Contemplating Climate Change at the Ends of the Earth

Spectrum Magazine, MIT
May 21, 2015

John Carlson’s bags are always packed, and this year, they accompanied him to the farthest-flung destinations—Antarctica and the North Pole—with the MIT Alumni Travel Program.

Read this story in Spectrum Magazine

An emerging markets portfolio manager who studied meteorology at MIT, Carlson has been to nearly 80 countries, but he calls the January trip to Antarctica “a dream come true.” He recalls, “As a child I was always fascinated with the polar explorers. At a time when many kids wanted to be astronauts, I was dreaming of reaching the earth’s poles, inspired by adventures of explorers Robert Peary and Ernest Shackleton.”

Carlson traveled to Antarctica aboard the National Geographic Explorer with EAPS Professor Susan Solomon, an atmospheric chemist whose pioneering research there in the late 1980s confirmed that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the atmosphere were destroying the ozone layer. Other experts on board included seasoned expedition leaders, naturalists, photographers, historians, and oceanographers. “During the six-day excursion around the Antarctic Peninsula, we cruised past huge icebergs in Zodiacs, (motorized inflatable boats), through some pretty rough seas,” he says. “Once ashore, we hiked, explored beaches, and saw thousands of penguins. In the evenings back on the Explorer, we attended lectures and presentations.

“I was in awe to see such a void of human activity, and at the same time felt concern for how this environment could be altered—in a dramatic way—by human activity.”
“One of the most amazing things was this sense of both vastness and emptiness. I found myself looking out on a continent of white, on an absolutely pristine environment. The size of the ice sheets, the rawness and openness of the sea, was overwhelming. I was in awe to see such a void of human activity, and at the same time felt concern for how this environment could be altered—in a dramatic way—by human activity. When you experience it firsthand, both the vastness, the pureness, and all nature’s activities that created it, to think about the possibility that we could be a disruptive force certainly makes one think about climate, climate change, and our role in it.”

In fact, he says, “The more I travel, the more concerned I am about climate change. Working with the MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), I’ve supported the Carlson Lecture, an annual public lecture series about climate change at the Lorenz Center in EAPS, held each fall at the New England Aquarium.” He adds, “While I’m concerned, I am also optimistic because some of the leading minds at EAPS are hard at work on climate issues.”

Next month, Carlson heads to the North Pole. After a quick stop in Helsinki, Finland, the group will arrive in Murmansk, Russia, where they will board the 50 Years of Victory, a nuclear-powered icebreaker. They’ll reach the North Pole on the summer solstice.

“What is most exciting about this trip is there’s a small chance we might be the first people to go in the summer, and experience the North Pole during its warmest season,” he says. “We’ll learn about ocean dynamics, atmospheric chemistry, wildlife ecology, history, and climate. Later, we’ll travel to Franz Josef Land, an uninhabited archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, which was a base for early polar explorers, and the site of more than one shipwreck. Beyond that, I see this trip as a blank canvas, and I can’t wait to see what gets painted on it.”

View a photo journal of the MIT Alumni Travel Program journey to Antarctica and read Professor Susan Solomon’s reflections on the trip more


A Man for All Seasons (School of Science Profile of John Carlson)

The Lorenz Center, MIT

4th Annual Carlson Lecture EAPS News

Alumni Travel

Travel with EAPS Professors