Dr Niamh Shaw is sailing to Antarctica on a climate mission

7 Nov 2023

Image: Niamh Shaw

Shaw is joining 73 women to promote more discussion about the climate crisis, by witnessing its impacts in Antarctica.

Award-winning science communicator Dr Niamh Shaw is preparing for a voyage to Antarctica this month, as part of a mission to raise awareness about the climate crisis.

Shaw will be joining 73 women scientists and engineers on this voyage, which will take 19 days in total. The mission is part of a global leadership programme for women led by Australian not-for-profit Homeward Bound.

This organisation aims to bring 1,000 women in STEM fields to the Antarctic region to promote more discussion around the climate crisis, by witnessing its impacts firsthand.

“I want to become a better advocate for climate change and work closely with people in Ireland and abroad to find more effective ways of engaging with the topic on a personal and community level,” Shaw said.

“I understand from Homeward Bound and others who have witnessed firsthand the devastating impact of climate change on the Antarctic landscape that this experience has a profound and life-changing effect on people.”

East Antarctica’s Conger ice shelf – a floating platform the size of Rome – broke off the continent on 15 March 2022. This was the third iceberg calving event in east Antarctica that month and occurred when both the Arctic and Antarctica had unusually high temperatures.

Research published in October predicts that, even if greenhouse gas emissions are curtailed, the rapid melting of ice in west Antarctica can no longer be stopped due to unprecedented heating, which will result in a global rise in sea levels.

Shaw said the voyage will involve working and living together in “cramped conditions”, with extreme cold, rough seas and 12 to 15-hour working days to look forward to. There are also strict rules to follow to ensure their voyage doesn’t disrupt the Antarctic environment.

“We have received extensive training on calculating and offsetting our travel carbon footprint”, Shaw said. “There are strict guidelines on cleaning our baggage and footwear before we even leave our homes.

“These are all part of strict biosecurity measures to ensure we don’t accidentally contaminate this very special continent.”

Each person taking part in the voyage has to raise funds for their trip, which involves an investment of more than €20,000 per person. Shaw said this aspect was “challenging” but received support from a crowdfunding campaign, Laois County Council, Gas Networks Ireland and Abbott Ireland.

“I wanted to use my expedition to raise awareness of women in science from Ireland’s past whose stories and achievements have largely gone unrecognised,” Shaw said. “Thanks to the kindness of all these people and organisations, I’m so proud to be able to participate in this project and share my Antarctic experiences with Ireland.”

Shaw is a well-known Irish engineer, scientist and science communicator. She was named a ‘champion’ by the European Space Agency last year for her role in communicating about space. She was one of only 15 people to get this commendation.

In 2018, she shared with SiliconRepublic.com her firsthand experience of travelling more than 4,000km to Baikonur, a Russian-run site in the middle of Kazakhstan, for her very first rocket launch.

As part of her outreach work, Shaw was an honorary ambassador for the Irish Girl Guides between 2019 and 2020, and was a guest speaker at the launch of the group’s space programme in 2020.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic