Teenage polar explorer and climate change campaigner Parker Liautaud will begin his biggest adventure yet next month, when he sets off on a 397 mile trek from the coast of Antarctica to the geographical South Pole. The 19-year-old will team up with global risk adviser Willis to collect snow samples which will contribute to studies on climate change, before taking on a world record attempt to become the youngest male ever to ski unsupported to the South Pole. We caught up with parker at the launch of the Willis Resilience Truck, a 2.5 tonne polar exploration vehicle which will stream Parker’s challenge live throughout.
What exactly does the Willis Resilience Expedition involve?
It’s a six week expedition, split up into two parts of the journey. First we cross 1200 miles of Antarctic territory with the truck for scientific research, from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and then to the other coast. Then we separate from the truck and walk unsupported for around 640km, which is a new speed record attempt from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole. If I succeed I’ll be the youngest man to walk to the South Pole. The first part of the expedition will take 7 – 10 days, and the unsupported speed record attempt, if we can do it in less than 22 days then hopefully we can set that record.
How did your interest in climate change lead to this expedition?
In Antarctica there are some very good opportunities to learn more about the climate system and at the same time it’s a harsh environment, a good next step in terms of engaging people in the importance of the changes that we’re facing and in terms of the difficulty of the expedition, creating a story to communicate climate science. The potential for this expedition dramatically increased when we included the truck, both for the communication of climate science and for the actual data collection. This expedition has been developing for two years, initially I had no idea it would turn into this. The idea that I had was to walk from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole doing research, but this was totally transformed when we added the truck. After three expeditions to the North Pole I realised it was time for a much bigger challenge
What research projects will you be contributing towards while out there?
There’s three programmes, we’re testing a weather station to see whether it can potentially be used in Antarctica in the future, we’re collecting samples from which data will be analysed to look at different ways of tracking changes in the climate system, one of them looks at a radioactive form of hydrogen, the other, the tritium one I think has the most potential to contribute new information. It’s one that’s been studied for a while and used across the world, especially in the southern hemisphere to date water and ice but it hasn’t really been used as much as it could.
After having travelled to the North Pole, you’ve decided to take on the South, what is the difference between the two?
The arctic is being impacted significantly by the fact that temperatures are increasing, so the arctic sea ice doesn’t return every year. That total volume of arctic sea ice is decreasing and that has widespread impacts for the world, for example it changes the amount of sunlight that’s reflected and absorbed. Antarctic scientists aren’t so much worried about the actual sheet of ice melting, it’s more the fact that when the sea underneath the ice warms up it and can warm the base between the ice sheet on top of land. If you take the most extreme scenario you could end up with the collapse of the west Antarctic ice sheet.
What kind of conditions are you likely to face in Antarctica?
Conditions wise you can get down to -30, – 40, it could get down to -50, -60 if we’re very unlucky. Wind chill can get pretty low with winds of up to 100 miles per hour, elevation wise we’re going to get to 2835m which is the height of the South Pole. We’ll start at 0 (sea level), and most of the elevation change will be in the first week or so.
What part will the Willis Resilience Truck play in the expedition?
The truck serves two functions, for the first part it’s the scientific support vehicle, it carries all the bottles, the sampling kits, and it means that we can vastly expand the number of samples we can take and the depth at which they can be taken. Once we’re finished with the scientific work we separate from the truck, me and Doug Stoup my teammate, and the truck will follow us bus it’s going to be me and Doug walking unsupported, not connected to the truck, not having our equipment carried. The truck turns into a communication platform to do the live stream of the expedition, the cameras will be based in the truck, all the communications make for this intense platform which includes biometrics, elevation data, GPS and weather live, the truck serves to bring the viewer into Antarctica and to make them a part of the expedition.
What kind of training have you done in preparation for the challenge?
I’m not an athlete, I have to learn how to be and to think like an athlete and it’s hard, all of this started with an interest in climate change, I don’t come at this from the perspective of an athlete or an explorer, that’s something that I’ve learned and I’m still learning. The training has been a couple of hours a day, up to six days a week, it’s a mixture of strength and endurance, to do something hard for a long period many times in a row. An example of endurance is using a rowing machine at a high level to build strength but you also do it for 25km, 22km is the most I’ve done. I have a metal sled that I use, there has to be a creative approach to training, I’m very lucky to have a great trainer. There’s so little that you need to get fit and strong and there are a lot of things that you can do to train.
And what about the mental challenges involved?
The mental preparation is a big factor, the isolation, the pain, the cold, the general discomfort, potential conflicts with your teammate, knowing that you’re being watched all the time, the repetition, lack of scale, lack of ability to tell scale because everything’s flat when you get onto the plateau, there’s lots of different things that need to be addressed, you can’t just show up. There needs to be a responsible and balanced approach to mental training as well. For me I need to have strategies for dealing with different things, breaking down distances and avoiding a countdown mentality.
Parker sets off on December 3, to follow his expedition live online, visit www.willisresilience.com