Finding answers in the snow
To what extent can citizen science contribute to remote microplastics research? To find out, Airbnb Sabbatical sent five volunteers to collect and analyse snow samples on Earth’s most unforgiving continent.
White, as far as the eye could see, dry, cold and an unrelenting wind bringing air straight from the Pole. The icy Antarctic Plateau’s immensity is disorienting and I look back to see my single track of footprints behind me and nothing but a thousand kilometres of snow ahead. Whilst it looks and feels like an untouched part of our planet, foreign in its vistas and remoteness and feels entirely unconnected to back home, the opposite is in fact true. It may feel all of these things, but the Antarctic is inextricably linked to global climate cycles, sharing the same atmosphere and as recent studies have shown, undeniably impacted by human beings. To what extent, if any, the purely human-made pollutant, plastic had contaminated this continent was my reason for being here.
Since my first hikes in the welsh mountains back home and seeing the development of the offshore windfarm from my school classroom, I have always been interested in our relationship with natural environment. From the physical impact both positive and negative that we can have on its environment and resources, and the ways in which we try to explore it, manage it and protect, govern it and connect with it. I was reading a magazine, much like this over a decade ago when my curiosity and admiration for Antarctica and our relationship with it was piqued. I still have the magazine and the pieces I highlighted; a special issue on climate change. There was an exposé on Antarctica and a summary of key discoveries since the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, which devoted the continent to peaceful scientific collaborations. Amongst, them the uncovering of the instability of the ozone layer, the so-called ozone hole due the chemical CFCs found in refrigerants, and some of the most significant warming seen on the Antarctic Peninsula, and the effects of runaway warming on glacier retreat. It fascinated me. Here was this remote continent, connected to human beings only by the oceans and air, protected, at least for now, under a treaty, which regardless of its motivations was enabling peaceful, scientific exploration and preservation of its resources. It is for all these reasons, that Antarctic perfectly epitomises our complex relationship with our planet.
I actively sought a line of research which would enable me to connect people with our natural environment and see the impacts we can have on it. Plastic pollution is without doubt, one of the most tangible forms of environmental crisis our planet faces and with this fact, there is an immense amount of responsibility to shine a light on the other ways in which we may negatively or positively impact our planet. I often think of it as the “gateway topic” to environmentalism. If you can get people to engage with plastic pollution, you start to see small changes in their behaviour, which are rooted in a changing perception of our responsibility to, and our reliance on the health of our natural world. But a connection with our oceans, instils a deeper sense of connectivity with planet earth and the impact that we can have on far flung lands, even back at home. Researching plastics in both the Arctic and Antarctic is bitter-sweet. The fact this field of research exists at all, and the complexity and number of ways in which we must try to decipher its potential impact, is often daunting, but the fact that, to some degree, an individual can be empowered by changing their behaviours and are motivated to demand more responsible choices from their governments and providers is incredibly motivating.
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This feature appears in ISSUE 12: Coral Gardeners of Oceanographic Magazine
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