Last week, Marc Cornelissen and Philip de Roo, went missing, presumed drowned on an expedition to collect samples of thin Arctic ice. Their passion and commitment to stopping climate change gives us all something to aspire to
When you were a little kid and you imagined what a polar explorer might look like, it was probably men like Marc Cornelissen and Philip de Roo that you pictured; one short and stocky, with bright eyes and plenty of swagger; the other tall and slender with a boyish face.
You probably imagined men who were always smiling and full of energy, men who somehow seemed a little more alive than the rest of us.
What you probably didn’t imagine is that the very sense of adventure that fills men like Marc and Philip with life can also, sometimes, be what takes life away from them.
Nine years ago exactly I was in a tent on the Arctic ice sheet: one of six students taking part in the Ben and Jerry’s/WWF Climate Change College . The college involved several months of training in climate science and campaign strategies, followed by two weeks in Greenland to observe the effects of climate change first hand. It was a project that was only made possible because of the hard work of many people. Two of those people were Marc Cornelissen and Philip de Roo.
When news came through last week that Marc and Philip were missing in the Arctic , presumed drowned during an expedition to collect data on the state of the ice , their former students started reaching out to each other. We have spent the last few days exchanging messages of grief and shock.
Marc was an experienced polar explorer, with an unwavering commitment to tackling climate change. His expertise was in gathering ice and snow samples that could be used to validate existing data, such as that gathered by ESA’s CryoSat . Philip was Marc’s wingman. He was only 21 when we first met him and had already completed three Polar expeditions. He had a love of wildlife and had volunteered extensively for WWF in his teens. It is hard to think of two more inspiring role models for us as young activists.
Every day in Greenland there was work to be done. Marc was testing new pieces of tech equipment, and spent much of his time in the communications tent surrounded by satellite phones and computers. Philip joined us outside, digging and drilling into the ice to take samples for analysis.
So it was in the evenings – sitting in the communal tent and sharing stories - that we really got to know them. Marc and Philip talked about the relationship you need to work together under tough conditions; the absolute trust you must have in each other. But they also talked about why they did it; why, even without the personal satisfaction that came from pushing themselves, they felt it was their responsibility to take part in the fight against climate change.
Those evenings were a lot of fun. The two men epitomised the philosophy of working hard first and playing hard after. Philip liked to drink hot chocolate, with a good glug of whisky in it. Marc preferred red wine, which in Greenland usually had large chunks of ice floating in it. He often talked with immense pride about his daughter, back home in the Netherlands. As the sun dipped low in the sky, he would step out of the tent to smoke a cigar. He would stretch an arm out and gesture at the vast expanse of ice, glowing in the soft light. “Look at this,” he would say. “Does it get any better that this?”
I cannot believe that they are gone. Like everyone who met Marc and Philip there are parts of them that will stay with me forever. I will remember their great big belly laughs, which came easily and often. I will remember their kindness and their enthusiasm. I will remember their framing of climate change as a justice issue.
More than anything I will remember and do my very best to honour their commitment to the idea of collective action – their belief that we each have to strive for our best without ever forgetting that our personal efforts are only one small part of a large and powerful movement.
The personal efforts of explorers like Marc and Philip were more than most of us can achieve. But they give us something to aspire to. The lives and work of these two men may have stopped, but the movement will go on.