For more than a century explorers and adventurers from around the globe have attempted to cross the frozen expanse of the Arctic Ocean on foot just to reach the North Pole. Although most fail, some have been successful in that endeavor, spending weeks enduring subzero temperatures, incredibly high winds, whiteout conditions and heavy snows to stand at 90°N. It is a journey that requires a great deal of skill, determination and endurance to complete and it is more difficult now than ever before. In fact, it may soon be impossible to make that journey at all thanks in no small part to global climate change. An expedition to the North Pole is very different than the South Pole, even though the weather conditions can be similar in both regions. Unlike the Antarctic, which actually has solid ground under all of that ice, explorers on their way to the North Pole are traveling across a frozen ocean. As temperatures have warmed across the globe, pack ice has begun to recede in both locations, although it has had a more dramatic effect in the Arctic. The result has been a cracking of the ice which once went unbroken from northern Canada to northern Russia. Now, when explorers head north they’re finding large bodies of open water that must be navigated around or swam across. That open water simply didn’t exist as recently as ten or twenty years ago.
That open water simply didn’t exist as recently as ten or twenty years ago
Traditionally at this time of year explorers are gathering in Resolute Bay, Canada, the tiny village that is the launching point for an expedition to the North Pole. Most would then hop a flight out to Cape Discovery to begin their 500-mile journey on skis, while pulling a heavy sled filled with all of their gear and supplies behind them. The problem is, over the past two years, not a single full-distance expedition to the North Pole as been successful and 2013 doesn’t look like the year that will break that streak.
Those that have braved the Arctic in recent years have all returned with similar stories. The pack ice is breaking up at an unprecedented rate, which is not only resulting in more open water but also creating large rubble fields, making the route nearly impassable. On top of that, massive storms, more ferocious and unrelenting than any seen in recent memory, have pummeled the adventurers, making progress slow and sometimes confining them to their tents for days on end. As average temperatures in the Arctic have risen, the region has gotten far more unstable for travel.
This all begs the questions of whether or not the North Pole is now out of reach for explorers traveling on skis? If recent history is any judge, I’d say that that if it isn’t already, it soon will be. Sure, well heeled adventure travelers can still visit the top of the world via guided “last degree” expeditions, but the true explorers who travel all 500 miles under their own power are quickly becoming a thing of the past. I personally know of two expeditions in the planning for 2014 and at this point it’s a long shot for them to succeed. In the years following, those chances are likely to get even smaller.
Climate change remains a controversial topic with some, mostly amongst those who still see it as a political issue. You can look at the data that is being collected by researchers from around the planet and it seems clear that we’re in an era of change. But you really only need to ask polar explorers from the past few years what they think about the subject. They’ll tell you that climate change is real and it is having a lasting effect on our world. So much so that a once storied adventure in the Arctic is quite possibly becoming a thing of the past.
By Kraig Becker