Amundsen, Antarctica and the power of impossible ambitions

by Frida Bengtsson

December 14, 2011

by Frida Bengtsson, Ocean Campaigner, Greenpeace Nordic

Source: NOAA Photo Library NOAA Photo Library

As I write this I’m looking out my window at the Fefor hotel in Norway at a wintery landscape of mountains, forest and an ice-covered lake; the same place where Amundsen, Nansen and Scott planned their historic expeditions to the poles. That I’m here with a team to plan our future polar work is an inspiring and humbling parallel.

One hundred years ago on this day, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen won the race to the South Pole. Then came British explorer Robert F. Scott.

The spirit of adventure these two men and their crews embodied was unparalleled at the time. They were true visionaries who scoffed at the notion that their goal was impossible, who pushed boundaries and stayed loyal to their beliefs.

Like any new land where humankind has set foot, the Antarctic for some held the promise of riches. Despite the implementation of theAntarctic Treaty of 1961– which limited human activities in this part of the planet to scientific and peaceful expeditions – there remained on-going international negotiations in the 1980s around how to carve-up the mineral resources in the continent:Antarctica was still in danger.

Greenpeace was facing an impossible challenge: to stop the carve-up from happening and to make sure Antarctica was preserved intact as it was. We set-up a base camp in Cape Evans, on the west side of Ross Island not far from Scott’s hut. There we could bear witness to Antarctica’s fragile beauty and establish ourselves as a credible voice in the debate around carving up and exploiting that pristine region and the surrounding Southern Oceans. From there, through many expeditions and thanks to the work of several over-winterers, Greenpeace told a story that resonated around the world and helped secure the protected area, calledWorld Park Antarctica.

We almost couldn’t believe it when eventually our objective was achieved: after years of relentless campaigning, taking samples, documenting, and carrying-out actions, theProtocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treatywas signed on October 4th, 1991.

Amundsen was fascinated by the Polar Regions since his early years. Back then he was sleeping with the windows open, enduring the cold Norwegian nights to strengthen his body and ready himself to explore those regions. The dreams of the boy became the epic adventures of the man who navigated through the Northwest Passage (1903-1906), reached the South Pole 100 years ago, and flew over the North Pole on the airship Norge in 1926.

We were and still are fascinated by the beauty and fragility of Antarctica and we see now the need for similar protection around the North Pole and its surrounding polar oceans. These areas are vastly different in many ways, but they share commonalities, and like Amundsen, they both inspire us to push our boundaries.

In Norway, the tales of Amundsen’s adventures are still a rich part of our heritage, stories told at bedtime to children and around kitchen tables, especially at this time of year. The Fram Museum in Oslo, which houses the famed ship, tells the story of when Amundsen and his crew left Oslo in this vessel, headed for the pole.

The crew thought they were going north. But while planning, Amundsen had read reports that others had reached the North Pole. So he decided to go south – unbeknownst to Fridtjof Nansen, owner of the Fram, and Robert F. Scott, the British explorer who had also set his sights on the South Pole.

Back then the point was to get there. Amundsen defied those who told him he would fail, because he had a vision and he truly believed that he could do it. The stamina and determination with which he followed his dreams is truly inspiring.

It seemed impossible. But on December 14, 1911, Amundsen and his men reached the South Pole.

Climate change is altering our polar regions. With change and with new frontiers come new threats: now it is the Arctic that’s facing exploitation and if we want to preserve this pristine part of the planet we should set our ambitions high: we must make the impossible possible.

Last night my British colleague Ben Ayliffe and I studied photos of these two great explorers-one Norwegian, one Brit-as they prepared for their journeys. Pictures on the wall of Scott testing his infamous motor sleds on the lake reminded us of how the best laid plans can sometimes go horribly wrong. But history is our greatest teacher, and as we plan out the next chapter of our journey to protect the poles, we will keep their lessons in mind, and work together instead of competing to get there first.

Some will tell us that what we aim to achieve is impossible. But if we have any hope of ensuring that the polar regions, these silent guardians of our climate, aren’t only frozen in museums but remain vibrant, living ecosystems for future generations to explore, then we must at the very least try, and try valiantly.

The anniversary of Scott’s tragic expedition is January 17th, 2012. Greenpeace UK climate campaigner Ben Ayliffe will commemorate his voyage in another installment. Stay tuned





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