SNH seabird scientist on lessons learned in Antarctica

Early this year, I travelled to Antarctica for three weeks, with 79 women from all over the world, in the culmination of a year-long women in science leadership development programme called Homeward Bound. This ground-breaking initiative aims to increase representation of women in senior leadership roles by equipping them with the skills they need to effectively influence decision-making about the future of our world.

Helen Wade - credit Anne Charmantier

SNH marine ornithologist Helen Wade in Antarctica. Photo credit: Anne Charmantier

Nothing can prepare you for the scale and beauty of Antarctica. High quality films and photos don’t do it justice and eventually you run out of adjectives trying to describe it.

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As a seabird scientist, with a love of marine life, I thought my highlight of the expedition would be the Antarctic wildlife. The hundreds of penguins porpoising next to the ship. Or the humpback whales constantly interrupting our workshop sessions as someone would shout ‘whale!’ and 80 women would rush outside to watch them surfacing and diving – close enough to hear the satisfying deep ‘whoosh’ as they breathed out. Or the huge leopard seal stretched out on floating ice only a few meters away. These encounters were almost unbelievable and a huge privilege to experience. But unexpectedly it was the icebergs and glaciers, and the amazing group of women I shared the experience with, that made the deepest impression on me.

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Looking out at the Antarctic landscape from a ship, the deep splits and cracks of the crevasses in the ice sheet, as the ice moulds itself over and between mountains and ridges, are obvious to see. The sharp jagged edges of the ice edge clearly indicate where ice used to be before it sheared away and crashed into the sea. The deep thunder-like rumbles in the Antarctic silence alert you to ice shifting and moving on a massive scale. This all contributes to a deep sensory awareness that Antarctica is a landscape in flow and movement. Not static as it first appears but constantly shifting – imperceptibly, as ice flows like rivers between mountains, and dramatically, as avalanches crash down mountainsides.

Research base - credit Helen Wade

Argentinian research base on the Antarctic continent backed by a huge glacier.
 Photo credit: Helen Wade

The recognition of this sense of movement and flow was bittersweet for me. It was awe-inspiring and exciting to see glaciers calving but also extremely sobering to know human actions are speeding up this process. One day, after being welcomed onto an Argentinian research station, resident scientists pointed out where the edge of a nearby glacier used to be – it now sits hundreds of meters away. It was striking evidence of the human-induced climate change causing the Antarctic Peninsula to warm three times faster than almost anywhere else on earth.

Glacier - credit Helen Wade

A massive glacier with huge crevasses imperceptibly flowing into the sea.
Photo credit: Helen Wade

Visiting Antarctica brought home to me how deeply connected we are to every place on our planet. Even in this remotest of places, with no permanent human population, we are having an impact. The experience has made me seriously question whether we are doing enough to act on climate change. Are we really acknowledging the implications of not acting? And if not, what actions should we be taking to act more quickly and more effectively to preserve the life support system that is our planet?

I came away from the expedition with a strong sense that individuals matter. Climate change may feel overwhelming but we each have an important role to play – in the decisions we make in our daily lives to making sure governments and decision makers know action on climate change is important to us.

Gentoo penguin colony - credit Helen Wade

Gentoo penguin colony with our ship, the MV Ushuaia, in the background.
 Photo credit: Helen Wade

Before leaving for Antarctica, I knew a few of the 79 women I would be sharing a ship with for three weeks but most I had ‘met’ only as thumbnail-size images on monthly video calls over the previous year. So amongst the excitement of arriving in Argentina to meet them there was some trepidation about sharing a relatively small space with so many people I didn’t know. There’s no escape in Antarctica. With no phone signal or easy internet access, it isn’t possible to rely on connection or support from family and friends.

Helen Wade and Rachael Bice

Helen with fellow UK participant, Rachael Bice

However, from day one it was clear I was part of the most supportive, accepting and compassionate community I’ve ever experienced. There was a strong collective sense of wanting each and every woman to succeed, with everyone ready to support in any way they could. Our group ranged widely in age, career stage and cultural background but there was no hierarchy. Instead, we each recognised the value that every person brought to the group – in their unique set of skills, experiences and perspectives. This diversity was recognised as a strength that would help us approach challenges in a cohesive and holistic way.

Being part of this amazing group of brave and passionate women has left me wondering what our world would be like if we had more courageous and respectful leaders? How would our lives be different if we were better able to recognise the value of collective diversity and diverse perspectives? How would embracing this diversity help us make better decisions about the world we live in?

For me, diversity, and a more compassionate, inclusive approach to leadership, is the way forward – especially when we’re working to address the huge challenges we face, like climate change. The more perspectives and ideas we embrace, the more holistic and effective the solutions will be. Women are an essential component of this diversity, which is why initiatives like Homeward Bound that equip women with the skills to lead are so important. We urgently need their voices if we are to create a more sustainable future for us all.

You can read about my pre-Antarctic Homeward Bound programme here.





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