In 1995 Canadian Richard Weber and Russian Mikikail Malakov became the first and only people to ski unsupported from Northern Canada to the North Pole and back to Canada. They traveled by ski, pulling sleds for 123 days!
This was not Richard’s first or only Arctic expedition, however. From 1978 to 2006, Richard participated in more than 45 Arctic expeditions and is the only person to have completed six full expeditions to the North Pole. On a 1986 expedition led by Will Steger, Richard and a teammate became the first Canadians to reach the North Pole without motorized transportation. In 2006 Richard and British explorer Conrad Dickenson were the first to reach the North Pole traveling solely by snowshoe.
Richard and his wife Josee Auclair own Arctic Watch, Canada’s most northerly lodge. With their company Canadian Arctic Holidays they outfit, organize and lead Arctic expeditions and guide clients to the North Pole.
Q (Climate Generation): You’ve been traveling in the Arctic for over thirty years and you have led more trips to the North Pole than probably anyone else. Have you seen any changes in the environment or in pack ice in the time that you’ve been traveling?
A (Richard Weber): I didn’t think it would be possible to see changes because the variations in the weather from year to year are so different and when you’re walking on the Arctic Ocean you’re looking at such a relatively small piece of ice, but last year when we were up there it was really different than twenty years ago. The pack ice is visibly thinner – when you come to a crack and look in it’s much much thinner. Twenty years ago it was eight to twelve feet thick now it’s three to six feet thick; it’s much thinner. I think in consequence, when you get pressure on the pans they now crumple up.
Last year from Ward Hunt Island almost to the North Pole we had only three big pans—big open spaces, the rest was just rubble. Twenty years ago you would have a big pressure ridge with lumps of ice the size of houses and cars all piled up–a significant obstacle—and then you would have a big open space. Now the pressure ridges aren’t that big anymore but there are no open spaces anymore; it’s just rubble and rubble.
And the weather was fifteen to twenty degrees warmer. Yeah, you can say it was just a warm year, but I don’t think that kind of weather would have happened twenty years ago. That’s the way the weather is going. We had whiteouts and warm weather, you know, May weather in April. By May, the Arctic Ocean was turning to porridge. You couldn’t travel on it anymore. Whereas before in 1992 we traveled and it didn’t do that until the 22nd of June. Things have significantly changed.
Q (CG): Have the changes affected your ability to travel on the Arctic Ocean?
A (RW): I think, at least last year, it was not possible to ski, to travel from the North Pole back to Canada. Travel in May became impossible last year. There were three expeditions attempting to come from the pole back to Canada and none of them were successful. So I think that it is becoming more difficult. Maybe we will have a colder year this year and maybe there will be some more wind and it will be a bit easier, but definitely it is getting harder—there is no question.
Another significant change is last year for the first time the currents of the Arctic Ocean changed. Normally when you ski from Canada to the North Pole you are basically drifting east and south and we drifted west the whole time. Later on I found out that, yep, every current throughout the Arctic ocean changed last year for the first time. So something is really different up there from twenty years ago.
Q (CG): What impacts or what effects would you imagine a trend that continued in this direction would have on polar exploration?
A (RW): If it continues like this, in twenty years [the Arctic Ocean] is going to be open water in the summer. So all of a sudden for the planet we are going to have this huge black space instead of a huge white space, so that’s going to make things really different and that’s going to change the weather. As it goes that way, it’s going to speed up and things are going to change more and more…
We’ve been at Arctic Watch, our lodge on Somerset Island] almost ten years now. Twice now we’ve seen electrical storms. And there are local people who had never seen electrical storms. It’s simply too warm. We are getting temperatures up into the low twenties in the summer now. I haven’t been there long enough to know if that is normal or not normal. But we’ve seen areas where there are steep banks that normally hold together because they are frozen but now the permafrost is melting and you have huge slides along the river everywhere there are steep banks. I don’t have enough experience to say, yeah that happens every summer, but I don’t think so because [the river banks] wouldn’t be there; it would look different. So there is definitely melting of the permafrost in our area.