Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Besides a polar bear encounter excursion on a recent Abercrombie & Kent trip to the Arctic aboard Le Boreal, the only other bears the group saw were, like this one, from the ship at quite a distance.See the white speck on the photo? Look closely. It's a polar bear. (Click here to see the image if viewing this article from a mobile device.)  

Although climate change is not the focus of this week's in depth story on Arctic voyages (see related story, "Polar opposites"), it touched almost every aspect of my recent Abercrombie & Kent trip through the Svalbard archipelago above the Arctic Circle. 

We didn't see many polar bears on the nine-day cruise. There were the two seen in a close-up encounter described in the article, but contrary to expectations, we didn't see any on the day we steamed along the sea ice on our northernmost day. We saw two others, toward the end of the trip, as tiny white spots on distant snowless hillsides (this photo was taken with a 200 mm lens and magnifies what could be seen with the naked eye).

Among my dining companions one night was a woman who complained that the polar bears had been oversold in promotions for the trip, and she said she wished she had instead booked a polar bear-focused trip to Churchill, Manitoba. I didn't share her sentiment. For me, the unpredictable quality of this experience made encounters more exciting than the almost guaranteed sightings on Churchill tours.

While fewer sightings are in one respect less stimulating, they're ultimately more thought-provoking. A benefit of travel is that it takes one out of one's typical environment -- the "vacate" part of a vacation. And the best trips not only leave you with a deeper understanding of a foreign environment, they forge an internal link between something seemingly foreign and one's own daily life.

While we might read about the subtle and often slow-moving ways that climate change affects us at home, a trip to the Arctic puts it front and center, and daily seminars revealed, without preaching, the deeper impact of changes we were seeing.

Among the lecturers was James McClintock, professor of polar and marine biology at the University of Alabama. He walked us through the chain of consequences that have resulted from the 40% shrinkage of Arctic summer sea ice since the 1970s.

Six of the 12 groupings of polar bears, comprising between 20,000 and 25,000 bears, are in decline. In the past, the bear I photographed on the snowless mountainside would have been expected to be on ice, hunting seals. But with hunting grounds greatly reduced, many bears are hunting relatively small birds to meet their nutritional needs. Another lecturer said bears who have died of starvation are being found in increasing numbers.

Bears are at the top of the food chain, but hardly the only life form affected. The Svalbard reindeer, a form of caribou, is finding that the plant life it depends upon is increasingly unavailable. Either it has become encased in ice (rather than snow, rain has fallen, then froze around plants) or the spring sprouts, which are highly nutritious, have come and gone, now out of sync with reindeer migration patterns.

Ice-dependent walrus populations are concentrating as ice disappears, transmitting diseases more easily and accidentally crushing their young as they're huddled in tighter spaces.

It's unclear how seals, dependent upon ice, can make the transition to land.

And those are just the large land mammals. Changes in the plankton populations due to rising water temperatures and increased acidification (which the Environmental Protection Agency has tied to climate change) have devastating implications for the food chain that will affect fish, birds and sea mammals. In all, McClintock estimates that the loss of ice has resulted in 80 dramatic impacts occurring more rapidly than species can adapt.

Other lectures that focused on, for example, glaciers and geology, were as enlightening about the impact of climate change on the very landscape we were seeing, as McClintock's talk was about marine life.

Bob Simpson, A&K's vice president of product operations and small-ship cruising, believes awareness of the effects of climate change is driving demand for trips to both poles and has opened a commercial opportunity never before possible to the modern travel industry: cruises through the Northwest Passage above Canada.

Although the consequences of climate change, coupled with dramatic evidence before one's eyes, might sound depressing, the trip was not. The full spectrum of travel experiences reflects the wide range of human desire and longing, from simple rest and recreation to potentially life-changing, revelatory epiphanies. An Arctic trip certainly has the potential for producing the latter.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.


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