Climate Change from a Polar Explorer's Perspective

by John Huston

Video: John Huston discusses his polar expedition. For more of our conversation with Huston, visit our channel on YouTube.

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, due to 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?

Since graduating from Northwestern, I have spent several seasons traveling in the Arctic 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. (See "Cold Fires Up Arctic Adventurer," fall 2007.) 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 melt could raise sea levels and alter ocean currents. This fall the Northwest Passage completely opened up for the first time in recorded history. In the next 10 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.

This past winter and spring I lived among the Inuit of Baffin Island in Canada's Nunavut Territory for three months. 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 March 2009 my expedition partner, 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 midcentury 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 summer sea ice extent 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 Antarctic 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 8 to 12 feet thick, now it's 3 to 6 feet thick," Weber said in a recent interview. "In 2006 the weather was 15 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. 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.

John Huston (WCAS99) is a polar expeditioner who splits his time between Chicago and Ely, Minn.