Climate Change, from a polar explorer's Perspective

Optimism, humility and responsible action in the face of the seemingly insurmountable

By John Huston

By John Huston

For centuries, polar exploration has provided a human link to some of the most remote areas of the world. Expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic have always symbolized humankind’s adventurous spirit, our willingness to explore the unknown and our capability to endure severe physical and mental adversity. Today, students, teachers, companies and individuals can follow the progress of polar expeditions online and use the expedition journal for educational and inspirational purposes.

Our journal for the upcoming North Pole '09 expedition, which begins in early March 2009, will feature daily dispatches sent from the ice in the form of photos, text and audio files. Our project's aim is to inspire people to embrace challenge. Project components include a climate-change education program and several expedition-based research projects. My expedition partner, Tyler Fish, and I often visit schools to present about our experiences and provide a human connection to our online journal. For more information about our project go to www.northpole09.com or email john@forwardexpeditions.com

Because of the rapidly melting ice sheets of the Arctic Ocean, Greenland and Antarctica; polar exploration can reveal the immediacy of the world’s climate-change crisis. Without a significant reduction in atmospheric carbon levels, there may not be enough ice to ski to the North Pole in the coming decades. The melting of these ice sheets exemplifies one of the many environmental changes that pose an immense challenge for our society. Can we find a solution to accelerating worldwide climate change?

The author at the South Pole

Since graduating from Northwestern University in 1999, I have spent several seasons traveling in the world's polar regions and hundreds of nights sleeping outside in subzero temperatures. I am fascinated by the strategies with which historic and modern polar explorers have approached seemingly insurmountable challenges. I greatly admire their unflinching optimism and discipline. However, the lesson learned from these explorers — namely that success comes not from attempting to conquer nature but from adapting to it — is perhaps most applicable to our environmental problems today.

Unfortunately, most stories of polar expeditions focus on dramatic events and shocking life-and-death situations. As our society faces the daunting challenge of stopping global warming, I believe we have the responsibility to tell a more uplifting story. We need more simple stories of achievement and passion that inspire positive, forward-thinking action rather than negative stories that lead to increased passivity and feelings of hopelessness.

In spring 2005, I traveled by ski and dogsled across Greenland with a team of Norwegians. The 70-day, 1,400-mile expedition re-enacted Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen’s 1911 discovery of the South Pole. Amundsen is one of my heroes. In many ways he embodied the self-critical, humble approach of living with nature that has made Norway the world leader in polar exploration.

In preparation for the South Pole expedition, Amundsen led a six-man team on the first successful expedition to sail through the Northwest Passage, the sea route through the Arctic Ocean along the northern coast of North America. (It took Amundsen and his crew three years to complete the journey as they waited for the sea to thaw enough to allow for navigation.) Amundsen specifically designed his Northwest Passage expedition so that he and his men would learn to live like the masters of Arctic survival -- the polar Inuit.

Today, due to a precipitous increase in human-generated greenhouse gases, the Greenland ice sheet and the ice of the Northwest Passage are melting. In recent years, melting in Greenland has reached record levels and continued melting could raise sea levels and alter ocean currents. Last fall, the Northwest Passage completely opened up for the first time in recorded history. In the next 10 years to 15 years, once-inaccessible shipping lanes in the Northwest Passage will be ice-free, and natural resource extraction on a massive scale will soon follow.

For three months during the winter and spring of 2006, I lived among the Inuit of Baffin Island in Canada’s Nunavut Territory. I worked with Global Warming 101, an expedition led by Arctic explorer and advocate Will Steger that documented the Inuit experience with climate change through multimedia, film and online postings.

In interviews conducted by the expedition team, Inuit elders described the receding glaciers, increasingly unpredictable sea ice, reduced fishing seasons, melting permafrost, altered caribou migration patterns and reduced snowfall as just some of the changes they have seen over the past 30 years.

According to Inuit elder Simon Awa, deputy minister of the environment for Nunavut Territory, Baffin Island “used to have 10 months of winter. Now, in some cases, we are down to eight or maybe six months.”

Because the earth’s convection systems push warm air away from the equator toward the Arctic, the northern latitudes experience greater temperature increases than the lower latitudes. The Inuit are essentially experiencing the temperature increases created by our fossil fuel consumption and energy choices.

In December and January of this past winter, I led an expedition team on a 57-day, 720-mile ski trip to the South Pole. Due to abnormally heavy snowfall, our team fell behind schedule during the first half of the expedition. We recognized that quick, decisive action was needed to give ourselves a chance at reaching the South Pole on time.

Again I learned the importance of adapting to and working with nature. At the half-way point we reduced the weight in our sleds and altered our travel schedules. Success on polar expeditions is a product of thorough preparation, mental resolve and making the most of opportunities. During those long days of skiing, I often contemplated the need for the U.S. to use the climate-change crisis as an opportunity to develop a national sense of mission that enables our society and individuals to realize their greater potentials.

In March 2009, Tyler Fish and I will attempt to become the first Americans to ski unsupported to the North Pole; “the hardest trek on the planet,” according to Canadian polar explorer Richard Weber, a veteran of six similar expeditions. By mid-century, this expedition may not be possible. The area of summer sea ice on the Arctic Ocean has decreased steadily since satellite records began in 1979. Since 2000, the extent of summer sea ice has reached record or near-record lows almost every year, including another record low set in September.

The ice and snow of the Arctic Ocean, Greenland and Antarctica are the Earth’s primary reflectors of sun energy. The melting of these areas creates a positive feedback spiral. In this spiral, melting white ice or snow reveals more areas of dark-colored water and land. These dark surfaces attract more sun energy, thereby increasing temperatures and further increasing melting.

Reduced sea ice extent does not tell the whole story. “Twenty years ago, the ice was eight feet to 12 feet thick, now it’s three feet to six feet thick,” Weber said in a recent interview. “In 2006 the weather was 15 degrees to 20 degrees warmer. We had whiteouts and warm weather; in other words, May weather in April.”

Our North Pole ’09 expedition will traverse 500 miles of this dynamic and threatened environment. Skiing hundreds of miles over ice rubble through weeks of whiteout conditions in 40-below-zero temperatures, while pulling 200-pound sleds, can seem like a daunting task. The expedition will require Tyler and me to engage our mental and physical capacities to the fullest. At some points we will have to focus all of our positive energy on moving our sleds just a few meters at a time. Tapping into our greater potentials is a significant attraction to such undertakings.

Via satellite phone, we will post daily audio, photo and text updates on our web site, www.northpole09.com. It is our hope that this live connection with the Arctic Ocean and our ambitious journey will inspire people to approach the challenges of life and climate change one positive step at a time.

Portions of this article were originally published in Northwestern Magazine, December 2007

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