(Written by David Thoreson. David Thoreson is a professional photographer, Explorers Club Fellow, and the first American sailor in history to sail the infamous Northwest Passage in both directions. He has authored a book called Over the Horizon. This piece originally appeared on EcoWatch and is re-posted with permission.)
By David Thoreson
Alaska and most of our country has been unusually hot this year — the hottest year on record for Fairbanks, Anchorage and Juneau, Alaska, actually. The entire state has been about 10 degrees hotter than usual. Even for the fast-melting Arctic we have reached “uncharted territory.”
During the past 25 years and 70,000 miles, I have sailed on small sailboats to some of the remote edges of planet Earth. As a documentary photographer, I first ventured out over the horizon to record beautiful images of adventure travel that could not be captured through any other means than by sail. This was very rewarding to me but at the same time I also started to better understand the Earth’s weather and climate systems.
By 2007, just 13 years after being trapped in the ice of the Arctic’s Northwest Passage, our crew of six sailed the entire length from east to west and never touched a piece of ice. We became the first American sailors to accomplish this infamous 7,000-mile route from the east but understood that we were assisted by a quickly altered Arctic environment containing less ice.
Here are nine images reflective of my travels:
Twenty-two years ago, our 57-foor sailboat, Cloud Nine, set sail for the Northwest Passage from east to west – for centuries, expolorers have set out to meet this same challenge and many have died trying to attempt to navigate its risky passage. In 1994, we set sail bound and determined to beat the risks and treacherous conditions of the passage – but that year, there was heavy pack ice choking off all routes. We were forced to abandon our voyage and make our retreat out of the Arctic. (Photo: David Thoreson)
When people think of the Arctic, they think of ice and the wildlife that depend on the ice. Iconic animals, like polar bears, walrus and seals, are all ice-dependent. In 1994, Cloud Nine discovered a very normal northern ice pack that still supported healthy ecosystems for these animals and others.
In 2007 we attempted the same trip. This time, we discovered little to no ice in the Northwest Passage. Can you believe that the nearly 7,000-mile voyage took only 73 days and Cloud Nine never touched one piece of ice? We became the first Americans to complete the east-west transit of the Northwest Passage – with a bit of help from the changing Arctic climate.
In the 13 short years between those two sailing expeditions to the far north, there had been a 40 percent loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. That is a 40 percent loss of our North Polar ice cap. Human activity is having a profound and sudden impact on our planetary climate systems and the Arctic is experiencing the most rapid and visible change.
The photo above is becoming more and more of a personal memory, captured by my camera and less reflective of what I have come to understand about the facts on the ground in the Arctic region today. (Photo: David Thoreson)
Polar bears and other wildlife, as well as the people of the Arctic, are feeling the impacts of climate change and melting ice. Less ice means less rest and less safety for polar bears. Alaska Dispatch News reported on a new study that shows that polar bears are spending less time on the ice and more time on land. In fact, polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea population are now three times as likely to come ashore in summer and fall as they were in the mid-1980s.
The bears that come ashore are also staying there much longer than bears did in the past. The study attributes this to big reductions in summer and fall sea ice, and found that it has happened over the past decade and a half. This is bad for people, too – hungry bears spend more time roaming the land, putting them in closer contact with people in small coastal communities. (Photo: David Thoreson)
As the world heats up, this is becoming the new normal for the Arctic. Less ice means new explorations – travel, shipping, development. In fact, there are plans for a luxury cruise ship that will sail a similar route to my original one. It will wind its way through the Northwest Passage from west to east and through the Arctic Ocean. The signs of human impact on our climate are everywhere in the Arctic. (Photo: David Thoreson)
If we want to protect what is left of our melting world, we need to start now by saying no to new offshore drilling and stopping the drill bit for existing leases. We are cautiously awaiting the answer on the development plan for the Arctic where there are two new lease sales planned, one in the Chukchi Sea and one in the Beaufort Sea.
The Arctic is fragile, beautiful, harsh, demanding and is a special place to protect. We must all advocate for our public lands and waters. We need to make better choices and protect those places, wildlife and people that are most vulnerable to climate change. The Arctic Ocean is one of those places. President Obama has been to Alaska himself and has seen the beauty of its land, people and its waters. Protecting our climate and protecting the Arctic are intrinsically linked and we can no longer stand by and pretend that we don’t see the impacts of humans on climate change and the Arctic. (Photo: David Thoreson)
People as me if I ever get tired of photographing ice. They think it all looks alike. I ventured out to the remote edges of the Earth to illustrate and bring awareness to the beauty and contrast that make up the Arctic landscape. (Photo: David Thoreson)
When sailing the Northwest Passage from east to west, one first sails the icy coast of West Greenland. Here, our crew learned how icebergs are born from massive coastal glaciers which drain the ice of the Greenland ice cap. (Photo: David Thoreson)
The interface of the land and ocean is changing in the Arctic. What was once more solid and dense sea ice is succumbing to warming waters and land masses. This perpetuates a “positive feedback loop” where darker ocean and land keep melting more ice. (Photo: David Thoreson)
When we completed the historic Northwest Passage in 2007 I wrote in my journal: “I have witnessed the end of an era. The golden age of exploration has come to a close and a new era, involving the study and change of the Earth’s climate systems, is just beginning. I have bridged the two eras.” (Photo: David Thoreson)