The Impossible Dilemma of a Polar Guide from Outside Alison Osius

Though it is night, the ice surrounding us glitters in the sunshine. Only silence and shades of white surround me as I pace the decks. I am on a tourist ship, parked in the sea ice off the coast of Antarctica, for my work as a naturalist. It is 2 a.m., in January. On one side, glaciers drape the mountains, sliding slowly toward the sea. On the other is the frozen ocean. I can’t discern the line between ice and sky. Behind our ship, only the jagged break in the floes indicates that humans have come, and disturbed.

In southern Greenland, the glaciers sweep down the mountains toward the fjords. Glaciers are retreating and icebergs breaking off at accelerating rates. (Photo: Kara Weller)

The ice is moving, unseen in the stillness. Melting of Antarctic and Greenland ice, as well as glaciers all over the world, is clearly documented. The polar regions are warming faster than any other place on Earth. Climate change is incontrovertible. I have witnessed it. Yet I know my being here, marveling at this icy world, contributes to its melt.

Kara Weller, a naturalist and polar guide of 25 years, is investigated by a Gentoo penguin chick in 2017. Gentoo penguins, she says, are gentle and curious. (Photo: Will Wagstaff)

I have seen a lot of ice.

In 1993, I journeyed to Antarctica on a small ship that lurched through frenzied waters, we 50 passengers clutching the walls as we staggered between communal showers and a pot of pasta plonked unceremoniously on the table for dinner. But I was entranced by the beauty of the land outside. For 25 years, I have worked as a guide in Antarctica and the Arctic, and I wrestle with knowing that I should probably stay at home to avoid further contributing to the climate change affecting my beloved frozen world. But is the best way to protect what I love, never to see it again? Other guides and I discuss this dilemma often. We do not know what to do.

Passengers from a ship walk onto the frozen sea in the southern part of the western Antarctic Peninsula. For naturalist guides, the Antarctic season runs October through March. Then many head north, where the Arctic season is April to August or September. (Photo: Kara Weller)

As a naturalist-guide, I take people to shore and talk to them about what they are seeing: wildlife, glaciers, habitat, everything. In all the years I have done this, I have believed that only by seeing the great ice expanses, tasting and smelling the salt air, and touching the cold do people learn to care for these places and join the fight to preserve them. Sea ice retreats to higher and higher latitudes, with shrinking populations of bewildered penguins nesting in previously unimaginable places, and humans now reach sites once only imagined.

Passengers on this small ship spend a lot of time outside on the decks, admiring the icy landscapes of the Antarctic Peninsula. This image taken in 2012 on the approach to a scenic channel. (Photo: Kara Weller)

We visitors used to see Adelie penguins everywhere. On some trips now, we are lucky to spot even one. Last year, on a cruise ship designed for luxury rather than serious exploration, we reached the western side of James Ross Island; 20 years ago, in an icebreaking ship three times more powerful, we could not get within about 80 miles. The ships have changed as well. Now luxury ships prevail, and passengers can enjoy champagne, live music, and butler service. On the first icebreaker I worked on, the beds had seatbelts for rough weather, but the communal area for passengers and crew at the bottom of the stairwell was full of laughter.

The channels on the Antarctic Peninsula on a calm, sunny day can be the most spectacular places on Earth. The same place an hour later can be hellish when winds pick up and the sea churns spray in all directions. Image taken in January 2024. (Photo: Kara Weller)

The National Snow and Ice Center reported that 2023 was the record low for maximum sea ice in Antarctica since continuous recording in this region began. The World Meteorological Organization says the Antarctic Peninsula has experienced a 3-degree C (5.5-degree F) temperature rise in the last 50 years. In February 2020, the highest temperature ever recorded in Antarctica was reported at 18.3 degrees C (65 degrees F). The rate of ice loss is three times greater since 2012 than in previous decades; were the Antarctic ice sheet to melt, global sea levels would rise 58 meters (190 feet). Although there is no danger of all the ice in Antarctica or Greenland melting away in any of our lifetimes, visiting tourists often tell me they want to see the ice before it is gone.

Ice, ice: globes showing the North Pole and the South Pole (Photo: Cartesia/Stockbyte/Getty)

Yet fossil-fuel emissions from travel and human activity accelerate ice melting, trapping all of us who come here to admire these icy realms in a quandary: We further the demise of what we have come to marvel over. When I started as a guide in the late 1990s, approximately 10,000 visitors traveled by ship to Antarctica each year. Now data from the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators shows over 71,000 in the 2022-23 season.

Naturalist guides await passengers on shore. They’re all passionate about protecting the places they visit. (Photo: Kara Weller Collection)

Staring at the ice around me, I wonder about the people below decks, sleeping soundly through the sunshine of the night. Will they act as ambassadors for these regions? My fellow naturalists and I fervently hope so. We feel conflicted by our presence and the presence of the passengers we guide. We love ice, but we also know that our carbon footprint, which contributes to melting, is greater for flying across the world to reach the ships that burn fossil fuels as they steam towards these ends of the earth. We do our best to educate our passengers about climate change and have them understand what they are witnessing. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like enough. Would it be better for us to stay home to protect these regions? Yes. Would other guides step in and take our place? Also yes.

The western side of the Antarctic Peninsula is shown here in the early part of summer, while the snow is cleaner than a few months later. Different shades of white from ice, snow, mountains in the background, and sky blend and merge in these lands. Photo taken in January 2024 at a place where passengers go ashore. A penguin is visible. (Photo: Kara Weller)

A recent article in Nature described a study of black carbon (essentially soot) in Antarctica resulting from fossil-fuel emissions, and showed that it contributes to the darkening of snow and ice, accelerating melting. More people equals more melt.

In 2022, a group of scientists determined a method for separating natural variability in glacier fluctuations and the contribution humans make to climate change. So far, it has been tested only in computer models, but if it can be applied to actual locations, we could know exactly what human visitation does to this ice. When jagged pieces break and crash into the sea, would tourists shed tears, knowing exactly how much damage they contribute, instead of shouting with joy to see such power?

Most of the ice I have touched is now gone.

Polar night in the Antarctic Peninsula. When the sun dips to the horizon, alpenglow lights up the mountains, softening sight of the harsh landscape. (Photo: Kara Weller)

My father, Gunter Weller, was a glaciologist who became a climate scientist before the term existed. He introduced me to Antarctica through the six-foot-long black-and-white photo of Adelie penguins that hung on our living-room wall in Fairbanks, Alaska. His voyages to Antarctica in the early 1960s were a bit different from mine. On two separate occasions, a supply ship dropped him off at the research station and picked him up one year later. There he drove a VW beetle with chains on the tires over glaciers to collect weather data, watched the same black-and-white films so often that he and his co-workers took turns reciting the actors’ lines, and ate eggs of a disturbing color since fresh supplies also only arrived once a year.

The author’s father, Gunter Weller, takes a break from his work at Mawson Station, Antarctica, to admire the emperor penguins at Auster Penguin Rookery and help biologists with a census. Image from 1961. (Photo: Gunter Weller Collection)

His work looked at the effects of climate change on glaciers, which were clear to him already in the 1970s. He became curious when a scientific station buried long ago by ice and snow on the McCall Glacier in northern Alaska melted out (research he did on this glacier was published in a peer-reviewed paper, “Fifty Years of McCall Glacier Research”), and he turned his attention toward what melting ice meant for people and the environment. As kids in Alaska, my sisters and I walked along glacial moraines and explored ice caves with our father. We slipped and slid crazily in our old sneakers as we scrambled behind him, trying to keep up.

On top of Portage Glacier, in Alaska, Gunter Weller and friends go skiing, circa 1970. (Photo: Gunter Weller Collection)

Over the years, as my father tried to convince the world that climate change was happening, and people ignored his pleas, he developed a strategy for deniers. He never shouted back when people tried to argue. He calmly told them they were welcome to disregard the clear data and statistics if they wished. But surely, he said, they must acknowledge that we humans have put a lot of horrible stuff into the atmosphere. Wouldn’t the world benefit by reducing that? That usually ended the conversation.

The icebreaking ship Kapitan Khlebnikov, in 2007, navigates through ice in the Northwest Passage, the Arctic. The author worked on this ship numerous times. (Photo: Kara Weller)

Many people travel to see the natural places on this planet, to glimpse a wild animal in its ferocious splendor, feel the grandeur of vast landscapes, or learn about the world. And yet an analysis in The Scandinavian Journal of Hospitality and Tourism in 2020 of tourists visiting glaciers in Iceland, Canada, New Zealand, and Chile showed that although most guests were aware that this might be the last chance to see these glaciers, few understood that their visits contributed to the demise. Even for the few people who did, the desire to see the destination exceeded concern. The Journal of Sustainable Tourism in 2021 described a study from Churchill, Canada, where tourists flock each fall to view polar bears, that indicated that few visitors associate their air travel with greenhouse gas emissions responsible for melting the ice that the polar bears need for survival. Comparing data from 2008 and 2018, the study found that consumption patterns and CO2 production have not changed despite growing awareness of the impacts.

The size of some icebergs is hard to fathom until you see a group of penguins resting on one. With leathery feet and strong claws, they clamber up steep, slippery slopes. This image was taken in December 2009 near the South Orkney Islands, Antarctica. (Photo: Kara Weller)

How sad, this conundrum of desire, guilt, and lack of understanding.

Years ago, I did the same thing, climbing Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with my sister, to see ice at the equator before it was gone. As we rose from the tropical zones, we smelled wet soil turned hard with frost, then tasted the tang of ice. My teeth chattered, my face and fingers froze, and we gasped for breath in the thin air. My father would have loved those glaciers, pink in the rising African sun.

The author in 2014 at the base of Kilimanjaro, where she wanted to see ice at the equator while still possible. (Photo: Britta Weller)

On one of my tour ships, ice blocked the way when we tried to reach the northernmost piece of land in the world, Oodaaq Island in northeast Greenland. Since then, new islands have been revealed as ice melts and now, the northernmost land is a rocky islet called 83-42. Another year we got stuck in sea ice in the Northwest Passage, and even our six-engine, 25,000-horsepower icebreaking ship could not move until the currents released us. Some passengers were frustrated, some bored, and some frightened as we watched the icy rubble press high against the side of the ship. After a week, the ice consented to let us through.

Only steep rocky slopes are exposed to the air when glaciers flow over all surrounding land. Approximately 98 percent of Antarctica is covered by ice. The small ice-free sections are where penguins nest and tourists go ashore. Image from January 2024. (Photo: Kara Weller)

In other years, we made it to the North Pole, in a bigger, nuclear-powered icebreaker that smashed and plowed its way through the thinning sea ice. We found open water at the top of the world, a place that should be solid white. The tourists marveled at the vast expanses of ice surrounding that open water, and a reverence for this landscape shone in their eyes. We tasted the icy brine as we plunged into the open water for lightning-quick swims.

Passengers and guides stand respectfully to the side while watching penguins go about their business in the icy Antarctic landscape. (Photo: Kara Weller)

The North Pole trips have become more difficult in subsequent years, because finding solid sea ice in which to park the ship is a challenge. A study published in Nature Communications this year projects that under current greenhouse-gas-emission scenarios, the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free in the summer before 2050. That is soon.

Sunset at Brede Fjord, northeast Greenland, as seen from shipboard (Photo: Kara Weller)

At the annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) in 2023, the governing body of Antarctica made a resolution known as the Helsinki Declaration. They committed to increasing efforts to communicate the global impact of climate change on Antarctica and the need to prevent irreversible changes.

Do I keep guiding at the ends of the Earth?

Icebergs on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula combine with pieces of sea ice from the past winter to form an icy maze through which the ships try to pass. Some ships can slip through and around, while others turn back. (Photo: Kara Weller)

Susan Adie, a friend and fellow guide who has worked in the polar regions longer than I have, says she believes that if she can help educate the visitors who travel there and get them to care, and enough caring people educate others, perhaps action can be taken, in many ways, to help the Earth. She says, “If I just give up and say it’s a losing battle, then what kind of a human am I?”

Our lives are enriched by ice, made larger and wilder and somehow more precious. To love cold inanimate objects sounds at odds with all that is logical and right in the world, and yet we do.

Adelie penguins greet each other on Coulman Island in the Ross Sea. Adelies breed around the coast of Antarctica in areas where exposed rocks are found. Populations of the penguins in the western Antarctic peninsula, where most tourist ships visit, are declining. This photo taken in 2008. (Photo: Kara Weller)

It may be that this one politician, that one influencer, that one poetic writer who listens to us guides, who sees what we see, whose heart can be pierced by a shard of glittering ice, can make a difference in this confusing, messed-up, beautiful world of ours. Maybe I can reach one more person. Maybe just one more trip.

Kara Weller is a ship-based naturalist who works all over the world, but primarily in the polar regions. Although a snow and ice aficionado, when visiting the outhouse at her plumbing-less cabin in minus-40 degree temperatures she dreams of simple things such as flush toilets. She lives in Fairbanks, Alaska.

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