The Lights Along the Sea

George Washington Bridge and New York City, 11/27/2015

Nina Burleigh is on assignment with Newsweek in Antarctica.

As world leaders started heading to Paris to discuss climate change, I boarded a plane last night going in another direction: south to Antarctica. From 30,000 feet, on a clear, moonlit November night flying south from New York City, the density of the lights along the eastern seaboard form a stunning lace trim along the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Each of the twinkly whorls and grids represents millions of Americans living along the sea, populating a megalopolis stretching from Boston down to Richmond, and points even further south.

The heartbreaking beauty of our great eastern cities from the sky at night sometimes brings tears to my eyes. It’s moving to behold what we, the thinking animals, have built and placed against that great black void of cold water.

All that, and even the jet from which to view it, we have accomplished in little more than a century. But the pace of human progress brought its own fragility, in the form of climate change.

Gazing down on those lights from the porthole of a jet brings home just what catastrophic sea level rise means.

Scientists believe that as the frozen Poles melt, which they are doing at a phenomenal rate, the sea will, like a glass of water into which ice cubes are dropped, surge upward and overflow its edges, extinguishing the lights and the great cities.

According to an October 2015 study, Antarctic ice is melting so fast that the stability of the whole southern continent could be at risk by 2100. The event would raise sea levels around the world by 200 feet.

Pondering this from 30,000 feet, my mind wandered: Our forebears even a century ago would not have recognized these lights along the Atlantic. The safety and warmth supporting the sheer numbers of people would have astonished them.

This year is the centenary of the sinking of the Endurance, and the mind-boggling two year odyssey of its leader, Ernest Shackleton, and crew, surviving stuck on the Antarctic ice.

I’m headed to Antarctica on assignment for Newsweek, and for the next week I’ll be bobbing with tourists and naturalists around the edges of the Antarctica Peninsula, a spit of the white continent that curves northward toward the tip of South America (and which, I’ve heard, is melting five times faster than anyplace on Earth). On board the Lindblad National Geographic Explorer, I will be talking to experts and thinking about what it means to be an explorer now that all the geographical realms of the planet have been charted.

Shackleton wasn’t racing across Antarctica for science. In that so-called Heroic Age of polar exploration, men — men, all — raced to be first to the South Pole, first to cross the continent. Failing when the Endurance was crushed by pack ice, Shackleton and some of his crew inadvertently became first men to sail across the Drake Passage in an open boat and survive.

Today’s Antarctic explorers are scientists all, and many of them are women. They are camped at 30 bases around the Antarctica, some with populations of as few as ten, and some endure the four months of sunless winter.

These new modern explorers are racing another kind of challenger altogether, both existential and philosophical. One could call it Time. One could call it the human reluctance to accept scientific knowledge that alters our view of ourselves, a reluctance that long pre-existed Galileo’s imprisonment, and that we have had always with us.

Many of today’s Antarctic explorers are racing to understand how the species and geography of the last man-free, pristine continent is reacting to the global effects of our modern activities.

If they come in last, we might too.

Read more of Newsweek’s climate change coverage here.

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