For Arctic explorer and 2004 Rolex Laureate, Lonnie Dupre, global warming is not just a theory — it is a visible and immediate threat to the region that he loves passionately. In May 2005, he set out with co-explorer and friend Eric Larsen on an ambitious expedition to heighten global awareness of this menace. The unseasonal conditions that prevented them from completing their Arctic expedition are for Lonnie Dupre an urgent warning.
Warming Thwarts Crossing
Ultimately, it was global warming — the very climatic phenomenon he was seeking to publicise — that thwarted Arctic explorer Lonnie Dupre’s bold attempt to make the world’s first summer crossing of the Arctic Ocean via the North Pole in May 2005. After 30 months of planning, intense training and preparation, Dupre, 44, and co-expeditioner Eric Larsen, 34, flew via Moscow to Noril’sk in northern Siberia, and took a chartered helicopter to Dikson on the Siberian coast.
On 10 May, they stepped out onto the sea ice at Cape Arctichesky, entering a blue-and-white landscape, already fractured and buckled as an unseasonably early break-up jammed drifting ice against the Siberian coast. Harnessed to heavily laden white-water canoes modified with plastic runners to slide over ice and snow, Dupre and Larsen were expecting relatively smooth, if strenuous going during first phase of their 2000-kilometre trek across the Arctic Ocean via the North Pole.
But from Day 1, they confronted a jagged, exhausting obstacle course of pressure ridges rearing to 3 metres, defying their efforts to haul their 135-kilogram canoes over them single-handed.
"We relayed for the first week," says Dupre. "We would both hook up to the same canoe, drag it over a ridge and haul it to the next ridge, a mile or so away, then head back for the other one."
An exhausting training regime at their winter base in Grand Marais, Minnesota, dragging heavy truck tyres uphill and down, for up to 8km through snowy forest, had prepared Dupre and Larsen physically and mentally for the rigours of their epic trek across sea ice and open water. But they had no way of predicting nature’s caprices.
After a week of slogging across ice and pressure ridges, Dupre and Larsen entered a vast mosaic of ice floes, separated by long leads of open water. The going was now easier, but as fast as they tried to ski and paddle northwards, the floating sea ice around and beneath them was slewing inexorably southwards, away from their North Pole resting point. Unlike Antarctica, there is no terra firma beneath the Arctic polar ice, only deep blue water and shifting ocean currents.
"The ice was breaking up very fast and drifting south-east," Dupre explains. "We realised the break-up was occurring unusually early, because all of our research indicated that it normally drifts north-west until mid-June, before turning south-east."
Against the Flow
By satellite phone, they rang expedition headquarters in Washington, DC, and spoke to their Australian-born logistics coordinator, John Hoelscher, who had accompanied Dupre on a world-first, 10,500km circumnavigation of Greenland by canoe in 1997-98.
"John checked and analysed data from weather stations around the Arctic, and discovered that the winter had been much warmer than usual — around 15° Fahrenheit [9.4°C] warmer. As a result, the sea ice was not as thick, and had broken up early."
They decided to jettison enough food to allow each man to haul his own, now-lightened canoe over the pressure ridges.
But a week later, their Global Positioning System transceiver was telling the same, dismal tale. "By travelling due north for eight hours, we could make about 7km north, but by the time we woke up in the morning we had drifted south 14km," Dupre says. "It was frustrating. We were using up valuable resources, fuel and food going backwards. We decided to keep going, hoping it might change, but the currents turned around and started pushing us west into an area of fractured sea ice that was almost impossible to get through."
"We lost even more time alternating between ski, canoe and ski because there were no long stretches of ice or open water. John’s satellite images were showing more of the same for about 370km ahead."
The only way around was to head north-east, but the drifting ice was now taking them west, making northerly progress impossible. Reluctantly, they asked Hoelscher to dispatch a helicopter from Siberia to take them back to land. They were lifted out on 3 June.
During their 24 frustrating days on the ice, nature tested their courage and resolve in other ways. Several, hungry polar bears – "a nuisance", as Dupre describes them – visited their overnight camps, famished after an apparently poor hunting season.
In autumn, the bears move out from land onto the vast, frozen expanse of the Arctic Ocean to hunt seals, which normally constitute 90 per cent of their diet. The world’s largest terrestrial predators are ambush hunters, hunkering down in the snow near holes in the sea ice to patiently wait for seals to surface and draw breath or employ their natural camouflage to sneak up and pounce on seals sunning themselves or feeding their pups on the ice.
Dupre spotted the first bear as they set up camp one evening. It was sliding towards Larsen on its belly, in characteristic hunting pose, head pressed flat to the snow "like a great big snake".
Three harmless pencil-flare explosions scared it off, but that night, a second bear pounced on the vestibule of their tent, briefly collapsing it, but fortunately missing the explorers in their sleeping bags. Again, pencil flares frightened it off.
Bear No. 3 was much older, bigger, more aggressive and less easily deterred. It swam almost a kilometre to reach the ice pan on which they had camped, and only the sounds of its huge paws on the ice and a camera bag being swept off a canoe leaning against their tent, alerted the half-asleep explorers. The giant carnivore took an immediate, intense interest as they peered out to investigate.
They estimated its height at 2.75 metres, and weight at 500kg. It halted its advance at the tent door only after a sixth pencil flare exploded between its massive front paws. Dupre had his handgun ready, but the bear finally retreated. "It would have killed us," he says. "It looked really thin and beat-up."
"We’d been seeing many seals every day," says Dupre, adding that because there is more open water and less ice, the bears have greater difficulty trapping the seals. "With the sea ice breaking up earlier in summer, and freezing later in the fall, the periods when the bears are able to be out hunting on the sea ice are much shorter, and they’re less successful hunting. It tells us global warming is having an effect on polar bears."
They had set out in day temperatures ranging from – 12° to –10°C (10° to 30°F). When their expedition ended prematurely, on 3 June, they were hitting a balmy 4.5°C (40°F) – temperatures normally experienced in mid-July.
During the trek, Dupre and Larsen collected daily snow and ice samples for later analysis by Dr Paul Mayewski, director of the Global Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, for atmospheric pollutants and indicators of climate change.
As well as $100,000 from the Rolex Award that Dupre won in 2004, the expedition was supported by Greenpeace and drew international attention to the potentially disastrous effects of global warming on the Arctic Ocean environment and its unique, ice-adapted wildlife.
Media reports of the expedition and their observations of the melting of the Arctic ice cap reached an estimated media audience of 21 million people.
Published in 2005