UAE expedition sees effects of climate change during emotional trip to Antarctica

Record temperature of minus 11.8ºC recorded at the South Pole last month, more than 40ºC above normal

A young sustainability leader from the UAE spoke about witnessing the devastating effects of climate change in Antarctica after visiting the continent during a heatwave.

Emirati Athra Khamis, 24, spent three weeks on the frozen continent in mid-March when Concordia Station, located high on the Antarctic Plateau, hit a record temperature of -11.8ºC, more than 40ºC above the annual average.

She said the experience was emotional because of the breathtaking beauty, but also because of the very obvious negative effect human beings are having on the continent.

“The heat was extreme, unusual,” said the Emirati from Dubai, who is a Youth 4 Sustainability (Y4S) Future Sustainability Leader for Masdar.

Athra Khamis was among 177 young environmental leaders who took part in the expedition. Photo: Athra Khamis

“We experienced rain. At that moment, I felt terrified about what is happening. I have spent a couple of years in the climate change field but being there in the centre of it was different.”

When it rains in Antarctica, it is too dangerous for planes to land.

Ms Khamis was one of four people from the UAE, including the programme’s director, Winston Cowie, who took part in the 2041 ClimateForce: Antarctica Expedition from March 16 to 29.

The trip was organised by the 2041 Foundation, as part of a group of global youth leaders to witness first hand the effects of climate change on the continent and raise awareness of the issue.

Members of the 177-strong expedition, who came from 37 countries, visited Deception Island, an active volcano in the South Shetland Islands.

The island, one of the only places in the world where ships can sail into the centre of a volcano, was once home to a whaling station. It closed in 1931 but its footprint remains.

“There was a massive amount of whale bones still on the shore,” Ms Khamis said.

“And on another island we saw oil tanks, processing tanks, from the 19th century when they extracted the oil from the whale bones,” she said.

At the time, the practice devastated the whale population in Antarctica, although it has since recovered.

An expedition led by the British Antarctic Survey in 2020 counted 55 blue Antarctic whales.

“We saw some whales. It was just incredible. There were two sleeping on the surface next to the boat,” said Mr Cowie, who is marine policy manager at Environment Agency Abu Dhabi.

The expedition was led by Sir Robert Swan, the first man, 30 years ago, to walk to both poles, which included a 900 mile journey to the south pole, the longest unassisted walk ever made on earth.

“Our team from the UAE – Athra, Mahra [Al Murawwi] and Sayesha [Dogra] – once again contributed hugely to the expedition,” he said.

“I am really proud of all of them and the UAE for its vision in being at the forefront of climate action – pursuing net-zero and hosting COP28. Over the years I think we have had 27 people from the UAE on our expeditions.

“I am really proud of all of them and what the future holds.”

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Updated: April 15, 2022, 4:58 AM