Frozen in time, Franz Josef Land is one of the last lingering remnants of the wild Arctic. The remote and nearly uninhabited 192-island archipelago is renowned for its biodiversity, which includes polar bears, walruses, bowhead whales, belugas, and narwhals. The intensifying impact of climate change, however, nearly turned this serene environment deadly for National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala and his crew.
“One of our team members with a lot of experience in polar regions tells me that there is an iceberg that looks pretty stable. We put our team together; we have our microbiologists, who are collecting the water samples around the ice, and the cameramen, who are filming the research. I’m on the boat getting ready to jump in the water,” recalls Sala.
“I hear a really loud crack in the ice. I see the iceberg starting to move, I hear another crack, and then I yell to everybody, “Get out of the water! Get out! Get out! Get out! Get out!” They didn’t know what was going on. They thought there was a polar bear swimming towards them or something, so they start swimming on the surface as hard as they can towards the boat.”
Within 30 seconds, the iceberg flipped, and the team narrowly escaped with their lives.
The effects of Earth’s warming temperatures are concentrated more in the Arctic region than anywhere else. Nonetheless, the warming of the Arctic and the impact of accelerated Arctic glacial melt will be felt worldwide—affecting ocean currents which are critical to weather patterns throughout the entire planet.
“The Arctic vortex that we have seen recently in the northeastern side of the United States is going to create more extreme weather events, more flooding, more droughts,” says Sala, “I don’t think that we’re going to be very happy with the climate that’s coming. If all the water that is now frozen on top of Greenland melts, that could mean a sea-level rise of up to 20 feet. Bye-bye, Miami.”
One of Sala’s recent adventures took him the edge of the sea ice on Baffin Island in the high Canadian Arctic. There he met up with actor Leonardo DiCaprio for the documentary Before the Flood, which dives into the global extent of climate change.
“I told him we will not be able to stand on the frozen sea in about 25 years,” recalls Sala. The melting rate of our world’s sea ice is accelerating. As the Arctic ice melts, it uncovers darker water below—which absorbs far more heat than the ice does—thereby accelerating runoff. “We have this feedback loop that amplifies the effects of climate change in the Arctic, making it difficult for all the animals that live here. The ice is melting faster than the animals can adapt to it.”
All, however, is not lost.
The inherent beauty of the Arctic still lingers. “Leo and I were standing on the frozen sea, at the edge of the sea ice, and all of a sudden we hear, ph-hoo, ph-hoo. We turn around, and there was a pod of narwhals. What are the chances that you’re standing on the edge of the sea ice, and this group of magical animals comes and just starts swimming back and forth in front of us?”
DiCaprio and Sala marveled at the magnificence of the moment. “This is what we need everybody to experience,” Sala remarks. “We need everybody to feel that sense of awe and wonder in front of wild nature. Then their love for our planet, the love for the living machine that keeps us alive, is going to be so powerful that nobody is going to tolerate what we are doing to it.”
By removing human threats such as exploitation, fishing, mining, drilling, coastal development, and direct pollution, we can protect vast spaces of the ocean, which would lead to a healthier planet overall. “We need people to know what’s at stake. There is no more discussion about whether climate change exists. Now we’re talking about the solutions. We need to make sure that people understand the urgency of the issue,” urges Sala. By working together, we can change the course.
For Sala, addressing this impact is straightforward. “There is only one thing that needs to happen to solve the issue of climate change, which is reduce dramatically our carbon emissions and our carbon pollution. That’s it. Everything else is mechanisms to get to that same place.”
In December 2015, world leaders met and negotiated a landmark global agreement to combat climate change during the UN Climate Conference (COP21) in Paris. The agreement establishes commitments and outlines measures in nearly all countries to reduce carbon emissions in hopes of preventing a global temperature increase of two degrees. When we work together, these wild places grow to be more resilient.
“By saving large chunks of the ocean, we are buying time. We are making the ocean more resilient while the leaders of the world figure out how to reduce emissions at the global scale,” states Sala. Together we can save these last wild places before it is too late.
Enric Sala is a National Geographic explorer-in-residence. He explores the wildest places in the ocean and tries to inspire countries’ leaders to protect them through the initiative he launched, Pristine Seas.
Be sure to watch Before the Flood on the National Geographic Channel, starting October 30.
ASSOCIATE PRODUCER: Elaina Kimes