What climate change looks like in the Arctic

As a meteorologist, climate scientist and polar explorer, I have seen up close how the Arctic Ocean’s sea ice isn’t only receding, it is also newer, thinner and less stable.
As a meteorologist, climate scientist and polar explorer, I have seen up close how the Arctic Ocean’s sea ice isn’t only receding, it is also newer, thinner and less stable.


We are running out of time to understand this unique environment.

The history of exploration in the Arctic by European and North American expeditions is littered with gruesome ways to die. The challenges of navigating the merciless landscape are many, which is why the first humans to travel over the surface of the frozen Arctic Ocean to reach the North Pole, the geographical top of the world, arrived as late as 1969—the same year astronauts made it to the surface of the moon.

It is no longer possible to travel from land across Arctic Ocean pack ice to the North Pole as they did in 1969. There simply isn’t enough ice. Most teams now start out not from land, but from sea ice some 60 miles away from the Pole. Yet even these partial journeys have become tenuous, given rising temperatures over recent decades. Sea ice that was once solid and stable well into summer now becomes fractured in spring. The season for traveling by ski near the North Pole has shrunk to just three weeks in April. It gets shorter every year.Explorers have responded by finding new ways to traverse the Arctic Ocean, some setting out in the darkness of winter before the sea ice has weakened, others dragging canoes and kayaks with them to cope with ever larger stretches of open water between ice floes.The first time I traveled to the North Pole was in 2015. I was a guide on a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker, taking adventurous tourists back and forth from the Siberian coast. The 14-story ship’s massive spoon-shaped bow crushed a path through the frozen sea, sending blocks of vibrant turquoise ice the size of houses tumbling along the sides. The ice seemed formidable, but I knew it to be in a precarious state of decline. As a meteorologist, climate scientist and polar explorer, I have seen up close how the Arctic Ocean’s sea ice isn’t only receding, it is also newer, thinner and less stable.

I spent these voyages collecting data about the sea ice as part of a citizen science project. I was startled to see that this was the only sea ice data from the Arctic Ocean basin entered into a global database that year. We rely on computer models to understand past climates and predict probable futures, but these models are only as good as the data that inform them. Arctic Ocean sea ice is a relative data void. There is so much we need to understand about this unique environment, and time is running out to do so.

In 2018, I returned to the Arctic Ocean, this time on skis leading an international team of women from across Europe and the Middle East. We flew from the polar frontier town of Longyearbyen, capital of the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, to a base camp floating on pack ice. From there, we set out on the roughly 60-mile trek to reach the North Pole, many of us becoming either the first person or the first woman from our respective countries to make the journey.

Skiing across Arctic Ocean pack ice, it’s impossible not to be awestruck. Shards like monumental sculptures protrude skyward through the ice floes. Heaps of ice boulders form long snaking obstacles called pressure ridges. The dark gashes of open water between the floes are known as leads. The exposed ocean is warmer than the air above it, so the leads appear to steam, creating an eerie fog that hangs low over the ice. After seven hard days, my team arrived at the top of the world.

I returned from the North Pole that year eager to document and record as much as we could about this precious landscape. I created a project called the B.I.G. (Before It’s Gone) Expedition, to make the most of our diminishing opportunities. I sensed such ski expeditions wouldn’t be possible for much longer. I had no idea how right I would be.

In the spring of 2019 no ski team could travel over the Arctic Ocean to the North Pole. Same in the spring of 2020, 2021, 2022 and 2023. The only team to have reached the North Pole by ski since 2018 was forced to do so in the dark and extreme cold of winter, starting and finishing their journey from boats—an incredible feat. “We’re not chasing firsts anymore," a fellow polar explorer observed to me. “We’re chasing lasts."

Few may care that explorers like me cannot plant flags at the North Pole anymore, but this reality should drive home the fact that fundamental, anthropogenic climate and environmental change isn’t a distant hypothetical future. Its impact has already been felt in the polar regions for years, just as it has all over the world.

In 2022 I traveled back to Svalbard, this time with the B.I.G. Expedition Team, to set out on a 10-day ski expedition to collect snow, ice and water samples from sea ice in two fjords and at regular stops throughout the journey. Prepared for minus 20°C and below, we found instead temperatures so warm that it rained for much of the expedition. The snow was heavy with water and stuck to our skis, which made travel slow and difficult.Last year I tried to return to the same fjords and was shocked to see open water where there had previously been solid ice cover. There has always been variability in weather, snow cover and sea ice in the Arctic, but now we are seeing far more unpredictability and far greater extremes. In this case, I was able to sample sea ice in only one fjord; the other will remain a data blank that we may be too late to fill.

In 2023 the B.I.G. Expedition team traveled to the northernmost glacier in Iceland—Drangajökull—to sample snow for microplastic and black carbon content. When I had checked the route the previous year, I found that the usual winter access to the glacier was blocked by too much snow. When I returned with the team, there was no snow whatsoever. We spent a torturous day carrying our sledges and skis on our backs over rocky grassland, low scrub and fast-flowing rivers, trying to reach the snowline of the glacier high above us. Our photographs of an expedition ski team in full polar kit on a tiny patch of snow look like a climate-change awareness campaign. Arctic explorers are now as endangered as polar bears.

The polar regions may feel distant, but their fate is entwined with ours and the warning is clear. The loss of sea ice will affect ocean and atmosphere currents, weather systems and, of course, the climate. As our expeditions make plain, we need to plan for the unpredictable.

We now know 2023 was the warmest year on record. This year is on track to be warmer still. Scientists have been warning about the effects of these changes for so long that I fear we fail to hear them anymore or appreciate the looming catastrophe. Increases in weather volatility will interrupt our food supplies. Melting ice sheets will raise sea levels and flood coastal cities. Receding glaciers will change river flows and disrupt access to water. And so on.

The B.I.G. Expedition has just embarked on another ski journey, this time across some of the oldest and thickest sea ice of the Arctic Ocean. We are gathering as much data as possible, from collecting snow and ice samples to observations of arctic clouds. We have packed extra clothing and equipment to cope with a wider range of possible conditions, and we have developed an array of plans in case the landscape we expect isn’t what we find. This is the new reality of Arctic expeditions.

Historians call the grand polar expeditions of the early 20th century the “heroic age of exploration." I believe the work of this century may prove more heroic still. Past explorers saw themselves as conquerors of an unknown environment. Explorers today are striving to understand and preserve these same places, ultimately to help the rest of humanity. The stakes are high.

Felicity Aston, MBE, is a record-setting British polar explorer and expedition leader, polar scientist and the author of “Polar Exposure: An All-Women’s Expedition to the North Pole" (2022), among other books.

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