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Oct.22, 2008

Vol. 109, No. 3


Bearing witness

On a journey to the Arctic, alumni get a firsthand look at climate change

By Michael D. Lemonick
Published in the October22, 2008, issue

Author Michael Lemonick.
Photos courtesy Michael Lemonick
Author Michael Lemonick.

On a brilliantly sunny morning in August, an ungainly vessel called the Kapitan Khlebnikov — part icebreaker, part cruise ship — stopped a mile or two off Lady Franklin Island in Baffin Bay, in sub-Arctic Canada, and about 50 passengers, dressed in warm, waterproof outerwear, boots, and life jackets, prepared to file down a precarious metal gangway to a platform just above the waterline. One by one we descended, clambered into motorized, inflatable Zodiac boats, and started zipping across the quiet sea, dodging icebergs, toward Lady Franklin and a handful of smaller, unnamed islands nearby.

We’d been warned on the ship that we were unlikely to see polar bears. The bay is mostly iced-over during winter, and the bears wander south to hunt for seals as they come up for air at breathing holes. In the spring, they head north again as the ice recedes. A few always wait too long, though; they find themselves stranded on islands, and have to wait for the ice to return the following autumn. Still, we were told, we shouldn’t keep our hopes up. We’d certainly see some seabirds, and we should be satisfied with that.

But when the Zodiacs came around the point of one of those nameless islands, there they were: a mother bear and her 2-year-old cub, resting on a ledge about 80 feet above the sea. The drivers cut their engines so as not to spook the bears. But while the animals perked up and looked at us, trying to assess whether we were dangerous (or perhaps edible), they stayed put as we snapped hundreds of photographs.

It was a fitting start to a trip titled “The High Arctic: Realm of the Polar Bear,” part of the Princeton Journeys travel program run by the Alumni Association. Lured by a gorgeous brochure, 18 undergraduate and graduate alumni, spouses, and friends paid nearly $16,000 per person to spend two weeks aboard the Kapitan Khlebnikov, stopping at villages, weather stations, and wilderness sites in places whose very names — Greenland, Baffin Island, Resolute — evoke harshness and isolation.

This was no relaxing cruise to the Bahamas — a fact made obvious at the start, when we learned that the ship’s keel was too deep for docking anywhere during the voyage. We made our way out onto a rocky causeway and clambered into Zodiacs, eight at a time, and motored through more than two miles of frigid, choppy waters to the ship, where Russian sailors were waiting to grab us and pull us aboard. Nor were these ordinary travelers. The average age was in the low 70s, at least, and several travelers were well into their 80s. Yet they climbed into Zodiacs and helicopters, and went splashing through frigid water, charging up rocky slopes, and hiking across mushy, uneven tundra.

This journey had a special undertone of sadness. For decades, computer models that predict the course of global warming have suggested that the planet’s poles are likely to heat up fastest. And that’s just what’s been happening. In recent years, the headlines increasingly have been filled with news about giant ice shelves collapsing at both poles. Last year, there was more open water in the Arctic Ocean than ever before, continuing a trend that could lead to an ice-free Arctic in the summer within a decade. Glaciers are melting back, and the flora and fauna in the region — not only bears and other animals, but indigenous Inuit people — are beginning to suffer. As we traveled, the evidence of climate change appeared before our eyes, most dramatically in the scores of glaciers we saw flowing down toward the sea. In many cases, these rivers of ice ended before reaching the water, but it was clear they once had stretched all the way to the shoreline: We could see mounds of gravel and silt they had dropped in retreating. Twenty years ago, that debris would have been concealed under dozens of feet of ice.

Our ship took us from the Inuit settlement of Iqaluit on remote Baffin Island, to Lady Franklin Island, and past Cape Dyer, where we crossed the Arctic Circle. We walked through the outpost of Uummannaq, Greenland, where homes are anchored in place by strong steel cables. We passed through the heavy drift ice of Melville Bay — a region so isolated that when the British explorer John Ross encountered the Inuit at Cape York in 1819, they were surprised to find that they were not the only people in the world. We visited Qaanaaq, also known as Thule, home to 300 Greenlanders, and traveled as far north as Ellesmere Island, Canada’s northernmost land.

The Kapitan Khlebnikov.
Photos courtesy Michael Lemonick
The Kapitan Khlebnikov.
A Zodiac is readied for an excursion.
Photos courtesy Michael Lemonick
A Zodiac is readied for an excursion.
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CURRENT ISSUE: Oct.22, 2008