Fascinated by cold places

Since I was a teenager I have been fascinated with arctic and antarctic exploration. I have read the stories of some of the greats: Amundsen, Franklin, Ross, Shackleton, Scott, Perry, and others. I know bits of trivia about polar expeditions. For example, Sir Edmund Hillary was not only the first person to summit Mount Everest. He also was the first person to summit Everest and reach both poles.

I however, have done my explorations not in person, but by reading books. I have never been beyond either the Arctic or Antarctic circles. I think that somewhere around -40 is the coldest temperature I have ever experienced. Tourist travel to cold places is possible. In Canada, Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge hosts tourists for experiences in Canada’s Far North. The Inuvik - Tuktoyaktuk highway in the Northwest Territories gives all weather access to the Arctic Coast. Even driving the Dalton Highway to Inuvik is an arctic adventure. The stormy oceans make access to the antarctic a bit more challenging, but for the right fare, tourists can take expedition ships that navigate through ice-packed waters and even allow the possibility of landfall during summer months. Tourist passage through the Northwest Passage is also available for the right price. And we are talking about significant expense. Such travel costs a lot.

Driving north is something I’ve considered, but a trip takes significant planning. It is 2800 miles from Rapid City to Dawson Creek in the Yukon and from there another 450 miles to Inuvik and another 85 mils to Tuktoyaktuk. Fuel prices near $5 per gallon at some points along the way and food and accommodation prices are also fairly steep. It is an adventure I still might tackle one day, but as I get older, options such as flying part or all of the way become more likely.

I’m not sure where this fascination comes from in the first place. Many people are veery happy to travel in other directions and the traveling we have done has taught me that there are far more interesting destinations on this planet than there is time to visit. We’ve had the luxury of some pretty big trips and each one has brought us the joy of exploration and visiting new places and seeing different cultures.

Some of my friends ask me why I would like to go someplace where it is so cold. I sometimes tell them that extremes of temperature are uncomfortable when it is hot as well as when it is cold. You can add layers and dress more comfortably for cold weather, but your options are limited when it comes to hot weather. The Zulu language, from a fairly temperate part of the globe uses the same word for either temperature extreme. There are not separate words for hot and cold, just a single word for “the wrong temperature.”

These days, however, you don’t have to experience extreme temperatures for a visit to regions near the poles. This week the temperature on the Antarctic Peninsula, on the continent’s northwest tip reached 65 degrees (18.3C). It is the warmest temperature ever recorded on the continent. The high temperature is of concern to scientists who observe that temperatures there have been steadily rising for the past 50 years. Glaciers are retreating. There is so much melting at the South Pole that the glaciers are already contributing to sea rise worldwide. It is estimated that total sea rise could reach as much as ten feet over the next century or so.

Global warming is also affecting the Arctic. Last July, a base at the northern tip of Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic recorded a temperature of nearly 70 degrees. Such temperatures are threatening the permafrost. Permafrost contains massive amounts of carbon. As the permafrost melts, the release of this methane will contribute to further global warming. Siberia, Canada, Greenland and Alaska are all experiencing warmer than normal temperatures, decreasing ice coverage and melting permafrost. Melting permafrost threatens infrastructure. Roads and pipelines set upon the permafrost lose their base as temperatures warm.

Explorers of polar regions are increasingly focused on the phenomenon of global warming as they explore remote locations in search of clues to the way our world works.

I recently read Michael Palin’s book, “Erebus,” the story of a British bomb vessel that became the flagship of James Clark Ross’ Antarctic expedition and was later lost in a failed attempt to make the Northwest Passage. After more than 150 years, the wreck was discovered in 2014. Palin tells the story not only of the ship, but of the men who sailed her to cold and very remote waters, dodging ice bergs and enduring extreme temperatures and fierce storms. It is just one more volume in the collection of stories I have read about polar exploration. Just surviving in the extreme cold is a challenge. Getting machines to function in those extremes is an added level of challenge. Combine that with the need to carry essential supplies such as food and any expedition is an enormous logistical challenge.

I won’t be adding to the body of literature about polar exploration. I won’t be heading to territory that people have not previously explored - at least not in person - only in my imagination. The distances are too great, the hardships too intense and my age a bit advanced for such expeditions. So I travel vicariously from the comfort of my home with a book in my hands as I imagine the hardships others faced.

It is about 22 decrees out right now. The forecast is for warm temperatures today. It could reach into the low 40’s. That’s pretty nice for a February day in South Dakota. But it is possible that it is colder than the temperature in some parts of Antarctica as they experience their summer down there. And when we have some cold and blustery days, which are sure yet to come this winter, I can bundle up and imagine that I am on an expedition to explore the cold parts of the world.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!