The hot topic

Judy Ngao

Global warming is one of the hottest news items the world over.

But while most countries are aware of the problem and are actively trying to minimise the impact of human activities on nature, Hongkongers are slow to acknowledge its significance.

To promote awareness of climate change in the city, and prove that everyone can make a difference, five university students have embarked on a 15-day educational expedition to the Antarctic.

The trip is part of the Inspire Antarctic Expedition 5 run by British explorer and environmentalist Robert Swan.

The five - Val Chen Zili, Zhou Yang, Cheung Wai-yin, Tang Chin-cheung and Choco Li Hau-leung - will be the first group of students from Hong Kong and the mainland to set foot in the Antarctic.

They will join groups of researchers and students from more than 20 countries for a first-hand look at the impact of climate change.

They will also help with the opening of the world's first Education Base, called E-Base, an education centre that will help children learn about Antarctica on the internet.

Swan originally became interested in the region as an explorer and was the first person to walk to both poles.

He hopes the Hong Kong five will take their knowledge and experiences back to schools and communities to increase local awareness of the seriousness of climate change.

Zhou, a risk communication PhD student at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), said the public was not sufficiently aware of the importance of environment and climate change.

'Chinese people's knowledge of climate change is limited. One survey said that while the US ranked the importance of climate change at three, China ranked it at seven. Chinese people have fewer social values than people in some western countries,' she said.

Global emissions from power plants, cars and factories have resulted in a rising amount of carbon dioxide, which traps heat. This has raised the Antarctic's temperature by about three degrees Celsius over the past 50 years, causing ice to melt and water levels to rise.

Chen said: 'The Antarctic has the biggest fresh water reserve in the world, which is stored in icebergs.

'Once those icebergs melt, the sea level will rise. Over the past 20 years, the melting season [the period when the temperature is warm enough to melt the ice] has lengthened to two to three weeks. Scientists have calculated that the global climate has been rising one degree every year.'

Once the group arrives in Antarctica, they will be involved in field work, and researchers will teach them hands-on data collection.

They will also help with the final construction of the E-Base which, 26-year-old Zhou says, has two purposes.

'The first is its symbolic meaning - the structure is made entirely from recyclable materials, and powered by solar and wind energy, so it's very environmentally friendly.

'The second is its educational purpose. It will be connected to schools around the world, so we can pass on the idea of environmental protection to the next generation,' she said.

Tang, an environmental life science student at HKU, said the research generated from the E-Base will be accessible to anyone and written in easy-to-understand language.

The expedition is due to arrive today at the Antarctic Peninsula, where they will explore and experience 20 hours of daylight. Over the next few days, they will watch whales and, if the weather permits, make frequent trips to penguin and seal habitats.

On their 13th day, Swan will lead the team on an overnight camping trip. They will spend the night in sleeping bags and tents on the Antarctic ice. They will experience life as the early explorers did at the turn of the century.

The team will then sail out on March 2 and disembark in Ushuaia, Argentina. They will then return to Hong Kong.

'We want to get the message across to Hongkongers that being environmentally friendly is something we can all do,' said Li.

'It's not an issue that only governments or corporations can fix. We want people to see that if university students can do it, any individual can, too.'