The differences are obvious, but Abdulla AlMisnad traveled to Antarctica to learn about the similarities between his desert homeland and the southernmost point on Earth.
AlMisnad is the first native of Qatar to take part in 2041’s International Antarctic Expedition. He’s writing a daily account of his journey in a blog on Greening of Oil’s Web site at www.greeningofoil.com/antarctica.aspx.
“The picture of Antarctica we had coming here, the picture of polar explorers facing the fiercest winds and barren deserts … well that’s still partly true,” AlMisnad wrote on March 12, the eighth day of his 15-day voyage down and back. “But it’s like our own deserts; on the one hand there’s the wind the dust the screeching and the inhospitality. On the other there’s the swaying palms, the flowing sands and the warmth. Just like we have our coffee and the smell of wool, Antarctica has its penguins and dancing ice.”
A graduate of Stanford University and the London School of Economics, AlMisnad now works for Shell Oil, helping with the company’s carbon dioxide management. That feeds into AlMisnad’s self-proclaimed interest in sustainability and responsible development.
While traveling to the most remote spot on earth is a challenge, AlMisnad believes the bigger obstacle is bringing useful lessons back. Exploring an extreme landscape can highlight how society needs to key in on “overlooked factors” in the environment.
“What we have been learning over the last few decades is that just because these things are subtle and hard to measure does not mean that they’re not important,” AlMisnad wrote in the weeks before his trip. “Seeing climate change first hand and exploring this vast protected wilderness is a great way to come to grips with some of these subtleties.”
Exploration, but not for oilAlMisnad is traveling to Antarctica on an expedition led by 2041, the group founded by explorer Robert Swan. Swan was the first man to walk on both poles, and he named his group after the year when the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty could potentially be amended to allow for mining and oil and gas drilling in Antarctica.
The goal is to keep “the last great wilderness on earth” safe from mineral exploitation.
The possible mineral and hydrocarbon wealth under Antarctica is relatively unknown, because exploration of the continent has so far been limited to scientific journeys.
Coal has been found in the Transantarctic Mountains and Prince Charles Mountains in east Antarctica, while the Deep Sea Drilling Project, a scientific venture in the 1970s, accidentally found some natural gas in the Ross Sea, but didn’t pursue it. Other scientific drilling expeditions have purposefully avoided areas believed to be gas and oil prone.
While it’s impossible to know now whether Antarctica houses a massive untapped oil and gas deposit under its rock and ice, the Australian government doesn’t believe the resources buried below Antarctica will be economic except under extreme conditions, like oil prices that stay well above $200 a barrel or a massive oil-guzzling world war.
Penguins, ice and new friendsAs a place where the natural environment hugely overshadows the human environment, Antarctica is a place where people go to learn lessons about themselves and the world.
“There are plenty of noises … but the noises make sense,” AlMisnad wrote on March 11, his first day on the continent of Antarctica. “It’s like when you go to a movie. Even though there is plenty of noise coming from the film, the two guys making jokes behind you can still break the silence; the noises from the film are not distracting. In this way Antarctica is silent; its speakers are on full blast but there’s nothing there to distract you.”
AlMisnad has detailed oddities from all corners of life on his blog.
He wrote about leaving for Antarctica on a Russian ship that looked “like a floating low-rise apartment building.” Although designed to map the ocean floor, the crew occasionally rented out their ship to exploration teams to generate some cash.
He wrote about the ubiquity of penguins — “Everything’s starting to smell like penguin. Wake up in the morning and it’s penguin, afternoon penguin. Lunch tastes like penguin, coffee tastes like penguin.” — and the strange effects an iceberg graveyard has on light and color, “different shades of white marbled here and there with veins of glowing blue.”
The culture clash isn’t just between a Qatari and a cold continent either. On March 10, AlMisnad included thoughts from traveling partner Abdul Aziz Al Nuaimi, a real live sheikh, and speaker on sustainability issues in the United Arab Emirates, who calls himself the “Green Sheikh.”
“First day I met Robert Swan,” Al Nuaimi wrote. “I greeted him on Western and Arabic styles, I hugged him and gave him nose to nose as Emirati way of greeting.”