Now that the Antarctic season is starting to wrap up, it is time to start thinking about heading the other direction instead. In a few short weeks, teams of explorers and adventurers will head to Canada to begin a long distance trek to the North Pole instead. That journey has always been more challenging than a South Pole-ski, but if recent years are any indication, it may soon become simply impossible.
ExWeb posted a good article a few days back in which they discussed the challenges that Arctic explorers face. Unlike the Antarctic, skiers going to the North Pole never actually have land underneath. Instead they travel on the frozen waters of the Arctic Ocean, which brings its own set of unique challenges. Unfortunately, due to global climate change, the Arctic pack-ice is shrinking at an alarming rate and in 2012 it was at its smallest amount ever recorded. As a result, all of the skiers attempting a full-distance expedition the Pole were forced to abandon their attempts.
2013 isn't shaping up to be much better. According to the ExWeb story, some teams have already abandoned their attempts without even heading to Resolute Bay in Canada, which is where they usually launch from. We're also told that Kenn Borek Air, the company that typically flies the skiers out to their starting point, won't begin those flights until March 5, five full days later that last year. And at the other end of the season, the Russian Barneo Ice Camp has announced that they'll pull up stakes on April 22nd, four days sooner than last year. Since the Russians are the ones who typically pick up explorers that reach the North Pole, that means that skiers will have nine fewer days to travel in this year. All of those schedule changes are due to unstable and changing conditions on the ice.
All of this begs the question. Will North Pole expeditions soon become a thing of the past? Considering that no one has made the full journey since 2010, it is beginning to look like a full-distance ski journey will soon become very rare indeed. Explorers have reported larger open leads of water the past few years and it is a long and tiring process to try to cross them all or find a way around. With a narrower window then ever to make the journey, it seems that the margin for error is extremely small for anyone who is hoping to undertake this type of adventure.
I've been saying for the past few years that I expect a North Pole expedition to simply be out of the question, as least in the traditional sense, in just a few years time. The icecap is simply getting smaller and the challenges are getting larger, making the proposition of such a journey more daunting. I do know of at least two people that I've spoken too directly who are planning expeditions to 90ºN in the next year or two, but quite frankly I believe that after that the window for such an expedition may close altogether. That is, if it hasn't already.
Now, I suspect that we will still see adventurers going to the North Pole in some form. Sure, we'll have one- and two-degree ski expeditions. But if the ice cap continues to break up, some industrious person will likely try to do a combined kayak-ski expedition or something similar. But a full-on ski journey just seems like it will be increasingly rare before too long.
I'm not one who likes to step into the middle of a heated (pun intended!) debate over global warming or climate change. Quite frankly, all you have to do is look around to see that thins are changing. Whether or not man is the cause of that change remains debatable, but it also doesn't matter. If there is anything we can due to help alter the course or limit our impact, no matter how minimal, I believe we should. The Arctic icecap is like the canary in the coal mine when it comes to witnessing these changes and anyone who has been there in recent years will tell you how dramatically different it is now as opposed to just a few years ago.
We're still a month and a half away from the start of the 2013 North Pole season, but it is already starting to look like it'll be another lean one.