I took my first trip to the Arctic in 1995, a dog sledding expedition to the Canadian Arctic, north of Great Slave Lake. We ran our teams into the wide open spaces of the barrenlands and camped under sprawling northern lights. After nearly a month, we turned south and mushed back 200 miles across Great Slave Lake to a small village called Fort Resolution. It was the first week in May and it felt like summer as we unharnessed our dogs for the last time.
Several years later, I was visiting some friends in Rankin Inlet on the shore of Hudson Bay also in Canada. This time, we were dogsledding through the standing water of melt pools on the surface of the sea ice. It was sunny and warm and the first of June.
Then, there was the summer of 2005, when I literally paddled (in a specially modified canoe) to the North Pole.
Just nine short years later, in 2014 when I completed what will realistically be the last ever full North Pole expedition in history.
I have long passed arguing the facts behind climate change. Either you believe in the fundamental principles of science or you don’t. It’s that easy. The processes that gave us cell phones, launched satellites that probe deep space and created the Internet are the exact same methodologies that we use today to understand our changing Earth’s climate. Imagine if someone took a gigantic bulldozer and leveled Mt. Everest. Surprisingly (or not surprisingly) that’s the exact crisis we are faced in the Arctic, where it is estimated that the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free in summer within the next thirty years.
My ongoing passion for winter has been a long one. Unfortunately, in seeking out the most extreme conditions on the planet, I have also come face to face with the front lines of climate change. For every story that I have of unfathomably low temperatures, I have many more examples of unusual weather patterns, warmer than average temperatures and less than average snowfalls. Last year, crossing the Greenland ice cap, it rained on day 23 of our expedition.
As an adventurer, the challenge of physically navigating through a changing earth is difficult. Already, I mentioned, a gap in polar logistics. Equally difficult is simply planning and executing some of my expeditions. Last Winter in Antarctica, I was faced with unusually large amounts of snow which slowed my ‘record-breaking’ progress to a crawl. My adventure turned out to be not so record-breaking. Skiing in a straight line was no cakewalk either, I spent two out three weeks in complete whiteouts where I couldn’t even see the horizon. Antarctica, while cold and snowy, is a desert and significant amounts of regular snowfall are not common. Not only did I have to abort my attempt but I also got stuck at both the South Pole and another remote camp called Union Glacier for over a week due to whiteouts and snowstorms. Others weren’t so lucky.
But philosophically, the problem is much bigger for me. I personally have completed three full and many more partial expeditions to the North Pole. In total, I’ve camped on moving sea ice, in a tent, sleeping in my sleeping bag for roughly 300 days – that’s 300 mostly below zero temperatures, super remote, freeze-dried dinner days (and nights). I have dedicated my life to the singular pursuit of polar expeditions and now my ability to do those types of adventures is in jeopardy. There is no logistics network to support expeditions to remote areas of sea ice. The hard-won knowledge that I have worked so hard to gain can be passed on to few if any others.
But my problem problems pale in comparison to the effects that climate change has on our planet and the plants and animals that live here (and us). The first to go are those specially adapted for extreme environments. Polar Bears will be the first victims.
I like the slow and deliberate pace of polar travel and the chess-like discipline required to execute big adventures. I have pursued the singular goal of traveling in the coldest places in the world for most of my adult life. Like the polar bear, my skills are too specific and narrow to adapt to the Earth’s rapidly changing conditions. Yet, I am still moving forward, but my goal now is not to conquer but to protect.
To that end, there is no more time to simply sit back and lament. We need to act now. On an individual level, it is up to each of us to do our part: use less, recycle, conserve and more. These may seem like mundane, small impact tips, but the cumulative effect of these actions is substantial. At the same time, we need to embrace renewable resources on the national level and shift or economy to one that incorporates the environmental (true) cost of our lifestyle rather than excludes it. As a society, we need to demand that our government and corporations are doing their part to drive this change. It is up to all of us all the time.
I know that this problem is overwhelming, and just like skiing to the North Pole or climbing Mt. Everest, solving climate change seems impossible. ‘Begin with one step,’ is a mantra I often repeat to myself. You are also not in this alone. There are a lot of great organizations like the Sierra Club, Protect Our Winters and 350.org in the trenches and fighting the good fight. Together, there is hope.