Eric Larsen got his start as a polar explorer working as a dog musher in the Arctic, helping traverse the frozen north in a way that predates the arrival of Europeans to the region. He first reached the North Pole in 2006, on a rare and dangerous 62-day summer expedition on which he and teammate Lonnie Dupre packed their gear into canoes that could be pulled like sleds. In 2010 he reached the North Pole again, as part of a year-long series of “Save the Poles” expeditions to the South Pole, North Pole, and the summit of Mount Everest.
In 2014, Larsen and Ryan Waters completed what’s now very likely to be the last unaided and unsupported expedition trekking over the ice covering the Arctic to the northernmost point in the world.
The ice has changed significantly in that time period, and it’s now dangerous if not straight up impossible to safely cross it on foot and skis.
How much has it changed since Larsen first started exploring the region?
“Tons,” he tells Business Insider, speaking after 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 2014 expedition.
“It’s hard to describe, but the character and the nature of the sea ice is different. From a scientific perspective, the thickness of the ice is much less, so it’s much thinner, and the overall extent is less. So the icepack has shrunk,” he explains. “It definitely hit this real exponential change from 2010 to 2014.”
NASA data backs up what Larsen has to say. Earlier this year, the agency reported that 2016 was another record low for winter ice cover in the Arctic Ocean. Unlike Antarctica, which is land covered in ice, the North Pole is just ice frozen on top of the sea. And with less ice, massive sheets of it are more likely to break apart and move in different direction, smashing into each other and creating hard-to-traverse walls and drifting in different directions. Larsen says that with a smaller and thinner ice pack, it becomes “less land-like.”
In 2006, he says, it was possible to ski across long expanses of ice for a couple of hours at a time before coming up to ridges or rivers representing breaks in the ice. But the going was so rough on the 2014 expedition that he and Waters covered less than seven miles in the first five days, a point at which they thought the whole journey might prove impossible.
The changes are “very dramatic when you see it and when you’ve been there,” Larsen tells Business Insider.
“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,” he said during his talk. “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.”
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