Seeing the Globe Warm: My Trip to the Arctic

I just got back from an extraordinary trip to the Arctic North of Norway, and I am left feeling exhilarated and alarmed at the same time. I knew before I went that the Arctic was the epicenter of global warming, but seeing the changes firsthand is haunting.

There are two scenes I will never forget.

The first came just a few days into the trip. I was onboard the ship National Geographic Endeavor, coursing past the Svalbard archipelago in the high Norwegian arctic. We were halfway between the Arctic Circle and the North Pole.

I had never been so far north or in a more remote place on Earth. But I was in good company. The Aspen Institute had invited 100 politicians, scientists, businessmen, religious and labor leaders—people ranging from President Jimmy Carter and Van Jones of Green for All to Chad Holliday of Dupont and John Carr of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops—to witness and discuss the impacts of global warming.

One day, we had the electrifying experience of watching polar bears cavort on the ice. We tend to think of the Arctic as an expanse of white, but it isn’t. The sea is dark. The pack ice comes in deep, beguiling blues. Polar bears are yellowish. Walruses are tawny. And all of these colors pop against a steely grey sky.

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On one ice sheet, we saw two polar bears, their furs smeared with red from a just completed dinner. One was moving in and out of the water; the other was busy eating the seal. Off to the side, a smaller bear peaked over the ice with its black snout, waiting for the big ones to get off the kill so it could trot over to the remains. All three bears seemed powerful and vibrant.

But later, we sailed passed an island where a polar bear sat on the shore, stranded because the sea ice had receded so far from shore. This bear will not eat until next winter--it simply cannot hunt without the ice. Polar bears can survive for long stretches without eating, but seeing that lone bear brought home just how dependent these iconic creatures are on sea ice. Scandinavians, after all, call them the Ice Bear.

I have read enough climate reports to know that with summer sea ice disappearing at alarming rates, the bear I saw stranded that day is one of many. Now I have a permanent memory of what a hungry, stranded bear looks like.

Sailing Where Ice Used to Be

The other moment I will never forget came later. Our ship had sailed within view of the towering pack ice—the largest pack ice in the world after Greenland and Antarctica. It was overwhelming to bob beneath this massive ice formation that soared about 12 stories high and stretched far into the distance. But though it seemed imposing, we soon discovered its vulnerability.

I was standing on deck next to Julian Dowdswell, the director of the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge, and I asked him, “If we had been here 10 years ago, where would that ice have been?”

“It would have been right where you are right now,” he replied. The data from his research was clear: the pack ice is shrinking.  It recedes in the summer and it doesn’t come back to full volume in the winter. This, I realized, is where sea level rise begins.

The Point of the Voyage

The Arctic is a remote, wild, and forbidding place, yet still it has become the ground zero for global warming. It is not near any of the greenhouse gas emissions. It is far from the nations that are generating the problem, but it is the first place that is changing most dramatically. Seeing it firsthand was extremely powerful.

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And that is what our hosts had in mind. Their intent was to bring together key leaders and engage their hearts and minds in an attempt to really understand the majesty and fragility of the Arctic and how quickly it is changing.

What We Do Below the Arctic Circle

I think to a person, we all left with the feeling that we can’t afford to spent a week of our time and not convert it into some kind of real, concrete action. (To see what the participants agreed to work on going forward, click here.)

I for one have been changed by the trip. I have spent the last decade trying to stop climate change, and still I was deeply moved by seeing a warming and melting Arctic with my own eyes. The images I bring back down will propel me through the many tough battles ahead.


Photo credits: Lindblad Expeditions, Ralph Lee Hopkins