Every year at about this time, a Russian cargo plane deposits many tonnes of equipment on an ice floe one degree off the north pole. There, at the 89th parallel, engineers begin construction of a private ice air strip and base camp for scientists, adventurers and, more than ever, wealthy tourists.
From the camp, it’s a seven- to 10-day trudge by dog sled or ski – or, for those less fit or in a hurry, a 40-minute helicopter ride – to get to a location where they can legitimately power up the satellite phone and call someone to say: “Hello! Can you hear me? I’m at the north pole.” The price of placing that call starts at £13,500 (flights not included).
The extreme cold, lack of facilities and unpredictable Arctic weather allow for no lingering or reflection, and there are only about four weeks when the sea ice is solid enough to attempt the journey. Only this year, the ice air strip developed a huge crack, stranding the 2016 class of Arctic adventurers in Norway while engineers try injecting water into the gap in the hopes of freezing it over, or begin looking for another ice floe.
But we are running out of ice floes. And we are running out of time to put systems in place to deal effectively with the enormous changes remaking the Arctic – before there is a human and environmental catastrophe.
As rapidly as the tour groups, research cruises and explorers claiming to bear witness to climate change are rushing into the Arctic in search of adventure, the Arctic, or at least that part of it that has existed as ice for thousands of years, is retreating.
The ice cover over the Arctic ocean is disappearing at a far faster clip than scientists had anticipated even a decade ago, bringing a rush of visitors and a scramble for one of the last great untapped repositories of oil and gas, faster shipping routes, and mining, fishing, and tourism opportunities that will overwhelm local communities and infrastructure.
This winter has been freakishly warm, even for the Arctic. The polar regions have been warming twice as fast as anywhere else due to climate change. Those changes have consequences well beyond the Arctic, altering ocean currents and jumbling weather patterns.
But nowhere are the real-time effects of climate change as visible as in the Arctic. It was 21.7C (71F) at the Klawock weather station in south-eastern Alaska last month, a record. The Arctic sea ice cover, at its winter peak, was the lowest in the satellite image history, which will likely set up even more melting this summer, according to scientists. Alaska has already had its first wildfire of the year, in what should usually be the snow-bound month of February. Last December brought temperatures around 30C above normal at the north pole.
It’s these staggering changes that have opened up the Arctic to commercial possibilities and to tourism. The private camp on the ice floes did not exist in 2000. Until 2007 the Northwest Passage – another fabled destination – was thought to be too clogged with ice even in the summer months for transit without an icebreaker.
This summer the Northwest Passage will become a mass tourism destination, with a scheduled sailing in August of the Crystal Serenity, a luxury cruise liner carrying more than 1,000 passengers and crew. The 32-day cruise from Anchorage to New York is sold out, with prices from $22,000 up to $120,000 for a deluxe state room. But where outsiders seek profit and adventure, local people see risk and the destruction of their culture and way of life.
Well before the chasm opened up in the north pole base camp, indigenous people were familiar with the treacherous ice conditions across the Arctic. Native communities on the Bering coast rely on a frozen platform of 1 metre or more to hunt and fish and travel in a region where there are almost no roads. But in recent years snowmobiles have been breaking through thinning ice. This winter Bering Sea hunters complained they were running out of room to set pots for crab fishing, or trap seal and other animals.
Those risks do not deter adventure seekers. On the contrary, the US and Canadian coastguards report they are called out increasingly to rescue tourists kayaking or skiing across remote and unfamiliar terrain. Such operations are immensely costly, given the distances and extreme conditions. On 4 March, it took two coastguard helicopters, a C-130 military transport plane and 24 highly trained rescue personnel to recover two British tourists from a ski trip gone wrong in the Bering Strait, according to the coastguards. And in several of the past few years there have been more adventure cruises than government ships transiting the strait. Shipping traffic overall through the Arctic has doubled since 2008, with some estimates of a 30-fold increase in shipping by 2020.
The prospect of rescuing some 1,000 people, many of them elderly, from the freezing waters of the Northwest Passage is terrifying for local people (even if the Crystal has given assurances it will sail with an icebreaking escort vessel carrying two helicopters) and for the US and Canadian emergency response agencies whose nearest bases are hundreds of miles away. Once the liner enters the Canadian Arctic it will dock at ports of call with populations half as numerous as the paying customers aboard.
The US and Canadian coastguard will carry out drills for a mass rescue from the Crystal in Anchorage next week. But some local communities, such as the town of Nome are scheduled to receive disaster training only after the Crystal sails by.Just as terrifying for people who live off the land is the idea of an oil spill fouling remote Arctic waters and the seals, walruses and bird life they depend on for food. US government marine biologists have already been tracking oiled wildlife off the Bering Strait, as well as a mysterious illness among seals.
Ships venturing into the newly open waters of the Arctic are still allowed to use heavy fuel oil, which is a major source of black carbon. The powerful climate pollutant darkens ice and snow, speeding its warming. Arctic governments have singled out the risk of a heavy fuel oil spill as the single biggest threat to marine wildlife and the local economy. Heavy fuel oil is banned in Antarctic waters. Cruise lines, which use the same ships to operate at both poles, have committed to using less polluting fuels. But heavy fuel oil is still lawful for the Arctic, and the default choice for many cargo ships.
It is too late to stop climate change entirely. Many of the changes under way in the Arctic are now inevitable, even with all the good intentions encapsulated in last December’s Paris climate change agreement. But it is not too late to stop treating the Arctic as a great adventure playground for the rich and the restless – and protect the polar region for the people who live there.
It is still possible to limit the scope of future climate effects, with deeper cuts on greenhouse gas emissions, especially within the next few years. The first port of call should be a ban on drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic. And there is still time to prevent an even dirtier version of an Exxon Valdez or BP oil spill in pristine Arctic waters. On 18 April, the environmental council of the International Maritime Organisation will meet in London, and campaign groups are pressing for a ban on heavy fuel oil in the Arctic.
A number of the adventurers holed up in Norway waiting for the repairs to the ice runway claim to be making their epic journeys in the name of conservation – saying they need to go now, before the Arctic is ice-free. “These rapid environmental changes will likely consign epic, long range, polar ice expeditions to the pages of history,” one expedition lamented. Giving up on the chance to make that call from the other side would no doubt be a personal tragedy for explorers or well-heeled adventure tourists.
But if they really cared about the Arctic, it would make more sense to stay home andtake up an equally challenging mission: pressing political and business leaders for a ban on oil and gas drilling and the use of heavy fuel oil. It might not rival the bragging rights of a polar phone call, but it could help preserve that last great open space for the people who live there and future generations.
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