Explorer Sir Robert Swan – the first and only man to walk on both the North and South Poles unsupported – believes that “the greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.”
As a self-proclaimed survivor, Sir Swan, like many others around the globe, believes that climate change and global warming are very serious issues.
The United Nations (UN) adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, and Goal 13 asks the world to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.” According to the UN, “Climate change is now affecting every country on every continent. It is disrupting national economies and affecting lives, costing people, communities, and countries dearly today and even more tomorrow.”
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) says the rate of temperature increase around the globe has nearly doubled in the last 50 years due to greenhouse gases released as people burn fossil fuels. But even though 2016 was the hottest year in recent history, sadly there are still people in the world who say global warming is of no concern and that it is actually a “hoax!”
Well, like Sir Swan, let’s look to the North and Sole Poles and see what we can learn about the reality of this situation.
The Poles have a story to tell us…
Sir Swan believes the North and South Poles hold vital clues to the issue of global warming and that they are an indication of what is going on around the world in respect to climate change.
In his TED talk, Swan showed pictures of melting ice in the North and South Poles, describing it as a dangerous situation. He says, “We need to listen to what these places tell us, and if we don’t, we’ll end up with our own survival situation here on planet Earth.”
So, let’s start in the North and find out what we can learn there.
At 90⁰ north latitude, the North Pole is 450 miles north of Greenland, in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. There is no actual landmass at the North Pole – only massive amounts of ice that expand in winters and shrink down to half the size in summers.
The climate change story here is that the North Pole has been experiencing unusually high temperatures, reaching 32⁰ Fahrenheit in December 2016, which was 50⁰ warmer than typical! This trend has lead to an alarming shrinkage of the Arctic Sea ice masses that equates to approximately 1.07 million km² of ice loss every decade.
Why is this a problem? Well, according to the National Science Foundation, sea ice variability – the amount of water the ice puts into or pulls out of the ocean and the atmosphere – plays a significant role in climate change. NASA says that, “The sea ice cover of the Arctic Ocean and surrounding seas helps regulate the planet’s temperature, influences the circulation of the atmosphere and ocean, and impacts Arctic communities and ecosystems.”
Even the coldest place on Earth is getting warmer!
Now, in the completely opposite direction, what can we learn from the South Pole and Antarctica? At 90⁰ south latitude, Antarctica, which includes approximately 90% of the ice on the planet, is a little over 300 feet above sea level with an ice sheet on it that is about 9,000 feet thick.
Much colder than the North Pole, the temperature here has dropped to a chilling low of -135.8⁰ Fahrenheit in 2013. However, this pole, too, is experiencing warmer weather, with its highest temperature reaching 63.5⁰ in March 2015.
NASA indicates that Antarctica has been losing about 134 gigatonnes of ice per year since 2002. And just recently, a new concern emerged – a rift in the continent that could send a significant part of the polar cap off into the ocean and create one of the largest icebergs ever recorded. This could, in the long run, raise global sea levels by four inches.
So what’s a little rise in sea level?
While a couple inches here or there doesn’t seem like much, NASA says rising sea levels can erode coasts and cause more coastal flooding, and in fact, some island nations could actually disappear.
And that’s just the sea level. There are other ramifications as the climate changes, such as an increase in infectious diseases with the expansion of tropical temperature zones, more intense rain storms and hurricanes, and many other life-threatening issues.
Let’s be the “someone else”
These insights are just the tip of the iceberg (so to speak) in the story of global warming, but it is evident the Poles are telling us that climate change is real. It’s also evident that it’s time for us as the inhabitants of this world to become the “someone else” Sir Swan talks about. And the good news is that it’s not too late for us to save this planet.
We don’t have to go to the North or South Pole to make an impact. We can simply follow Swan’s advice: “A survivor sees a problem and doesn’t go, ‘Whatever.’ A survivor sees a problem and deals with that problem before it becomes a threat.”
Whether it’s at work with a company like SAP that supports the UN SDGs with its vision and purpose, or individually – we all have to help climate change before there are irreversible threats to our place. Let’s be the someone else, starting today.
A quick note: My last blog focused on how women in the arts and sports are helping to break gender inequality barriers. Well, I am happy to report that this same movement is happening in science too! In 2016, an initial 76 women in science embarked on a leadership journey to increase the awareness of climate science. The inaugural session of the year-long Homeward Bound program, which focused on empowering women in science, culminated in December 2016 with the largest female expedition in Antarctica. Here these brilliant, dedicated female scientists and engineers saw the effects of climate change first-hand and brainstormed how they, through “collaborative leadership, diverse thinking, and creative approaches,” could make an impact.
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