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Last expedition to the North Pole: The here-and-now consequence of a dramatic global change

Last expedition to the North Pole: The here-and-now consequence of a dramatic global change
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Last year, in front of a few hundred policymakers, influencers and business leaders at a Vancouver conference, I explained that I was waiting for a phone call that would determine whether or not I would be able to lead an expedition to ski to the North Pole in a few weeks time. The phone call would come from the first to see the Arctic Ocean Sea Ice that year, those who would assess whether sea ice conditions were stable enough for the essential logistics needed to ski to the North Pole to be viable or not. If the ice was deemed too thin, too fractured or too mobile, nobody would be skiing on the Arctic Ocean that year.

The uncertainty of our ability to access the North Pole seemed to stun the Vancouver audience. Perhaps this is because climatic and environmental changes are often cloaked in the language of scientific prediction and hypothetical futures, so it was a shock to hear of a here-and-now practical consequence of a dramatic global change already far advanced.

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It is generally believed that it is no longer possible to make a “full-distance” ski expedition to the North Pole (one that starts on land) due to deteriorating ice conditions. Considering that the very first man to stand — undisputed — at the North Pole having traveled there over the frozen Arctic Ocean did so in 1969 adds extra poignancy to the fact that the last successful ski expedition to the North Pole from land took place in 2014.

It is not expected that there will be another. Ice conditions are just too hazardous for the support planes or infrastructure needed for such an undertaking. Now, even the shorter “last degree” ski expeditions covering a distance of 100km or so over the ice to reach the North Pole are under threat.   

I was preparing to lead an international team of novice women explorers gathered from across Europe and the Middle East on a 10-day ski expedition across the sea ice of the frozen Arctic Ocean on an attempt to reach the North Pole. We had been training together as a team for more than two years as well as raising the large amount of money needed to pay for a polar expedition. It was disconcerting to witness just how tenuous it was for the sole remaining operator to establish a runway on the ice — vital for access to high latitude sea ice on the Arctic Ocean and the North Pole.

And yet, when an aged Russian helicopter finally set me and my team adrift on the ice pack some 80km south of the North Pole, the ice around us felt to be anything but fragile.

Huge slabs of ice, some metres thick, were stacked in haphazard heaps all around us, displaced by the constantly shifting pressures pulsing through the frozen skin of the vast ocean that lay beneath us. In places the ocean currents below, and air circulation above, had pushed the ice together so that ridges of ice rubble snaked for miles across the surface like ancient walls. In other places the ice had been forced apart to form jagged fractures revealing the black of the sea and sending clouds of steam to hang ominously in the air.

Evidence was everywhere apparent that we were on dry land but on a temperamental raft of ice subject to vast forces of nature against which we were completely irrelevant. It was intimidating.

The changes of concern are not just that there is less ice forming each year on the Arctic Ocean, and that this ice no longer connects with the “fast ice” that stretches out from the coast, but that the ice that does form is thinner and newer than ever before. Such fundamental alterations in the characteristics of the ice covering the top of our planet have far-reaching consequences: affecting the albedo (the reflective or absorption properties) of our planet and therefore global weather and climate, potentially enabling greater exploitation of natural resources in the region, and the impact on native wildlife and the cultures that call the Arctic Ocean their home. Neither was it a particularly comforting thought for me and my team of skiers as we pitched our camp on the creaking ice each night.

After seven days of warily navigating our way through, around and over obstacles of ice and occasionally water (in various states of congealment) my team and I stood at the top of the world, at the point of 90 degrees North. The North Pole was ours — but not for long. Within minutes the spot I had marked on the ice with my ski poles as the North Pole was no longer precisely 90 degrees North as the ice layer we stood on moved imperceptively southward under the influence of wind and current. We could have stalked the North Pole over the ice for the sake of accuracy but instead decided to stick with “our” North Pole, reveling in the fact that it would never be anyone else’s. 

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Several of the women in my team were the first person from their country to ski to the North Pole. It was sobering to wonder if they might also be the last. As we waited at the Pole to be collected by helicopter, we learned that the ice runway we depended on to get home had cracked apart not once but twice while we had been away — an indication of just how untenable this logistical link has become.

Some of the veteran polar guides leading groups to the North Pole were predicting that in as little as five years they expected even the one remaining tenacious Russian operator to be overwhelmed by the hazards of 21st-century sea ice. When that happens, skiing to the North Pole will become logistically unmanageable, prohibitively expensive and all but impossible. In 50 years we have swung from celebrating the first of mankind skiing to the North Pole — to anticipating the last.

Felicity Aston was the leader of the Women’s Euro-Arabian North Pole Expedition 2018 which successfully reached the North Pole by ski on April 21, 2018. She is also the first woman to ski alone across Antarctica, a 59-day, 1744km journey completed in 2012 that earned her a place in the Book of Guinness World Records. As a British Polar Explorer, she has been awarded the Polar Medal by Queen Elizabeth II and been appointed MBE for services to Polar Exploration. Follow her on Twitter at @felicity_aston.