The Impacts of Climate Change In The Arctic Circle

Unless you’re on foot or cycling, justifying so-called non-essential travel can be problematic, yet wanting to explore our world is inherently human. Travel provides a break from everyday stresses while exposing us to new perspectives and experiences that inspire us to do more to protect our environment.

International Polar Bear Day on February 27 aims to focus our attention on conservation efforts through the lens of these magnificent animals and their rapidly diminishing home: the pack ice of the Arctic.

This week, Journal writer Gemma Price invites you to share in her expedition cruise to Svalbard and the Arctic Circle, seeking white bears and insights into how climate change is impacting this vital polar ecosystem.

Walking on Bråsvellbreen ice sheet

The Trip Of A Lifetime

Last summer, I skipped the beach to circumnavigate Svalbard, a Norwegian territory that spans the icy Arctic circle, with small ship expedition cruise company Secret Atlas—a 10-day voyage that felt akin to Roald Amundson and Ernest Shackleton’s historical expeditions in scope and scale, just without the suffering.

My goal: to see polar bears in their natural habitat. But despite their immense size, reaching a height of nine feet and weighing 1400 pounds, polar bears are tough to spot against the snowline. Their black skin is covered in translucent fur that appears a dirty white, providing excellent camouflage—especially when catatonic after a big meal. 

On Day 6 of the sailing, we struck gold: a juvenile polar bear intermittently napping atop a rocky outcrop and clambering down to the beach to feast on a fortnight-old beached whale carcass. Sitting just offshore in Zodiacs, we watched for hours as he ripped rancid strips of flesh off the skeleton before swimming out to dive for kelp, hind paws comically waggling above the surface before resurfacing.

Polar bear swimming Wahlbergøya

Polar bears travel hundreds of miles from land on pack ice and swimming using their large, slightly webbed front paws to paddle, so their territory is vast, covering Russia, Norway, Greenland, Canada, and some parts of Alaska—anywhere there’s ice, although their habitat shrinks more every year. Global warming is causing Arctic sea ice to disappear at a rate of almost 13 percent per decade. According to the WWF, if emissions continue to rise unchecked, the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer by 2040, which is a terrifying proposition.

Seeing bears is a highlight of any trip to the Arctic, but each day of my 10-day sailing was packed with experiences unique to this remote latitude that I’ll cherish for a lifetime.

Walruses in water Vivebukta

I saw walrus making their comeback, somewhat literally, after being hunted to near extinction. Although they typically don’t mate until December in anticipation of a 15-month gestation, frisky walrus grouped in the water, sometimes hundreds at a time, putting us a little behind schedule as the first officer slowly navigated between what can only be described as walrus orgy rafts while piping Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing through the ship’s PA.

I hiked to what remains of a secret World War II German meteorological research camp, discovered by Norwegian fishers during its second year of operations. The Nazi scientists would likely have lost in the mélee that ensued, but against all odds, a German submarine making a biannual supplies run happened to pull into the Bay and sank the Norwegian ship before helping their comrades destroy the camp. Today, twisted remnants of gas burners and “Kriegsmarine” battery cells, generator parts, and tattered burlap and cotton fabric are all that remain. 

Bob holding polar bear skull

I wandered uninhabited, windswept islands to clifftop kittiwake colonies, passing grazing reindeer and fluffy Arctic foxes stalking sandpipers at low tide. I slipped and slid over a glacier before almost tripping over a perfectly preserved polar bear skeleton unveiled by retreating ice. I swam in a nuclear-orange gumby survival suit to drink a 2000-year-old gin and tonic on an ice floe, one-upping Martha Stewart, before doing the polar plunge with local aquavit as the only insulation.

(For the record, per guides Bob Gilmore, a veteran with more than two decades’ experience working at both poles, and Dr. Julien Cornet, who has two PhDs in geology, it is not bad for the environment to take glacial ice that is already melting into the sea and put it in a cocktail. It is, however, shameless showboating.)

People floating in the polar water near ice

Sunset over the melting ice

Why polar ice is so vital to our planet

Antarctica is a land mass covered in glacial ice—around 70 percent of the planet’s freshwater is locked up here. The Arctic is an ocean surrounded by land masses, so this region is best explored by small ships with a much lower environmental impact than larger counterparts. 

How global warming will impact sea levels will be familiar to most. As rising air and sea temperatures cause glacial ice to melt and calve icebergs into the ocean, like ice cubes dropped into a glass of water (or a G&T), sea levels will rise, covering the most significant cities on the planet. 

Unfortunately, the significance of sea ice for the planet is more poorly publicized. 

Historically, most sunlight that hits the vast expanses of polar sea ice is reflected into space. As temperatures rise and the surface area of the ice shrinks, more heat is absorbed by the darker ocean in a positive feedback loop, amplifying the effect—the Arctic is so sensitive that it’s warming at two to three times the rate of the rest of the planet. 

As seawater freezes during the arctic winter, salt is ejected and forms heavy, highly saline water, which sinks, flowing along the ocean bottom toward the equator, while warm water displaced above travels from the equator toward the poles. In this way, sea ice contributes to the ocean’s global conveyor-belt circulation of currents, including the Gulf Stream. Abnormal changes in sea ice can disrupt ocean circulation, further impacting the global climate.

Ice breaking apart and melting

Sea ice also provides an essential platform for phytoplankton, the foundation of the polar food chain. Each spring, when sea ice melts in the Arctic and Antarctic and the heavier briny water sinks, it leaves behind a nutrient-rich freshwater layer on the ocean surface. Similarly, as cold, dense polar water sinks to the ocean bottom, it forces deep, nutrient-laden water to the surface. When the sun rises in spring after a long, dark winter, huge algal blooms form as phytoplankton use this newly abundant food and sunlight energy to multiply in vast quantities.

Phytoplankton feed many species of fish—in part why fisheries of the North Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea are among the most productive in the world—as well as zooplankton like krill and other tiny animals, which in turn are eaten by Adélie penguins, seabirds, seals, whales, and other animals. A reduction in sea ice substantially impacts the size of phytoplankton blooms, which cascades into the global food chain.

Sea ice is a way of life for large animals, too. Like polar bears, seals and walruses are born on the ice and depend on it for breeding, shelter, and food throughout their lives. If the pack ice retreats beyond the edge of the continental shelf where walruses typically feed, they must swim up to 250 miles round trip to their feeding grounds or crowd on shores and small islands. A male walrus can weigh more than two tons and they are easily spooked; large haul-outs carry a high risk of death by stampede.

Iceberg Kinfish in background

The case for micro expedition cruising

As travelers pay attention to the environmental impacts of travel, we’re seeking out adventurous experiences in frontier destinations that connect us more deeply with the natural world we’re exploring. The appeal of small-ship expedition cruising has only grown post-pandemic, and more companies are offering a new category of customizable itineraries for private charters aboard vessels offering gourmet food, spas, and plush accommodations.

Quark Expeditions has a long history of pioneering polar explorations. Co-founders Lars

Wikander and Mike McDowell took the first leisure travelers to the North Pole in 1991, marking the first-ever tourism transit of the Northeast Passage.

Established in 2019 by a team with more than 30 years of polar experience, Secret Atlas Charters—the company I sailed with—offers a selection of 12-passenger yachts cruising Svalbard, Greenland, the Northwest Passage, Norway, and Iceland, working with expedition captains and leaders who count Nasa/JPL and the US Navy among their clients. MV Viking Fjord launched a few months ago, outfitted with a sauna and hot tub and fully ensuite accommodations for 12, along with a wood-paneled lounge and large decks.

“The real luxury for us is that our vessels are built for expeditions in polar environments and have ice-strengthened hulls. Many other vessels cannot go into the sea ice. We can, which is all part of the experience,” says co-founder Andy Marsh.

After sailing with Secret Atlas, I couldn’t agree more. These journeys can be expensive, but my advice for those who can afford them is: GO. 

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When I’m not modeling icebergs or working on  Journal stories and Member profiles for CANOPY, I offer copywriting and PR consulting to diverse companies and write about travel, food, and style for WSJ, CNN and Condé Nast.

Follow me on Instagram @gemmazprice, or drop me a line at: gemma@omvino.com. I’d love to hear from you!