In February 2006 National Geographic Adventure Magazine called Norwegian Börge Ousland “arguably the most accomplished polar explorer alive!” How did Börge become such a well-known explorer?
After high school, Börge trained as a diver and worked for almost ten years diving in the North Sea. He then served in the Norwegian Special Naval Forces.
In 1986 Börge and two of his diving friends skied across Greenland from the East to West, a feat only a few had accomplished in the almost 100 years since early explorer Fritjof Nansen made the first crossing in 1888.
Over the following years, Börge conducted many expeditions. He and another companion skied over the frozen Arctic Ocean from Ellesmere Island to the North Pole in 1990 without receiving any outside assistance. In 1993 he and a friend tried to ski across the drift ice from Frans Josef Land (Russian territory) to Svalbard (islands in the Arctic Ocean about midway between Norway and the North Pole), but were forced to quit when large areas of open water blocked their path. In 1994 Börge trekked solo from Siberia to the North Pole, then crossed Antarctica alone without outside support in 1997. In 2001 he crossed the Arctic Ocean solo from Siberia to Canada via the North Pole. He has also climbed in the Himalaya and crossed the Patagonia ice field. In 2006, Börge and a partner skied to the North Pole in the winter, an expedition long considered impossible. In 2007 he and a partner retraced the historic route of explorer Fridtjof Nansen. At the end of this expedition, they were forced to live off the land for three weeks as they waited for a boat to be able to reach them.
Q (Climate Generation): You’ve been exploring the Arctic since the 1980’s. Have you seen any changes in the environment in the time that you’ve been traveling?
A (Börge Ousland): Yes I have seen the changes over the years. In 1986, we skied across Greenland and across the sea ice to Umanak, which we reached on the 1st of May. Now, it is impossible to ski because it is all open water around Umanak at that time of year. In 1990, we skied unsupported to the North Pole. Back then, the ice was 3 meters thick. Last year I skied from the North Pole to Frans Josef Land and measured ice thickness for the Norwegian Polar Institute on the way. The ice was only 2 meters thick – a 30% reduction over the last two decades.
Q (CG): Have the changes affected your ability to travel on the Arctic Ocean?
A (BO): Not really. I adapt, using swim gear and polypropylene kayaks to move fast across unstable ice. The ice breaks up more quickly, making traveling in summer months more dangerous.
Q (CG): What impacts or what effects would you imagine a trend that continued in this direction would have on polar exploration?
A (BO): If sea ice disappears in the summer months, I am not too worried about polar exploration. That’s a minor issue compared to other more serious impacts. I am much more worried about the animals that live there. It has taken the polar bear thousands of years to become what it is; they can be extinct in one hundred years if this continues. Humans adapt, but polar bears do not have that opportunity. The drift ice is the engine for the whole food chain in the Arctic. If that ice disappears, it will have huge consequences for all animal life there.
Q (CG): What concerns you most about warming in the Arctic
A (BO): See above, along with the melting of large ice caps, which will cause the sea to rise, and the local people who also depend on the food chain of the Arctic.
Q (CG): What influence or effect do you hope your expeditions will have?
A BO): My role as the eyewitness is not only to tell the world that changes happen in the Arctic very quickly, but also that I believe we can reduce the damage if we are responsible and act now.
Q (CG): Are there lessons or inspirations individuals and communities can take from your experiences?
A (BO): When I do my expedition, I solve problems. If there is a solution to a problem, I deal with it. It’s the same with global warming: we know the problem, we know the solution and there is only one thing to do. When the future comes and we look back, each of us needs to say that at least I did my best to solve that problem. I look upon it as a personal responsibility, and that’s really my main message.