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12 Days till Christmas – Day 6. The Air We Once Breathed

12 days till Christmas - reflections from a leadership journey for Women and non-binary in STEM focusing on sustainability, climate change and global challenges- culminating in an expedition and leadership journey to Antarctica. 

Ice: L-R: Ice collected and in the base of the zodiac, Shackleton whisky bottle cooling in ancient ice, on deck drinking in the ice, the air bubbles and whisky.

We are looking for some black ice broken from one of the many Antarctic glaciers that run from the centre of the white continent to the freezing Southern Ocean: extending out as ice shelves and carving-off to form icebergs. The snow becomes compacted over 100s of 1000s of years, compressing and capturing small bubbles of air. The black ice is some of the oldest, almost all the air has been squeezed out under the immense pressure of year upon year of falling snow pressing down from above. Few air bubbles remain. The lack of air allows the light to pass through without being refracted or reflected, creating ice that is as black as our rubber zodiac.


We cruise round small snow-capped islands looking for this black ice in the dark cold water. It’s a rather special addition to our pre-dinner drinks that we are searching for*. A small piece that would melt away into the Ocean as the Antarctic summer proceeds. Ice is spotted, scooped up and lands with a thud into the bottom of the zodiac. We have the ‘rocks’ for our drinks tonight. Later I choose whisky, as a Scottish resident and with the option of a single malt called Shackleton imbedded in what could be 1000-year-old ice I can’t really resist.


Marco the bar maestro hacks off some ice and pours me a whisky. Hurrah I’ve got a bit with bubbles in it. Before I can savour the taste, I must listen. The ice cracks as the relatively warm whisky encases its cold exterior and thermal expansion results in fracking - releasing air trapped in the ice for multiple centuries. I drink it in: the sound, the air, the whisky. The pops and cracks continue, and I think about those small air molecules I am imbibing. Unpolluted air trapped in falling snow - prior to the Industrial Revolution, prior to Shackleton - indeed before any explorer set foot on the great white continent. The air in Antarctica feels cool, clear and fresh, but I imagine a totally unpolluted air. An air which doesn’t contain the addition of our greenhouse gases and particulate pollution. An air that protects Mother Earth and allows her to breathe and regulate her temperature, and a World in which the carving of icebergs from ice sheets is not accelerating us towards an unknown future. I drink to the hope that the White Continent, in all its majesty, brings.


*the cruise company has an IAATO license to collect ice.




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