Traveling to the North Pole on a Russian nuclear icebreaker was never on my bucket list, but when given the opportunity to be a lecturer on board to talk about climate change in the Arctic, I accepted with enthusiasm.
Fifty Years of Victory is the largest and most powerful icebreaker operating anywhere in the world. It services the commercial traffic in the Russian zone of the Northern Sea Route, except for when it is leased out to The Nature Conservancy travel partner, Quark Expeditions, for several trips during the summer for tourists to experience the High Arctic safely. One of those trips in 2017, focused on the changing climate, ecology, and geopolitics of the Arctic. The Conservancy was an onboard partner in the effort, and as a member of the board, and as a longtime resident of Alaska, I went along representing the Conservancy.
In late July, 120 guests and 150 staff and crew left Murmansk, the large Russian port at 70 degrees north latitude and sailed (usually at 16-18 knots) to 90 degrees north…the North Pole. The seven guest lecturers on our journey presented scientific information, photography, adventure stories and cultural presentations about the Arctic and how the rapid rate of change is impacting the people, communities, flora and fauna of the region. We also explored how those changes are impacting the entire world, and what humans can do to moderate and mitigate negative consequences.
The day we arrived at the North Pole it was 35 degrees and raining. Not what I expected. The ice was thin for July, about three to four feet, with melt ponds on top and many open areas of blue water. Nonetheless, the next morning we walked down the narrow side ramp of the ship and spent much of the day on the ice: a picnic lunch, the polar plunge for people who brought their bathing suits and a steely resolve, a ride on hot air balloon and photo ops. This day started with mystical fog and slowly became a blue sky day which left all of us in a state of awe.
Our trip south was calm and sunny. We saw polar bears and walrus and thousands of seabirds.
We stopped for hikes at Franz Joseph Land, a Russian National Park roughly half way between the North Pole and Murmansk. Spectacular tidewater glaciers, mountains, rugged coasts....
Other than a research station (which we visited, below) and a military site (we didn’t visit), these islands are true wilderness. Our short hikes on shore were under the watchful eyes of polar bear guards…reminding us of the risks and rewards of extremely remote places.
When I think about the lack of thick multi-year ice and the amount of open water we saw (at least two months ahead of the time when the sea ice minimums are usually recorded), I can only describe my emotion as one of profound sadness. When I think about how significantly we have contributed to warming our atmosphere, and as a result, shrinking the sea ice platform that is required for all ice-dependent species (including humans), I want to apologize to my grandson for the years of inaction. And when I contemplate the solutions that are clearly available to individuals, businesses, and governments, I am proud to be part of an organization like The Nature Conservancy that works hard to communicate practical solutions that can help both communities and economies thrive, while protecting the lands and waters on which all life depends.