Climate warning from Tara of the Antarctic

Cork environmental scientist Dr Tara Shine tells ISABEL CONWAY about her latest voyage of discovery in a polar wilderness
Climate warning from Tara of the Antarctic
Dr Tara Shine campaigning for climate action in the Antarctic.

THE prospect of a polar plunge in the depths of Antarctica is enough to make anyone’s teeth chatter.

But that’s how Cork environmental scientist and climate change consultant Dr Tara Shine celebrated the new year — for a good cause and as a personal challenge.

The Kinsale-based campaigner against ‘one use plastic’ was among 80 female scientists from 28 countries on a recent Antarctic voyage, seeing how climate change and global warming continues to adversely impact the world’s last great wilderness.

Recently home from her two-week adventure with Homeward Bound, a ground-breaking leadership initiative, which aims to heighten the influence and impact of women in making decisions that shape our planet, mother-of-two Tara describes the experience as “life changing”.

“Antarctica belongs to everyone and to nobody and the continent is bearing the brunt of environmental damage for which we are all equally at fault,” she said. 

“Nowhere on earth is so extraordinary and nowhere as important in the global conversation about our future.

Before her return home last month, Dr Shine was resigned to making an appointment to have her eyes tested. Luckily though she was only suffering the ill-effects of seasickness medication on the homeward voyage.

Their ship took two days to get through the notoriously rough convergence waters of the Drake channel (known as the Drake Shake!) back to port in Ushuaia on Argentina’s southern tip.

“I was one of the lucky ones, I could watch the amazing transition passing up out of Antarctica whereas some of the passengers passed out and slept for the two days from the effects of the sea sickness pills,” recalls Tara, a native of Kilkenny.

A veteran world traveller, she has presented TV programmes including Brave New World with the late Stephen Hawking and the BBC’s acclaimed natural world documentary on her discovery of Nile Crocodiles in West Africa Lost Crocodiles of the Pharaohs.

Dr Tara Shine campaigning for climate action in the Antarctic, beside the MC Ushuaia
Dr Tara Shine campaigning for climate action in the Antarctic, beside the MC Ushuaia

Dr Shine paints a vivid picture of her latest journey — only 0.1 per cent of the world’s population visits Antarctica — from their first sight of the massive floating icebergs and humpbacked whales, to awesome scenery and landings on island to “hang out” with colonies of Adelie and Emperor penguins.

Overhead, a vanguard of albatross and giant petrels flew on the wing as their ship penetrated the huge wilderness.

Constant reminders in the mapped names of islands and landmarks — Disappointment, Deception, Exasperation and Heartbreak — recalled countless brave, perilous and fatal expeditions to reach Antarctica and the South Pole.

The voyage enabled Dr Shine and her companion scientists to gain valuable access to research stations positioned in the world’s most remote spots.

“Our first stop was at the Great Wall — a Chinese base station researching everything from meteorological changes to the ozone layer and oceanography; later we visited a research stations manned by Argentinian scientists and the American base.”

Nobody needs to convince Dr Shine — an expert in the field of climate change who has worked on environmental issues in Africa and Asia — on the adverse effects of global warming. Nevertheless, she says, they received critical insights into the global-scale of how human activity is threatening the environment.

Some of the researchers have been monitoring its scale over a couple of decades at these base stations. 

“They say there are huge changes, all the glaciers are melting and retreating, there’s less and thinner sea ice which impacts on everything, especially the krill that are the basis of the food chain — the most startling change is being felt in the past 10 years. Western Antarctica is warming up faster than the Eastern part and all the evidence of global warming is present.”

More than a fact-finding journey to view changes that are adversely impacting the world’s climate, the Homeward Bound voyage was also a leadership initiative to bring female scientists, drawn from all disciplines, together to promote leadership and strategic skills.

Dr Tara Shine.
Dr Tara Shine.

Dr Shine points out: “Women are still under- represented in the sciences and the program is aimed at making us more visible, giving us the ability to impact policy and decision making towards protecting our planet.

“Women can bring a different style of leadership to the table; at the moment the decision- making by men is more about dominating nature than about working alongside it”.

A community initiative to get Kinsale to go single-use plastic free was launched by Dr Shine and her friend, archaeologist Madeline Murray, last year. Their video on social media discussing which items of common household plastic were suitable for recycling went viral nationwide. Their battle to tackle sustainability and increase recycling in Plastic Free Kinsale met with big positive response locally and the results are encouraging.

‘Change by Degrees’, a movement for convenient sustainability, is another of her passions. Dr Shine devoted her polar plunge (she took a dip twice inside the caldera of a volcano on Deception island in temperatures of only 1 degree) in Antarctica to that as well as to the ‘Teach a Girl to Swim’ campaign.

Banners were rolled out to promote the global movement to save lives and empower girls in societies where females are still prohibited for cultural and religious reasons from learning to swim. All too often, these are the very parts of the world most affected by climate change flooding and tsunamis.

Sponsors of Tara Shine’s Homeward Bound journey to Antarctica were Repak (the recycling organisation) and EPA (the Environmental Protection Agency).

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