Student voyages to the icy realms of climate change

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 May, 2011, 12:00am


For Carol Pun Yik-shan, a 16-day trip to the South Pole in the company of a legendary explorer was the journey of a lifetime.

She set up her tent in Antarctica's cold winds and jumped into its freezing waters. She also saw penguins and seals living in abandoned buildings. But what made the biggest impression on the 20-year-old university student was somewhat depressing. 'Climate change is really happening,' she said.

The experience has left her unafraid of climate critics and their arguments that rising temperatures are just part of the natural cycle. 'I heard the sound of breaking ice blocks,' she said. 'It's just not natural that even ice shelves that have been there for centuries are also breaking away.'

An undergraduate in systems engineering at Chinese University, Pun and three fellow students won a design competition last year with a set of warning signs for a world where global warming and pollution had created a hazardous environment. The chance to go to the South Pole was first prize.

But each of them had to pay HK$200,000. Pun had a hard time gathering the money, and in the end she was sponsored by the university and other organisations and had to pay only HK$5,000.

The four joined a group of about 60 people from around the world led by Robert Swan, the first person to walk to the North and South Poles.

Pun's journey to the South Pole took about 60 hours, with about half of that on an icebreaker. 'It's like being on a pirate ship for 30 hours,' she said.

She was shocked by the number of buildings and amount of garbage, including chemical waste, abandoned by whale hunters decades ago. She saw animals wandering in and out of the old shelters. 'It's like a museum - those buildings are historical,' she said. 'But while it may mean a lot to humans, they have no meaning to animals, and may harm them.'

Jumping into the freezing water from the icebreaker was another unforgettable experience, she said. 'I can't swim, and had to summon a lot of courage to jump into the sea.'

The crew kept a rope attached to her and she was quickly pulled back on board. 'I sank very deep and drank a lot of seawater. After getting back on the boat, my body felt like it was boiling.'

The four students are now organising talks in secondary schools to share their experience, and Pun wants her career to help protect the environment. 'Engineering is about improving people's lives with maximum efficiency and minimal resources. I want to promote ecological logistics,' she said.