10 January 2011
Pen Hadow entered the record books in 2003 after becoming the first person to trek solo and unassisted from Canada to the North Pole — a gruelling 450-mile journey across ice and snow.
Having spent more than 15 years working as a polar guide, helping people travel in the Arctic and Antarctic, he has built up a great knowledge and deep affection for these harsh yet delicate environments.
What started your fascination with the poles?
At first it was the allure of an adventure. These are the places at the extremes, dangerous and virtually uninhabited, and I've always been fascinated with them. I set up my polar guiding service in 1995 and I've been working in both poles since then. I've developed a real respect for these environments, and I'm passionate about them. But there are clearly some very worrying predictions about the future, particularly the Arctic.
Are you concerned for the future of the Arctic?
Of course, how could I not be?
I think about little else in terms of what we can do to help that area and let people know what's going on there. It's a vitally important ecosystem that needs as much help as it can get. If the Arctic sea ice disappears, the habitat loss and ecosystem collapse could be significant. It's not just polar bears, there's a huge array of wildlife, right down to single-celled organisms, which will be affected.
Have you noticed any changes in the time that you've been working in the poles?
Personally I have seen changes in the Arctic. People increasingly have to swim across thawed patches of ice simply because it's melting, for example.
Climate change is not just a concept and it's not just doomsayers claiming 'the day will come' - it's happening now. It's going to have implications, some of those aren't going to be pleasant and some will come quicker than we expect. But I don't expect anyone to listen to the observations of just one person on an issue as big as global warming, anyone can discredit that kind of personal evidence.
There are scientists who have been doing in-depth studies for years to come up with much more credible data, and I put my faith in that. That's why I'm keen to contribute my skills as an explorer to improve the projections for the future of the Arctic.
What have you been doing to help improve the science?
I realised that there was vital data that scientists needed in order to get a better understanding of Arctic sea ice. This would allow them to get a better idea of how it was being affected by climate change and what the future may hold.
The only way to reliably get that data was to have someone on the ground, getting real readings rather than just estimates. It's difficult to do that in a place as inhospitable as the Arctic, but I realised that I could use the skills and experience I have in this environment to help get the information scientists need. This led to the Catlin Arctic Survey, where I and two colleagues, Ann Daniels and Martin Hartley, dragged scientific equipment for 280 miles across the Arctic sea ice, taking readings and observations.
Has the expedition been a success?
We had some technical problems with equipment the first time around, but we were able to take readings by hand - which in some ways is a better method than using technology because you cannot argue with someone taking a physical measurement, it's the most reliable reading you could ever get. We measured the ice and snow ourselves, taking more than 1,500 measurements. We also took 16,000 observations - equivalent to one every three minutes for the 73 days of the trip.
What's happening to all the data you've collected?
It's all being collated and will be used to by scientists to get an idea of what's going on in the Arctic. Currently the projections for the future of the sea-ice range from saying there could be none left in late summer within a few years, to saying that might not happen for several decades. I hope the information we have gathered will help to improve these predictions so we can get a much clearer view of what's going on now and what will happen in the future.
Is there a bigger role for explorers to help understand more about climate change?
Explorers can go to places other people can't go and can find out what other people can't. The classic phase of exploration is over, we know where everything is - it's been established. The modern phase of exploration is about helping to find out how natural processes work, going to the places no-one else can to find out the information scientists need.
Satellites cannot provide all the answers. We need to get out there, get our hands and knees dirty and get actual observations and information from the source. We cannot run everything on estimates. We need some real facts, and there's a real role for exploration to do this kind of field work.
Will you be going back to the Arctic to do more research?
It's our expectation that we will be continuing with this type of work over the next five years, building on that body of data and from the experience we have gained. This was the pilot study.
We have a clear vision of what we can achieve and we hope to be able to do that. I think it's important we find out as much as we can because, ultimately, the Arctic is the biggest single visual manifestation of global warming. Arctic sea-ice cover is doing its bit to give us the big cue to think about what's going on. It's sending us a message and we need to heed that.