Speaking before a group of students and staff in the Valhalla Room, Schurke gave an eye-opening account of receding polar ice, rising sea levels and temperatures and erratic wildlife behavior gleaned from his extensive travel that has been featured in numerous books, magazines and a National Geographic television documentary.
Environmental change in the Arctic is a harbinger of what is coming our way, Schurke stressed in the opening of his address. Changes to the climate in the past were local; now they are global in a big way.
Schurke's love for the Arctic stems from his groundbreaking trek to the North Pole in 1986 when he and his crew became the first confirmed expedition to reach the top of the world without re-supplying. In the years since, he and various members of his family have returned to the Arctic each spring when they aren't running their Wintergreen dogsled tour lodge out of Ely, Minn. Most recently, Schurke made a trip in the spring of 2006 that underscored the stark contrast 20 years of global warming have brought about in the Arctic.
From the outset of Schurke's 2006 expedition, evidence of a dramatic global climate shift was unmistakable. On the day Schurke and his team launched their journey in 1986, the temperature was -76 degrees Fahrenheit. The same time in 2006? A balmy 30 degrees. The scene was the same, Schurke recalled. But the temperature differences were alarming. Ice that had been 12-20 feet thick was a mere two to three feet thick.
In '86, Schurke's team did not spot a single polar bear; in 2006, they observed a number of bears suffering from malnourishment and resorting to cannibalism, the consequence of increasingly limited access to the seals they subsist upon. Additionally, the expedition spotted robins and even dragonflies, unheard of on the Arctic tundra.
According to Schurke, in the 40 years since scientists began measuring the white reflective surface area of the sea ice through satellite imaging, arctic ice coverage has receded a stunning 40 percent. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been rising since the 1950s, and the mean temperature has risen one degree Fahrenheit globally and eight degrees Fahrenheit in the Arctic over the last 100 years.
While this may not seem like much to be panicking about, one degree is enough to tip the scale dramatically on the global scale. Humanity's binge on fossil fuels is upsetting the delicate equilibrium of the Earth's heat balance, and the United States producing 25 percent of the world's pollution despite representing less than five percent of the world's population has disproportionately contributed to this predicament.
The projections for the future are even more sobering; the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free during summer months by as early as 2030, opening up the Northwest Passage and raising global sea levels as much as 28 feet. Of course, not everyone is adverse to such drastic change. After all, Schurke observed, 25 percent of fossil fuels lie beneath the Arctic Ocean, and a trans-ocean shipping route is purportedly already in the works. Perhaps that helps explain why even the 1908 Ford Model-T (25 MPG) was more fuel-efficient than today's average fuel economy (21 MPG).
Caught in the middle of all this are the Inuit people, powerless victims to the developed world's voracious appetite. What many do not realize is that Inuit are already feeling the sweeping effects of global climate change. We think of the Arctic as a desolate, inhospitable place, Schurke said. But three million people live north of the Arctic Circle, and the way of life they have known for over 1,000 years is being threatened by global warming.
The Inuit hunting season, which once stretched from September until June, now lasts from when ice forms in mid-October or November until it melts in April. As a result, a diminishing number of Inuit are able to make a living as subsistence sea hunters and are forced to wait for airlifts of food subsidies to survive.
Highlighting just how dire the situation has become for the Inuit, Schurke recounted how a nurse on one of his expeditions was sent from Copenhagen to explain to Inuit mothers that it had become too dangerous to breastfeed their babies due to elevated levels of dichloro-deiphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) and other toxins in their blood. Airborne pollutants spewed from power plants and car emissions get sucked to the top of the globe in a sort of atmospheric vacuum, Schurke explained, a fact he was made keenly aware of on his 2006 expedition. Where once there had been only bright blue skies, Schurke observed a smudge of brown sulfur ringing the horizon what has become known as the arctic haze phenomenon.
Schurke emphasized that it now remains in the hands of our generation to decide how to address the pressing issue of global climate change. The threat has arrived and is largely of our own doing, Schurke said. Whether it will foster a will to unite globally to tackle the threat together remains to be seen.
Regardless of the response from individuals and governments, global climate change is going to be an issue, very much a part of our lifetime. The title of Schurke's presentation, The North Pole Was Here, made this point painfully clear. What seemed at first to be a half-joking attempt at hyperbole was actually an urgent wake-up call from the frontline of global warming.