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What a Singaporean found after travelling to the Arctic and Antarctica to document the impact of climate change

While thousands of miles away, the impact on the poles might hit closer to home than we think.

When Jessica Cheam travelled to the Arctic Circle in June this year, she encountered the hottest summer there since records began, with temperatures peaking at 21 deg C – well above the average of 5 deg C. Staying in one of the world’s northernmost inhabited areas, Svalbard, Norway, Cheam recalls that she couldn’t sleep because the cabins in the research town were made to trap heat – and it was way too hot. “It was very uncomfortable, ” says the founder of sustainability platform Eco-Business. One night, a polar bear walked through town at 3am. You wouldn’t guess it but the two incidents were actually linked.

These days, these Arctic mammals enter human settlements more frequently as their natural habitat, the sea ice of the North Pole, continues to disappear due to global warming. “Without the extent of ice, they’re wandering larger distances looking for food,” says Cheam. “They’ve started eating bird’s eggs, which is not a part of their diet. This is causing the bears to have diarrhoea while decimating the local bird population.” So that she, too, did not become food for polar bears, Cheam was accompanied by scientists toting rifl es whenever she wandered out of the safe boundary of town.

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The public interest in Jessica Cheam’s documentary and photo exhibition about Antarctica (right) led to her Arctic expedition this year.

 

(Related: How are Asia and Antarctica connected? This exhibition at Botanic Gardens tells the story)

 

Changing planet

Cheam’s expedition to the Arctic is a continuation of her efforts to record the impact of climate change on the planet. Last year, she journeyed south to Antarctica to fi lm a documentary, From Asia to Antarctica with Scottish documentary-maker Fraser Morton. The trip was led by Sir Robert Swan, the British environmentalist and explorer who was the first man to walk to both the North and South poles.

Following the buzz created by the documentary and photo exhibition, Cheam decided to explore the Arctic this year to “tell the complete story of what’s happening”.

“We realised what was happening in the Arctic is even more visible than the Antarctic because the land mass of the latter is pretty much frozen solid. It’s not until something cracks that it is very big and visible. But the Arctic is constantly melting. What used to be covered in a lot of snow and ice at this time of the year is no longer covered,” says Cheam, who serves as strategic advisor to Blue Planet Environmental Solutions and currently chairs Climate Action SG Alliance – an initiative that advocates climate action.

There are more differences. In Antarctica, which is protected by a treaty till 2041 to prevent resource exploitation, the sprawling, untouched landscape was the perfect setting for introspection and solitude. Says Cheam: “The scale of the Antarctic is huge, you see massive mountain ranges with ice caps and glaciers everywhere – it is almost like you’ve entered a different realm. The icebergs are like beautiful blue crystal statues that take your breath away.”

But due to climate change, records show the Antarctic Peninsula has warmed by nearly 3 deg C over the past 50 years and this could raise sea levels by up to 3m, flooding coastal cities and creating millions of climate refugees, with Asia bearing the brunt of this.

The Arctic, on the other hand, faces extreme exploitation. It is owned by eight nations (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the US) and certain mining of oil, gas and minerals is allowed.

 

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The documentary Arctic Awakening, a companion piece to From Asia to Antarctica, explores humanity’s relationship with the planet.

This area is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, with glaciers retreating dramatically and the fjords remaining ice-free even in winter. Atlantification, where warm currents from the Atlantic Ocean are replacing cold fresh Arctic waters, is also taking place. Besides changing the ecosystem of the Arctic by introducing new species of animals, the warm waters are also further melting the sea ice.

Its impact could be felt in the tropics. “The Northwest Passage is opening up – what used to be frozen sea ice in summer has now melted so that icebreakers can actually sail through the north, such as from Russia or the United States, to Japan without having to come through South-east Asia. If this changes sea routes, it would be a concern, especially for Singapore.”

Arctic Awakening, her new documentary based on the trip, explores humanity’s relationship with the planet and asks the question: Can we change course? It was launched at Eco-Business’s exhibition, Changing Course 2019, at the ArtScience Museum in October. The photography section of the exhibition will be on display at South Beach Tower Lobby till next January.

Its call to action is especially relevant for Singapore, as the nation is expecting to spend $100 billion to protect the island against rising sea levels. Says Cheam: “We have to understand we are not living within our planetary boundaries. This really hit home when I was in these regions. I felt like we are a pestilence on earth and we are just blighting our natural world.”

 

Eco-Business’s Jessica Cheam shares her green practices.

Dollars speak

“It is naive to believe that we can be carbon zero but my approach is to tread lightly. Buying carbon credits when you travel is a nice way to vote with your dollar. I’ve supported solar farms and reforestation projects in India with One Tree Planted.”

Share a wardrobe

“I love the sharing economy. I no longer buy clothes – I rent them from Style Theory.”

Cold management

“South-east Asian cities are incredibly hot and humid and every building is over-cooled. The energy required is insane; we are essentially burning money. When in an indoor environment, set the thermostat to 25 deg C and no lower.”

(Related: Visit these 10 places now before they are lost to climate change)