On May 7, 2014, after 53 days of struggling nearly 500 miles across the fractured ice of the Arctic Ocean while lugging two 317-pound sleds and fending off hungry polar bears, Arctic explorers Eric Larsen and Ryan Waters finally reached the North Pole.
It was very likely the last expedition of its kind across the ice.
Exhausted, Larsen and Waters called for their pickup flight, and forty-two hours later, they were headed home.
“As we flew off I looked out the window at all that ice and at this stunning environment that I’ve come to know so well over the past 10 years and that I have a profound respect for — it is such a unique place, the Arctic Ocean, a place like no other,” Larsen explained at a recent talk promoting “On Thin Ice: An Epic Final Quest into the Melting Arctic,” the new book he and Hudson Lindenberger wrote about the expedition, an unaided and unsupported journey.
“To be able to complete this expedition, which may realistically be the last of its kind in history … it left me with this profound sadness.”
Larsen had made the journey twice before, in 2006 and in 2010, a year he skied to the North Pole, the South Pole, and climbed Mount Everest.
But he tells Business Insider that by this latest trip, things had changed. There’s no land at the North Pole, it’s just a massive layer of ice on top of an ocean. And now, that ice is thinner than it ever has been, something that NASA data clearly shows. With less ice-pack in general, it moves around more. Massive sheets of ice crash into each other, breaking apart and forming massive obstacles.
“It definitely hit this real exponential change from 2010 to 2014,” Larsen tells BI, especially when compared to historical records of journeys to the Pole in the early 20th century. Then, he says explorers were able to ski for a couple of hours at a time across flat plains of ice, covering mile after mile. The going was so rough on this expedition that he and Waters covered less than seven miles in the first five days.
In recent years thin ice and these obstacles have made crossing the Arctic Ocean in anything but a boat nearly impossible. In 2013, no expedition was able to make it onto the ice. On April 29, 2015, the year after Larsen and Waters reached the Pole, explorers Marc Cornelissen and Phillip De Roo died after falling through. They’d been gathering data for a science initiative known as the “Last Ice Survey.”
NASA had reported earlier that year that the winter ice cover in the Arctic was the lowest ever recorded.
With 2016 being well on the way to setting another record for the warmest year ever, it’s unlikely that conditions will allow anyone to trek their way across the Arctic again.
“It’s a bit of a gimmick to be able to say it,” that theirs was the last expedition, Larsen says. But at the same time, that doesn’t make it untrue.
“I don’t want to be in a position where I’ve got the last passenger pigeon,” he says. “To think about something that’s so big and so huge and that’s identified exploration for centuries, one of the last great unexplored places … what would you say if Mount Everest got bulldozed and was no longer there?”
“It’s a sad thing.”
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