I just returned from a hiking trip through the North of Spain when sitting down to write this blog post. Besides the beautiful deciduous forests, mountains, and the refined kitchen of the Basque country, I also faced the ever burning sun. Once I crossed the mountains along the coastline and headed onto the plateau of Alava, no trees stood between me and the burning rays. At one particularly hot afternoon, my thoughts drifted off to cooler places. Maybe, I thought in the delirium of the moment, next year I go to the Arctic instead.

My dull train of thoughts came to a sudden stop. Travelling to the Arctic? yelled my inner voice outraged. Do you even realise what kind of impact that would have on such pristine environment?

Arctic ice is melting at an accelerating pace, as a result of warming at a speed twice as high as the global average.

The truth is I didn’t. In fact, I realised I knew very little about the Arctic. Once home, I sat down to have a closer look. As every weathered traveller does when he has laid an eye on a new destination, I started at the weather statistics. Svalbard’s average temperature in September: 3.2 degrees Celcius. In August it was 6.8. At least I would not have to fear a sunstroke. More worrisome is that this is 1.8 degrees warmer than the average August month since 1899. Delving deeper, it turns out that the Arctic region is warming at a pace twice as high as the rest of the world.

To blame are a loss of ice cover, turning the white surface of the Arctic into the dark surface of the Arctic ocean. And as you all know, darker colours absorb more heat, making the ice melt even faster. In addition, water vapor in the atmosphere increases and traps more heat, again contributing to the warming. It’s a vicious circle. Before long — scientists estimate as soon as 2050 — there might be no ice left in summer to visit.

I’d better hurry, one might think. That’s also what the promo video of Arctic cruise operator Poseidon Expedition, which I stumbled on during my google session, wants me to believe.

” Should I hide in my own small corner or explore the globe?
Will I use my freedom like the great Arctic explorers?
Or retreat into a deafening world of virtual reality?
We can choose to live in the moment. The here and now.
… We are free to seize the day, to capture the moment.”

I nearly feel guilty for not going already.

” The Arctic is not a cold and distant dream
It is a choice that will provide warm memories, forever. “

Far too warm memories indeed. Can it get more ironic? Humankind has kicked off unprecedented warming in the Arctic region, which is likely to lead to a complete collapse of its ecosystem. Now, it turns the same tragedy into entertainment.

I cannot help but wonder: where are all the poo and the pee going of this assembly of rich and adventurous travellers? All their waste? How much harm is the noise pollution of the ship’s motors doing to the marine life? How do the few ice bears left think about these 12 storey high cruises mooring in their favourite hunting spot? There are very little laws that regulate what happens in the polar waters. And even then, who’s there to check? What happens in the Arctic, stays in the Arctic.

To me, Arctic tourism sounds like a bad idea.

Cruises are not the only ships to cross the Arctic oceans in increasing numbers though. This month, the Venta Maersk was the first big container vessel to navigate what could soon become a maritime highway between Asia and Europe. Starting in South Korea, it went North to cross the Bering Strait and head along the North coast of Russia towards Saint-Petersburg. What was once inhospitable terrain only reachable by nuclear-powered icebreakers, is now becoming accessible for commercial ships.

Ships that run on heavy fuel, leading to high emissions of black carbon. It not only traps heat, but it also falls back on the ice and darkens it, leading again to more heat absorption. Such negative effects are nothing compared to the environmental damage when things go wrong though. A leakage or spill of oil or sewage water is extremely difficult to clean up in such a remote region, a crash like the Exxon Valdez a total disaster. With traffic through the Arctic estimated to increase rapidly over the next few years, it’s not a question if but rather when the next drama will unfold. But that will, by no means, stop the shipping, oil and gas industry from getting ready to explore these seas.

The Venta Maersk making her way through the ice as the first commercial ship crossing a new commercial maritime highway (photo: Rosatom).

Does the mess we create in the Arctic, stay in the Arctic? I don’t know. What does not stay in the Arctic for sure, is the ice. It is melting, cracking, falling apart. At several places in the Arctic Regions (such as in Greenland) and in the Antarctic, glaciers are disintegrating at a rapid speed. The melting of the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica (as big as Great Britain), for example, would lead to a global sea level rise of 3 meters.

Scientists of Princeton University have come up with a plan to at least slow things down a bit. Erecting 300 meter high mounds on the seabed would increase the chance of stopping the disintegration of the glacier, by blocking streams of warmer water from undercutting the ice (warmer water is found at larger depths, the top layers of the sea are coldest). Such an endeavour would be far from easy, but not completely out of reach. It would require an amount of rock and sand in the same order of magnitude as was used for the artificial Palm Island in Dubai. What I find most remarkable about this plan, is not the plan itself but the fact that we have arrived at a point where researchers are openly discussing large-scale geoengineering as a necessary means to mitigate the effects of global warming.

It looks like the Arctic might become a probe for humankind’s ability to deal with climate change. Will we let one of the last pristine regions of the world fall prey to unbridled exploration, contamination, and entertainment? Or will we get our act together and stop oil and gas companies from searching for resources, implement sustainable and contained tourism practices, stop the acceleration of ice loss? If we can’t, I don’t think there is any chance we’ll succeed in mitigating and adapting to climate change on a global scale. What happens in the Arctic, will not forever stay in the Arctic…