As a polar explorer and expedition guide, I’ve completed more polar expeditions than any other American in history. In 2006, I completed the first ever summer expedition to the North Pole. In 2010, I completed a world record expedition to the South Pole, North Pole, and top of Mt. Everest within a 365 day period. And last May, I completed what I believe may realistically be the last North Pole expedition due to global warming.
In the past explorers have famously quipped, “Because it’s there.” My journeys stand in stark contrast: “Because it might not be there in the future.”
My goal is not to chart new territory. Rather it is to simply discover these places as they exist today. My hope is connect people to these last great frozen wildernesses and educate people about what they are like and how they are changing.
After spending not just days and weeks, but weeks and months, traveling ‘human powered’ across these landscapes, I have a unique perspective on the current state of the Arctic and its overall fragility that I feel the need to share.
Make no mistake about it. The ice is melting. Over the past 10-plus years, I have seen dramatic changes in the character and nature of sea ice. The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world. Drilling in the Arctic Ocean will not only continue the destruction of this unique environment but also contribute to the plague of human-caused climate change already affecting the entire planet. While there have been some positive moves, such as the Obama administration’s action to safeguard some areas of the Arctic Ocean, there have also been others that threaten to further worsen the problem—the Port of Seattle’s decision to open its doors to Shell’s Arctic drilling fleet, and the Obama administration’s continued consideration of drilling in other parts of the Arctic Ocean among them.
Preparing for my expeditions takes years of planning, training and testing gear. To rush any facet spells injury or worse for me and my team. Rushing Arctic drilling through the Chukchi lease sale is even more risky. And doing so to satisfy one oil company eager to drill is not worth the potential damage to our climate, our environment, and local communities.
After suffering countless expedition gear failures, I know that the Arctic is one of most inhospitable regions on the planet. Any oil company that says that it can drill safely in the harsh and demanding Arctic environment is putting the entire region in jeopardy.
The government’s new environmental analysis predicts there is a 75 percent chance of a major oil spill if the leases in the Chukchi Sea lead to development. There is no effective way to clean up or contain spilled oil in Arctic Ocean conditions. The analysis acknowledges a major oil spill “could result in the loss of large numbers of polar bears” and that “this would have a significant impact on the Southern Beaufort Sea and/or Chukchi Beaufort Sea stocks of polar bears,” the two polar bear populations living off the coast of Alaska. Added to the already growing threat of the loss of sea ice, this prediction bodes ill for the bears’ future. Unfortunately these risks are not unique to the Chukchi Sea; the threat to wildlife, the environment, and the climate accompany any plans for drilling in the Arctic Ocean.
Over the years, I have had several very close encounters with polar bears. One jumped on my tent while I was sleeping in it. Another snuck up behind me coming within just 15 feet. As scary as these encounters were, more frightening is a world without these incredible animals.
The President and his administration have ample reasons to end drilling in the Arctic Ocean in 2015 and not to offer new leases for sale in the future. After examining all of the impacts of Arctic drilling, the Obama administration should conclude that no leasing should proceed in America’s Arctic Ocean. The rest of us have a role to play as well, including the Port of Seattle. The Port must stop enabling destructive drilling and instead deny Shell berth at its terminals.
Everyone, all of us on the planet, we are all explorers. And as explorers in the 21st century our job is not to conquer, but to protect.