The Road Not Taken

Thomas Meyer/OSTKREUZ
Sustainable Development
“Make voyages. Attempt them. There's nothing else.”
Tennesse Williams

Eirliani Abdul Rahman is a diplomat turned activist. To raise awareness for survivors of sexual child abuse, she was planning an expedition to the North Pole in April. Due to the climate crisis, the North Pole season got cancelled for the first time in the history of the Russian ice camp Barneo, which is where you'd launch a last degree expedition to the North Pole. This is what Eirliani learned from this major setback.

It’s true. Sometimes it’s the road not traveled that makes all the difference.

I was in Spitzbergen, Norway, last month at the 78th parallel, preparing for the expedition of a lifetime: skiing the last degree to the North Pole. There were some problems with the Ukrainian authorities not allowing the Antonov-74 that we had hired to fly north, so we roped in a Canadian company instead. A Basler DC-3 was promptly dispatched and it all seemed like a go on Friday morning, April 12.

Eirliani Abdul RahmanNGO Yakin

Eirliani Abdul Rahman

Eirliani Abdul Rahman was preparing for a last-degree trip to the North Pole in April 2019 to raise awareness for child sexual abuse survivors. She is the co-founder of YAKIN (Youth, Adult Survivors & Kin In Need), an NGO working on children’s rights and child protection, and a member of Twitter’s Safety & Trust Council. She serves as director at the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation and is a member of the Global Diplomacy Lab. In 2015, she led a successful campaign of the NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan (“Save the Childhood Movement”) founded by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kailash Satyarthi called #FullStop to #childsexualabuse in India, which reached 16 million people over 6 weeks. Eirliani is co-author of the book “Survivors: Breaking the Silence on Child Sexual Abuse.” She won the BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Award in 2015.

In the afternoon, at 4 p.m., everything changed. The managers of the Russian ice camp Barneo announced that the North Pole season has been canceled. “Wait, wh-what…?” was all I could stammer, before the room erupted into chaos. People were shouting questions at the Russians. There was much waving of hands. I was desperately wringing my own.

The Russian in charge calmly took all the questions, explaining the sequence of events which had led to this decision. There were murmurings in the crowd of a Russian-Ukrainian angle due to the ongoing crisis in Crimea. The Canadian pilot who had done a test run earlier that morning assessed that the weather was too bad to allow him to land. Had we waited for a better weather window, the ice would have melted, which would not allow a plane of that size to land.

The Russians decided that the short weather window meant that it was not possible to deposit all skiers and tourists at Barneo camp at the 89th parallel and to guarantee that everyone could be brought back safely to Longyearbyen, the capital of the Svalbard archipelago in Norway where we were temporarily based.

After the meeting was over, my teammates, together with Polar Explorers, our guiding company, slunk away to a corner of the hotel’s bar to recover from the blow and discuss strategy. Rick Sweitzer, the owner of Polar Explorers which is located in Illinois, generously offered a short ski trip in Spitzbergen at the company’s expense, for those of us who decided to stay on. I opted for that with alacrity.

We left on the morning of April 15, skiing out of Longyearbyen towards Bolterdalen. According to local folklore, a horse bolted from an exhibition that was being held in the early 19th century, sprinting towards this valley. Hence the name.

Dusk was falling and like the others, I was silent, ruminating, our spirits somewhat dampened. And these were my thoughts: Climate change is affecting the polar ice caps. What I had learned startled me. In the 1990s, the North Pole season began in May. Now, the season ends in April. Last year, the season lasted only 12 days, so not everyone got to ski to the North Pole. This year, the season did not even get off the ground. I don’t know what next year will bring.

Talking to the guides, I realized that no full-length expeditions have succeeded in the past six years mainly because the ice has been melting, making it impossible to cross wide open leads which have developed. I watched the BBC series “Our Planet” on Netflix, narrated by the redoubtable Sir David Attenborough. In one episode, he highlighted that polar bears are finding it difficult to find food as the ice cap is becoming more unstable, resulting in malnourished polar bear cubs.

Maybe, at some point we have to get used to the sad reality of only seeing polar bears on green grass in zoos - like the late famous polar bear cub Knut in Berlin (title picture). He was an orphaned polar bear born in captivity. Rejected by his mother at birth, Knut was raised by zookeepers and became a tourist attraction.

What can we do? Remember the 3 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.

  1. Buy products that have less packaging and bring your own bag with you.
  2. Try not to use disposables: bring your own water bottle, cutlery and steel or bamboo straws.
  3. Organize swaps between friends so you don’t go out and buy new clothes.
  4. Use hand-me-downs for your children. Frequent flea markets and thrift stores and pay less for the same product.

Read up so you can keep yourself informed on the latest developments. Friends who are environmental activists recommended the following two books: The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells, just published this year; and Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, edited by Paul Hawken and published in 2017.

More importantly, we need to exert pressure on our respective local governments to make recycling and collection points more accessible, to reduce carbon emissions, and to adopt eco-friendly solutions where feasible. Vote for responsible politicians who are addressing the issue of climate change.

Also, have conversations with your friends and family about climate change: that it IS real.

We all can do our bit to reduce global warming!

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