Flying halfway around the world in 20 hours, I was finally back in London on a gloomy, rainy day. Buses, the Underground, and noise. Hustle and bustle. For a moment, I felt I was an alien returning to the normal world.

This is because of what I experienced when I joined a group of people from all over the world for a 10-day expedition to one of Earth’s last wildernesses — Antarctica — to learn about and work towards a cleaner future. Closing my eyes, I can still see the crystal-blue sea with its shimmering glare of reflected, blinding light. I felt as if I’d just woken from an unreal dream.

I did research and read books before going to Antarctica, but that didn’t prevent me from being overwhelmed by the reality. Snow-capped, towering mountains stand alongside huge channels. Icebergs, in unique shapes and changing colors, floated elegantly on the sea. Inquisitive humpback whales spouted nearby. Glaciers formed over millions of years were magnificent. I have never experienced such natural beauty devoid of human influence. In that moment, we were all immersed in nature, listening to its wordless wisdom.

Interestingly, this wilderness helped me look deeper into humanity. Why, for example, did British Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton proceed with his polar expedition despite the outbreak of the First World War. And how the Antarctic Treaty was reached despite the diverse interests of its signatory countries. This is one of the few places on earth where there have been no wars, and where scientific research is given priority.

Aboard our ship, we felt how small we are when compared with nature — something I’ve never felt living in my city. Nature humbles all of us. With no permanent human habitation on the continent, the Antarctic remains the toughest, most unforgiving environment on earth.

During the expedition, our team leader voiced his concern for the continent. He views nature not as something to be exploited or conquered, but as something we should look after — the way a father would “look after” his children. “I am grateful to be able to live on a tiny little planet in the giant universe,” he said. “Nature is a beautiful thing and it matters to our survival.”

Sailing south we came across part of the Larsen B ice shelf which had broken off the main ice sheet. Warmer temperatures in the Antarctic mean that large pieces of the ice shelf are falling into the sea. When our ship passed the huge iceberg there was no sound, just profound silence. Watching this “calving” of the ice shelf made me realize that city dwellers who usually don’t have the chance to witness nature at its most spectacular may not see how our day-to-day choices can influence the climate and its potentially devastating impact on all of us.

During the expedition, a friend said that global climate change is not a technological challenge, but a human one. It is deeply rooted in the way we develop the economy, the way we consume and the way we live. Climate change calls for a collective global solution. The question is whether we can work towards a common goal. The Antarctic, which does not belong to anybody or any country, symbolizes the need for global cooperation to protect Earth’s last wilderness.

Developing countries face many challenges to deal with climate change, including the conflict between the need for faster development and the exploitation of natural resources. But more people are aware of the problem and are starting to discuss the issue openly. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for different regions. So it’s crucial for each country to find its own solution.

I felt a sense of sadness and awe in Antarctica. Those intense feelings may fade over time and the scenic memories become a blur. But what is important is to remember the inspiration we felt during our southern journey.

Jingrui Xie

Jingrui is an undergraduate student in the University of Hong Kong majoring in accounting and finance and a visiting student majoring in Economics and Management in University of Oxford. With living experience in Beijing, Hong Kong and Oxford, she offers a global perspective on environmental and economic topics. She has long been interested in environmental sustainability and is exploring ways in which private sector can help tackle global warming.

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