Each time Annie Aggens journeys to the North Pole, she notices thinning ice and less snow—two of the most glaring signs of global warming. It's a worrying scene, Aggens told Patch.
"The Arctic is changing faster than anywhere else on earth and we really don't have time to debate whether or not climate change is happening, or the best way to do certain things in the political scheme," Aggens said.
Aggens is a Wilmette-based tour guide who takes groups of visitors on snow expeditions of the North Pole through her company, PolarExplorers. Like renowned adventurer and environmental activist, David de Rothschild, Aggens uses her journeys to reveal the causes and effects of a warming planet.
"We do expeditions from the Canadian coast to the North Pole and where we depart from there's usually ice." Aggens said, "We're beginning to have to think about where we depart from because pretty soon there might not be ice and you can't travel with skis over water."
Realizing they have an environmental impact during expeditions, her adventure company calculates the carbon emissions during the helicopter flights to and from wherever they start skiing. Sustainable Travel International handles Aggens' company's carbon neutrality via a calculator that computes how much fuel was used up.
"When the helicopter comes to pick us up at the North Pole, it leaves a little trail of exhaust going through the sky. It looks like a little black ant with a tail because it burns fuel very dirty," Aggens said.
According to Nick Piedmonte, STI's vice president of operations and finance and director of carbon management, funds were collected from PolarExplorers based on emissions calculations from their air, ground and hotel travel to repay ecological damage.
"The funds were directed as an investment into a reforestation project in Madagascar," Piedmonte told Patch.
Additionally, Aggens' group sends out information to other adventure companies on how they, too, can make their polar expeditions carbon neutral. She also incorporates awareness presentations into her expeditions that talk about the effects of climate change.
According to a study by University of Colorado at Boulder's National Snow and Ice Data Center, there is scientific evidence that backs Aggens first-hand encounters with thinning ice in the Arctic. "Thickness [of ice] is important, especially in the winter, because it is the best overall indicator of the health of the ice cover," noted NSIDC scientist Walt Meier in his research. "As the ice cover in the Arctic grows thinner, it becomes more vulnerable to summer melt."
Aggens' explorations depend on the age of the ice.
"We did our first North Pole expedition in 1993. That started in the beginning of May and ended middle of May," she said, adding that, "Nowadays, if you're not off the ice by the last few days of April, you won't be able to find pilots to pick you up because they're not willing to land on the ice."
While camping at night Aggens and company look for multi-year ice–more than four years old—to travel on and provide freshwater for drinking.
"We would probably sleep on first-year ice if we had to, but the probably is it's much more flexible and it's only a couple of feet thick and it's much more likely to break if you have bad weather and also the ice starts moving around," she said.
In addition to diminishing ice, increasing amounts of fog also make conditions unsafe for pilots. As nature has changed, the duration of the expeditions has shortened.
"We've lost two weeks of the season. Two weeks earlier in just a decade. And that's a big change. It's a very big change," she said.
Five years ago was when Aggens said she noticed a drastic turn, and propelled into an environmental campaign.
Between September 2002 and 2005, sea ice, which is mostly forzen seawater that eventually turns into freshwater, dropped to figures that were 20 percent below the mean recorded between 1979 and 2000, according to a NASA news article. What's more, between 2004 and 2005, sea ice recovery—the amount it renews—was the least it had ever been on record, and melting arrived at its earliest in the Arctic region.
"The winter of 2005 saw a dramatic change in the ice up there. We were up in the Arctic getting ready for expedition to the Pole and we kept hearing stories about people running into horrible ice conditions," she said. "We thought we had to do something.'"
Alarmed by the environmental downturn, Aggens and some fellow explorers created a climate change awareness group— International Consortium of Explorers Concerned for the Arctic, Antarctic and Poles (ICECAAP).
"When you love something you want to take care of it," she said. It's also something she loves to share with family, as well as fellow eco-adventurers. Aggens has already taken her 18-month-old daughter, Lola, to visit the pole.
"I took her along last year. I just put her in a little sling and she was inside my parka," she said. "I would love for her to cross Greenland with me... but we'd really let her decide on that."
And as she continues to fight against global warming, Aggens hopes that others take up eco-exploration campaigns.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm not doing enough," she said. "But then I think… if we can plant 10 more of me around the world, then they can talk to their students and their families and their communities, and then we're having an affect."