Many times this winter, during the most bitterly cold days, I heard the sarcastic comment, “Where is this global warming everyone has been talking about?”
The truth is most of us will go on with our lives without experiencing noticeable differences due to climate change. This is especially true in the Midwest, where we generally live an extreme-free weather experience, sheltered from the effects of coastal sea-level changes, hurricanes, and water shortages seen in arid climates. It is hard to acknowledge and appreciate the large-scale effects global warming will have on the climates of different environments because “a few degrees warmer” when placed in the context of our personal lives does not hold much sway.
Historical minimum polar ice cap coverage.
The most noticeable changes in climate due to global warming are occurring on and around the polar ice cap. While far from our sight and minds, the polar ice cap serves as a beacon for melting of landmass ice that could be detrimental to coastal cities in the coming decades. The ice cap is changing rapidly because sea ice is particularly sensitive to sun exposure and temperature changes. Ice normally reflects sunlight, but as the temperature warms and thin layers of water start to form, more sunlight is absorbed instead of reflected, and the warming cycle is accelerated. Under the same mechanism, as the polar ice cap shrinks and is replaced by open ocean, more sunlight is absorbed and the shrinkage rate is accelerated – so much so that, as can be seen in the diagram below, the minimum ice coverage has been cut in half over just a matter of a few decades.
John Huston moves through the ice rubble during day 13 on the polar ice cap.
Currently my friend and fellow Northwestern alum John Huston (Class of 1999) is attempting to be the first ever American team (with Minnesotan Tyler Fish) to ski unassisted to the North Pole. This means that they will not be re-supplied at any point during their trip as they navigate across the polar ice cap. They are skiing from the northerly most point of Canada, Ellesmere Island, to the North Pole, dragging behind them hundreds of pounds of food and gear on two sleds per person. They are currently two weeks into their journey that will total 55 days and over 400 miles. Their progress and daily updates can be tracked at www.forwardexpeditions.com/blog.html.
Expedition progress as of day 16.
One of the goals of their expedition is to promote climate change education, and there isn’t a better place for them to gain firsthand experience to share about this growing problem. Increased stretches of thin ice and open water must be crossed by swimming, wearing specialized dry suits. In addition, they must navigate through large boulders of ice, which form as a result of shifting currents that have caused ice plates to collide (much like the formation of mountains from tectonic plate collisions). As the ice cap shrinks, a larger proportion of it is made up of new sea ice. While new ice provides a much smoother surface for skiing, the continual shrinking of the polar ice cap could eventually make summer expeditions impossible. So, while they attempt to be the first American team to achieve this feat, the biggest effect of climate change on this expedition may be that it could also be the last time such a journey is even within the realm of possibility. Let’s just hope that they make it home safely.