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Decreasing Ice, Increasing Risk: The New World of Arctic Tourism

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Late last month in the high Canadian Arctic, rescuers plucked 20 tourists from an ice floe on which they were camping a day after it broke free and began to drift, stranding them nearly eight miles offshore. I read about this adventure gone awry with some interest. The Arctic runs in my blood -- two of my ancestors were explorers there when much of it remained a blank spot on the map.

Captain Peter Bernard died on Banks Island in 1916 while a member of the Canadian Arctic Expedition. Captain Joe Bernard spent 10 winters from 1901-1924 "north of Barrow, east of everything," as he described it, surviving off his rifle and traps with his schooner Teddy Bear locked in the ice. One of them dedicated his life to exploring the north, the other gave his. They would have found the idea of Arctic tourism laughable.

Joe's journals from those years share the feats of endurance he faced just to stay alive in such an inhospitable region, but he came to love the land and the Eskimo and Inuit people who call it home. He lived as they did, embracing nature rather than fighting it, a practice other explorers were just beginning to adopt. For decades, he crisscrossed Alaska and the Canadian Arctic, surviving bouts with hypothermia, scurvy, and starvation, raising polar bears as pets, and generally experiencing the north in a way few ever have. In all, he covered more water miles in the Arctic than anyone before him.

But just a century later, he wouldn't recognize it.

In my book, Chasing Alaska: A Portrait of the Last Frontier Then and Now, I write about the Alaska Joe knew and how it compares to the one I found when I moved there in 1999. More has happened to affect the nature of the north in the past century than in the hundred centuries before it: the climate and the wildlife, the cultures of its people, the types of people who choose to call it home and their reasons for doing so, its accessibility to the rest of the world -- in this age of technology, even the very definition of remoteness is evolving.

Alaska's glaciers are receding, and quickly. Some have moved as far as 70 miles in the past century alone. In the Arctic, average temperatures are rising twice as fast as the rest of the world, causing much of the ice cap to thin or melt. NASA satellites show the permanent ice cover contracting by almost 10 percent each decade, and scientists predict an ice-free Arctic by the end of the century, just 200 years after Joe fought the elements there to survive.

The effects reach beyond the Arctic as contracting ice accelerates global warming and changes climate patterns worldwide, but the danger there is both greater and more immediate.

In Shishmaref, Alaska, houses fall into the sea as the permafrost beneath them thaws at an unprecedented rate. All 600 village homes could be gone within just a few decades. The 350 residents of Newtok, less than 500 miles west of Anchorage, watch helplessly as the Ninglick River washes their coastal village into the Bering Sea, eroding the shoreline by 100 feet each year. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicts the village's highest point could be underwater in just four years.

The changing conditions affect animals, as well, forcing Polar bears, seals, walrus, and whales to alter feeding and migration patterns, threatening their populations -- as well as the populations of Native people who rely on them for subsistence.

In 1910, Joe Bernard reached a natural harbor near the mouth of the Coppermine River in what's now the Canadian territory of Nunavut, and with the Teddy Bear flatfooted by ice, drew the first charts of the bay. In the coming years, members of the Canadian Arctic Expedition would use those charts to seek safe shelter during the Arctic winter, and their journals -- like Joe's -- describe a hardscrabble existence.

The Canadian government later named that harbor for Joe. Today, climate change has had such a profound impact on ice patterns that Bernard Harbour is now a destination for cruise ships touring the Northwest Passage.

Each year global warming opens more of the Arctic to maritime travel and shipping traffic. An Irish-Canadian team recently set out to cross the Northwest Passage by rowboat in a single season, a journey that in 1906 took Roald Amundsen and the crew of the 70-foot schooner Gjoa three years. International governing organizations have yet to establish shipping lanes for these newly trafficked areas, and as commercial shipping and the cruise industry presence in the Arctic continue to increase, the risk of accidents -- if not the likelihood -- rises with them.

We're already seeing it. A few years ago, the cruise ship Clipper Adventurer struck a charted rock in Coronation Gulf under clear, calm conditions. It took a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker two days to reach the ship and rescue the passengers.

The combined effects of technology, development, industry, and tourism continue to shrink the world, and we're losing wild places all the time -- but as humans, we're still drawn to them. It's what lured Joe and Peter Bernard north, and it's what lured the tourists rescued in Nunavut. As we're forced farther and farther afield "to get away from it all," as they were doing, the risk grows.

Their story reminds me of Storker Storkerson, the Norwegian explorer sent by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, leader of the Canadian Arctic Expedition, to "set out from the Alaska coast to drift westward on an ice cake across the polar basin," according to a 1919 article in the New York Times. Stefansson believed that currents would land Storkerson and his small team of brave adventurers on the coast of Siberia, but his theory proved baseless. The under-provisioned team circled endlessly in an eddy, hungry and weak, until rescued.

In my book, I joke that to gauge ocean currents today, you might sink a GPS beacon on the ice and set it adrift, but a hundred years ago you did the same with a handful of hungry Scandinavians. But what happened to the Arctic tourists is no joke -- and neither are the changing conditions that caused it.

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