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Journey to the Ends of the Earth – Part I

Exelon’s sustainability and innovation chief checks an item off a bucket list and contemplates the changing landscape in Antarctica.

​Chris Gould, Exelon’s SVP of Corporate Strategy and Chief Sustainability and Innovation Officer, spends his days thinking about how innovation and new technologies can offer solutions to today’s energy problems. Chris's recent trip to Antarctica gave him new insight into the important ways clean energy innovation could affect life on planet Earth.  This is his story – part one.

The Tip of the Iceberg

As the light broke on the first morning, we heard the ship’s expedition leader say excitedly, “Look off to the side, you can see your first glimpse of land and iceberg.” That would be the A57A iceberg, one of the sights we were looking forward to on this trip to Antarctica. I got up and looked out the window of my cabin.  

The land mass ahead had a sheer cliff that looked like something from another planet.  There were some icebergs floating in the water around it that were interesting to see, but not as big or imposing as I’d imagined.  Thirty minutes later I was still trying to spot the iceberg everyone on the ship was now talking about.  Then, it finally dawned on me.  I thought I was looking at land – but it actually was the iceberg!  We couldn’t take in its entire proportions – the A57A iceberg is more than 12 miles long and five miles wide – big enough to fit three cities the size of Manhattan.

The iceberg set the tone for our entire experience in Antarctica – everything was on an enormous scale.  The mountains were some of the highest on the planet.  When we encountered penguins, there were thousands of them.

A Family Affair

The trip was my 83-year-old dad’s idea.  It’s on his bucket list to visit all seven continents. Since he and my mom retired, they’ve been checking off the list, taking cruises and trips all over the world.  My dad now had two continents left, Australia and Antarctica.  My mom said she would gladly visit Australia, but it’d be fine with her if others wanted to join my dad for a trip to Antarctica.  My brother and I were game. Even though I hadn’t consciously made it a bucket list goal, I’ve had the opportunity to visit six continents myself. Antarctica would make my seventh and final.

From Pittsburgh (Dad), Northern Virginia (my brother) and Chicago (me), we all met in Atlanta, watched the Superbowl at an airport bar and then got on an overnight flight to Santiago, Chile.  We spent the day and one night there, and then flew to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world also called the Gateway to Antarctica.  Four days after leaving our homes, we joined about 240 people from around the world to board the Silver Cloud, an “expedition ship” (this was no ordinary cruise).  

Through the Wringer

Our journey began through Drake’s Passage, where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans converge.  It’s called the “washing machine” because the water agitates in the same way – to put it mildly. We were traveling in February, summer in the southern hemisphere, when the seas are usually calmer.  One night though, we couldn’t see out of the ship’s windows because they were covered by huge waves. We could hear dishes breaking in the galley.  Though they didn’t that night, swells in that area can get up to 50 feet. Thankfully, once we got through Drake’s passage, things were relatively calm. 

Our expedition included two excursions every day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.  The ship provided heavy-duty waterproof parkas for all the passengers.  So how cold was it?  I was outside (briefly!) during Chicago’s polar vortex in February, and I’ve been outside at the South Pole. Antarctica was warmer!  Since it was summertime there, temps were in the mid to low 30s.  At certain points it was actually comfortable and then a few minutes later, it wasn’t.  Not unlike walking down the street in Chicago on a regular winter’s day!

Happy (but Smelly) Feet

On one excursion, we hiked to the top of a mountain ridge.  The mountain was home to a penguin colony, and they hiked along with us.  The rule is penguins have the right of way, it’s their home after all.  They are very friendly creatures, not at all afraid of humans, but we were under strict instructions not to try to touch or feed them.  I wasn’t quite expecting them to be so loud and smelly!  But watching thousands of penguins walking up and down a mountain was a sight to behold.  You could do it for hours.

While penguins and seals call Antarctica home, there are no human inhabitants, at least, not year-round.  During that time of year there were some people at various stations, including one where you could mail a letter with an Antarctica postmark.  I mailed a postcard to myself and my family – we should get it in about three months.

I didn’t expect to encounter so many scientific research stations – Chilean, Argentinian, British. I had great conversations with the researchers about what life is like in Antarctica.  They love it, enjoying the nature and the solitude. You may hear people talk about “going off the grid,” but this is the epitome of that.  There are no roads, no hotels, no government.  But for the scientists who spend time there, it’s an honor.

The Antarctic peninsula is an area that scientists call a red zone, where there is evidence of significant global warming.  More people want to visit because they know the landscape is changing.  Although there is no government, a global treaty manages and limits tourism. Visitors are cautioned to not drop so much as a tissue.  When returning to the ship, you have to wash your boots to make sure you don’t transport disease-causing organisms from one animal colony to another. There is much more of an awareness now of how sensitive our ecosystem is, but it makes me wonder -- over the course of centuries, decades, our lives…how many things have we changed unintentionally?

Read part two of his story here.

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