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Scientist and writer Javier Cacho. R. C.
'Mother Nature is going to slap us in the face'

'Mother Nature is going to slap us in the face'

The only Spaniard with an island in Antarctica named after him, now retired, has spent the month of August in an ice-free part of Greenland for yearsJavier Cacho Scientist and writer

Rosa Palo

Friday, 19 May 2023, 11:42

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By the end of an interview with Javier Cacho you feel like packing your rucksack and heading off to Antarctica. Javier exudes such enthusiasm for those lands that it is hardly surprising the Spanish Geographical Society has presented him with its communication award, a prize he has dedicated "to all our family members who stay home to let us live the adventure". Committed to his writings after retiring as a researcher, he has written several books on polar exploration. As if that were not enough, he is the first Spaniard to have an island named after him in Antarctica, Cacho Island. No mean feat.

–You're not drinking; it's not because there's not enough ice, is it?

–Without a doubt! [laughs]. I don't drink because it gives me a headache, but I'll take the ice with something else. Glacial ice is pure luxury; it's not the same as ice from the freezer. It's full of little air bubbles that got trapped when it snowed, and it snowed over and over again. Scientists study samples because they can date the ice thanks to those bubbles, and go back 20,000, even 40,000 years. Also, when you drop that ice into a liquid, it bubbles. And you never forget that sound.

–What does Antarctica have that made you fall so in love with it?

–I go back whenever I can, because I'm addicted. There are two types of people: Antarctic and non-Antarctic. The first are those who arrive and fall in love from the first minute; the second are those who want to leave just as fast. A colleague told me, literally as he arrived, "Javier, I want to leave." And he left. He could not bear the harshness of the environment or the overwhelming feeling of isolation, even though now we use WhatsApp from there. It's a dangerous place, and if something happens to you, who knows how it will work out! Similarly, what if something happens with the family? When my wife and I talked, we always fooled each other by saying that everything was fine. If something bad had happened, we would not have told the other.

–Was your wife aware of what she was getting into when she married you?

–We both worked on the same research team, so she had some of those adventures. We have always been big on travel and exploring, but I went to Antarctica alone. Immediately she realised it was going to become my passion, and she let me run free. She stayed home alone, being a mother and a father to our daughter, while wondering what this mad man might be doing. Meanwhile I, as head of the Spanish Antarctic base, have always tried to make sure we were always careful, of course.

–And your daughter? Has she forgiven you for such long absences from home?

–Yes I think so. I made my first trip when she was just 13 months old. My daughter hated Antarctica, because it so captivated her father. That's why I wrote Las Aventuras de Piti en la Antártida (Piti's Adventures in Antarctica) when she was nine years old, and I used a Siberian husky puppy as the main character so she could see Antarctica through the puppy's eyes. But we too can suffer a lot from leaving our little ones, eh? When you return four months later, they've changed so much and you are suddenly aware of what you have missed.

The environment

–You were one of the first scientists to investigate the hole in the ozone layer, a problem that is being addressed. Unfortunately, the same is not true of other environmental disasters.

–That terrible situation was relatively easy to find a fix, because we quickly changed our thinking and because it affected only one industry, so alternatives could be found. For other issues, however, it is more complicated. In addition, there is a lot of selfishness on our part. Even though you love melon, you can't eat melon at Christmas, as that melon would come by plane from Peru. Nor can we keep buying mass-produced clothes - I've been wearing the same green jacket for a long time, and I'll throw it away when it falls apart. We have to be the change, and that is very difficult. But Mother Nature is going to slap us hard in the face very soon and force us to do it.

–Being cooped up on a base in Antarctica for months with a group of strangers has to be worse than Big Brother.

–Yes, living together is very complicated. With normal life, you finish work and then go home, but not there. It can wear you down, and conflicts arise. The mission for the head of the base is to be ready for difficulties, smooth things over and support anyone having a hard time. But, in case of need, we're all there to help one other. And if someone has a real problem, you'd risk your life for them.

–Have you visited Cacho Island yet?

–No. Maybe next year. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps [sings]. But life is what it is, and I never expected that my name would live on in a little piece of Antarctica. Even if I never set foot on it, it'll still be there.

–Who would you name an island after?

–From Spain? Eduardo Martínez de Pisón. His is a beautiful soul, always willing to help, and he has achieved so much for geography.

–Finally, tell me, do you head somewhere warm for holidays?

–Well, no. I've been going to Greenland every summer for seven or eight years. But don't worry, I always go in August and to an area not below zero nor stepping on ice. And I never tire of going there.

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