04 May Climate Change Adventures: Toxic Tours or Planet Preservers?
A few months ago, in March 2015, Svalbard—an archipelago about 500 miles north of the Norwegian mainland—was inundated with 1,500 visitors who traveled there to see the total eclipse of the sun. Most of them hoped to stay in one of six hotels on the Arctic island of Spitsbergen (the largest in the Svalbard chain).
That event is illustrative of a trend that has just lately emerged: between 1995 and 2004, the number of tourists visiting Svalbard has risen by 255 percent. In fact, the Arctic as a mainstream destination has never been more popular than it is now.
Until recently, two factors helped maintain the ecological integrity in the Arctic and in Antarctica: low frequency of visits by humans and a cold climate. Now, as temperatures gradually rise, human traffic is getting heavier. And what those visitors like to do—and how they get there—is changing, too.
Is the warming of our planet creating opportunities for more extreme adventures in some of our most fragile places, and will that ultimately prove to be devastating—or good—for our planet?
Leaving a bigger footprint at the poles
More so than almost any other place, the continent of Antarctica is a sensitive indicator of global climate change. Within its polar ice cap is a record of past atmospheres that go back tens or even hundreds of thousands of years. The continent provides us with a place to study the world’s natural climate cycles against which the significance of recent changes can be judged.
There’s no doubt that the concern people have about the melting ice caps due to climate change is fueling their desire to see the poles. The Antarctic Peninsula, in fact, is one of the most rapidly warming parts of the globe. During the most recent tourist season in Antarctica, which ran from November 2014 through March 2015, more than 36,000 people made the trip. While that may not seem like a lot compared to other tourist attractions (Yellowstone National Park, for example, receives three million visitors per year), here every person and every footstep count. And it’s not just about the numbers of tourists to the poles anymore; it’s about their changing activities.
In the past, many tourists to Antarctica, especially, were retirees who mostly stayed aboard cruise ships. But more recent visitors to the continent are adventurous types who go inland; those who like to paraglide, skydive, scuba dive, water-ski, hike or cross-country ski. Unfortunately, some of these activities bring them into contact with sensitive sites, such as moss beds or bird-breeding colonies.
Some travel to Antarctica to climb Mount Vinson, the continent’s highest point (at an elevation of 16,066 feet). Still others undertake re-enactment expeditions, such as Ernest Shackleton’s desperate sea-and-land journey to a South Georgia Island whaling station in 1916. With all of this foot traffic, there are fears that habitat will be trampled, that tourists will introduce exotic species or microbes, or will transfer native flora and fauna to parts of the continent where they never before existed.
Powering adventures that could help save the world
On the flip side, however, climate change may be fueling the kind of adventures that ultimately will help reverse the damage that more tourism and more flights to fragile, warming places create.
A case in point is Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg, two Swiss pilots who are currently attempting the first round-the-world flight in a solar-powered plane, the Solar Impulse2. The mission launched March 9, 2015, from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Over the next five months, the two men will spend a combined 25 days in the air (though only one of them will be in the plane at a time). They will change places at scheduled stops in Oman, India, Myanmar, China, Honolulu, Phoenix, New York City and either Southern Europe or North Africa, depending on weather conditions over the Atlantic.
The pilots say that they hope this flight will advance clean energy in the face of rapid climate change, in the way that NASA-funded space expeditions led to artificial limbs and better golf clubs. Their premise is that it is usually pioneers who show that things once thought impossible can be done, after which industry takes over.
Back in Svalbard, this time in 2008, another event provided the inspiration for an upcoming adventure that could help us deal with a warming world. While rowing across the Pacific seven years ago, Italian explorer Alex Bellini felt an unsettling lack of control while battling strong winds and waves. He was reminded of another Italian explorer, Umberto Nobile, who, in 1928, crashed his zeppelin north of Svalbard after a polar expedition. Seven men died, and the survivors, including Nobile, spent a month wandering the free-floating pack ice until their rescue.
Fascinated by how people react to unpredictable situations, Bellini has planned an adventure in the Arctic Ocean for sometime next winter. He will travel to Greenland’s west coast, pick an iceberg and live on it for a year as it melts. He’ll reside in a capsule, built by an aeronautics company that specializes in tsunami-proof escape pods. Survival Capsule, a company founded by Julian Sharpe, makes lightweight, indestructible floating spheres, otherwise known as “personal safety systems.”
Sharpe got the idea for his capsules after the 2004 Indonesian tsunami. Believing fewer people would have died had some sort of escape pod existed, he began building one and achieved his goal in 2011. Sharpe hopes his product will soon be standard equipment in schools, retirement homes and private residences—anywhere there is severe weather. With climate change creating more intense storms and rises in sea level, Bellini, too, hopes his impending adventure in a Survival Capsule will call attention to the issue and help show how we may be able to cope.
Today, going on adventures in fragile terrains that once were the sole province of the great explorers is becoming a chic trend. But finding a Radisson Blu in those same frontiers may not be a good sign for the future of our planet.
Should the creation of more active adventures in our world’s most sensitive environments be restricted or banned altogether? Or could innovative activities in such places help us learn how to deal with the warmer world of our near future?
Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,
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