trained to do, navigating, checking on each other. Everyone was, in the end, elated but, by god, did we work hard. It was not my intention to beast everyone on the first day.

We’re a tiny speck in the universe, but we punch above our weight. Humans achieve incredible things — far more than we should. These expeditions have made me realise how ingenious we are as a species; we make our way across all sorts of dangerous environments, like the poles. It gives me hope for our planet. Humans have sorted out all manner of critical situations, such as the hole in the ozone layer, by figuring out and eliminating its causes. We have the ability to come up with solutions to really big problems, and I believe we’ll help ourselves through science and human spirit. We’re clever enough, and we should be smart enough.

Sometimes it’s all about wonder, not science. I’m well versed in the science of the Northern Lights, but when you’re beneath them, it’s hard to believe they’re anything other than magic. All those folktales you hear about them being created by a celestial fox brushing the sky with its tail, or the souls of the dead playing football with the skull of a walrus — out there under the endless sky, these make so much more sense than particles coming down through a magnetic field. 

Felicity Aston MBE is a polar explorer. She’ll be concluding her Royal Geographical Society speaking tour, Polar Exposure: The Women’s Euro-Arabian North Pole Expedition, in November and December 2020. felicityaston.co.uk

Read more tales from our Why We Travel cover story

Published in the Jul/Aug 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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