Canada hosts fewer North Pole expeditions due to climate change, economics

A perfect storm of economics, transport costs and climate change is making the North Pole harder to access from Canada.

Canadian airline scales back charter flights for smaller-budget adventurers

A photo by The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows Arctic sea ice in 2013. (Associated Press)

A perfect storm of economics, transport costs and climate change is making it harder for Arctic adventurers to access the geographic top of the world from the Canadian side.  

Iqaluit's Matty McNair has made a life exploring the world's coldest tundras. She's twice been to the North Pole – an 82-day ski journey as the first women's expedition, and a 36-day dog-sledding trek breaking the Guinness World Record for the fastest trip – and said there's nothing quite like it.

It's just not the same place up there.- Canadian polar adventurer Richard Weber

"It's a pretty magical place up there," McNair said. "With ice moving, the low light and the clarity. The only sound you hear is wind and ice. The light is very pastel but there's a lot of colour in even what you'd think there would be nothing."

She still has friends and past clients who want to cross the North Pole off their bucket lists, but McNair said it's getting tougher to make trips.

Arctic guide and explorer Matty McNair of Iqaluit says increasing costs are discouraging expeditions to the North Pole, especially for some explorers who are inexperienced and on a tight budget. (Antarctica2)

"Every year they're calling and I'd love to help them get there," she said. "But I just don't think that's going to happen."

She said it's just gotten too expensive, especially for some explorers who are inexperienced and on a tight budget and who might run into trouble. 

McNair said they just don't have enough money to pay for evacuations from remote areas and it's hard to get insured for such a trip, meaning a small budget expedition doesn't have the financial backing needed to make sure they have the funds to be rescued.

That's exactly the kinds of situations Calgary-based airline Kenn Borek Air is trying to avoid. It's the only airline that flies charters from Canada to the vicinity of the North Pole and this year it's scaling back.

In a statement to CBC News, Kenn Borek president John Harmer said the airline will still fly near the North Pole for select programs and scientific projects – as its has been doing since the 1970s. But given the financial risks involved with a rescue, the airline is now flying clear of small-budget expeditions looking to venture onto sea ice.

"Our decision to stop doing private expeditions is an economic one," Harmer wrote. "They typically involve a lot of co-ordination, operate on limited budgets, and we often encounter unexpected risks when they call to be rescued by us in difficult places."

The airline will now review each private request on a case-by-case basis.

Kenn Borek's Operations Manager Brian Crocker said another challenge is when an organized group is ready to go, but suddenly some members drop out, leaving the remaining members to carry a heavier share of the costs which can quickly become the airline's problem, too.

"Planned merging of two or three small groups has definitely happened, and even that has its challenges when issues come up or things don't necessarily go as planned," Crocker said.

He added there are other Twin Otter operators in Canada who can take groups to the Pole, should they choose, though none is to his knowledge.

Renowned Canadian polar adventurer Richard Weber said he doesn't blame the airline for making its move.

Weber has made six full North Pole expeditions, more than anybody in history, and he's organized and led more than 45 Arctic expeditions.

He said the industry of treks 700 kilometres to the North Pole from Canada by land is fading – to his recollection there's only been one successful expedition by land to the North Pole since 2010 – and the economic problems have only speeded up the inevitable.

"I don't think there's much of a solution," Weber said. "I'm not surprised. It's come faster than I thought it would and more economics than I would have guessed. But I could see the climate change coming. That was going to stop it anyway."

Changes in sea ice narrow window for adventurers 

South African adventurer Mike Horn and his wife Cathy celebrate at the Barneo ice camp on the frozen Arctic Ocean 50 kilometres away from the North Pole in April 2006. The temporary ice base set up by the Russians every year, complete with an airstrip, is another option for people looking to travel to the North Pole. (AP photo/Keystone/Photopress/Laurent Gillieron)

While transport and evacuation costs have hindered many would-be explorers, climate change has played its part. According to statistics from NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center, Arctic sea ice extent in January 2015 was the third-lowest in the satellite record since 1978.

Weber said the landscape of the North Pole has drastically changed since he first started exploring.

"To me what's really shocking is the extent the ice has changed in the 25 years that I've done North Pole expeditions," he said.

"It's just not the same place up there. The ice is so much thinner, the weather is so much different, the ice is different. It's shocking."

And while the ice is thinner, so is the window of opportunity to venture from any given starting point. To access the North Pole by foot there are a few options including Ellesmere Island in Nunavut and Camp Barneo – a temporary ice base set up by the Russians every year, complete with an airstrip.

Weber said as the weather warms, Barneo shuts down earlier and earlier and Kenn Borek is hesitant to fly people in early.

"So the window of opportunity where you can go to the North Pole [from land] somewhat economically gets smaller and smaller to the point where it's basically vanished now," Weber said.

McNair said explorers may have to start earlier in the season. But even that presents challenges because, she said, planes won't land near the North Pole in darkness.

"I think [moving forward] people will just do the last two degrees out of Barneo," said McNair. "The ice is definitely getting thinner, which makes it more difficult. The ice tends to crush up and build up into pressure ridges, or break up more easily."


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