Discoveries in the Arctic – In Conversation with Mike HornFrom The Field
Photography by Mike Horn & Etienne Claret
Mike Horn, one of the world’s most renowned adventurers, is on a mission in the Arctic to show the world the effects of global climate change. We caught up with him to learn about his goal to help protect whales – and to document their song during COVID-19 lockdowns.
Mike Horn is one of the world’s most renowned adventurers, currently on a mission to show the world the effects of global climate change, so we can better understand and take action in order to reduce its impact.
Embarking on another expedition to the Arctic to observe the changing climate and the behaviour of whales, Mike partnered with global remote communications provider Speedcast to share his journey with a worldwide audience. Mike speaks to Sidetracked about his latest discoveries in the Arctic and how his work is making a difference.
Sidetracked: Hi Mike! It’s great to talk with you again. Would you please tell us more about this latest expedition and why you decided to travel back to the Arctic?
Mike: After my North Pole crossing last year, my overriding memory of the whole experience was that it was a real fight for survival. The darkness and food shortages alongside the mental and physical pain just put you in such a different mindset.
Once I had recovered, the Arctic was instantly calling me back – to see the ice, the light, and the wildlife. Of course, it is still a very cold and dangerous place, but being able to traverse that potential hardship and truly experience its beauty drove me to return.
From a practical point of view, we were on a mission to drop off international weather station buoys in the Arctic Ocean. Normally, weather stations use these to collect information about salinity, water temperature, air temperature, and pressure within the world’s oceans. Yet, due to the unprecedented circumstances of COVID-19, no government boats were able to drop off these buoys for a sustained period. We were, therefore, able to add an extra dimension to our trip that proved exciting, rewarding, and challenging.
The overwhelming motivation, however, was to seize the opportunity to record the beautiful whale songs during COVID-19 lockdowns. The goal of this project was to have enough data to show the impact of human activities on wildlife and establish natural reserves where whales are free to reproduce, feed, nourish their offspring, and have a comfort zone to live in harmony with humans and nature.
Did this expedition give you more hope or greater concern?
There is no doubt that the rising temperatures of the North Pole are concerning. Normally, the Arctic is defined by a ring where the temperature barely rises above 10°C. That summer in Svalbard, temperatures rose to 21.7°C – more than double. It was the region’s hottest summer ever.
This hot weather was causing the ice and the glaciers to start melting and water tunnelling its way to the bottom. By their nature, glaciers are essentially giant ice blocks on top of rock beds. Therefore, the water lubricates the rock surface and causes the ice to slide down faster and faster into the sea. We would normally expect a glacier to move half a metre a day – here it was advancing at three metres a day.
Our concern about the melting ice, however, was weighed against the joy we felt listening to the whale sounds and hearing them call more whales to the region to feed and mate. It was noticeable that they were living more peacefully, and sounding less stressed, during a period when human beings were absent from the area and not influencing their behaviour.
You like to share your adventures; how did you manage to do that in the harsh Artic conditions?
The reality of global climate change is stark when you can see it for yourself, so being able to visit and examine the Arctic is crucial for the future of the planet. We are now at the point where just talking about climate change isn’t enough – we need to be able to bring it closer to home with evidence, and motivate people to come together to reduce the impact it’s having on nature. To make the most impact, we had to communicate our findings and let people share our journey in real time. Satellite communications were vital.
Speedcast tailored a solution for us so that we could share our discoveries and sightings almost instantly on social media, where millions of people were able to witness the impact of climate change with their own eyes. We were able to send back daily temperature information to meteorological organisations and transmit data from our studies of the whales. When moving through the incredible landscape, we stayed connected with handheld devices that gave me the ability to both collect vital data and safely immerse myself in the beauty of the Arctic.
It’s important to note that we also used satellite connectivity for survival. We were able to get critical daily information on location and weather to ensure our expeditions were as safe as possible. When sailing in the Arctic, there is always a risk of a change in the ocean ice and the weather conditions, so we needed to be constantly analysing the weather to avoid straying into potentially hazardous thick ice. At the same time, we were incredibly grateful for the island of Svalbard. Even though they had closed the island to those flying and sailing in, they allowed our boat through so that we could collect significant data.
And finally, what’s next for you?
My main learning from this latest expedition to the Arctic Ocean is how much I need to go back there. Not just for the beauty and the thrill and adrenaline of adventure, but because of the way it is changing so swiftly. Increasingly, the winters are getting shorter and the summers longer. As the ocean is heating up, the ice is not forming as quickly – and that’s just in the last 25 years.
I’m about to embark on a new adventure to the eastern part of Greenland, where I plan to sail around Svalbard to collect more data on whales. This is all to help achieve the goal of my wider project: creating a safer environment for whales not just to live in, but to thrive in harmony with humans and nature.
I believe my knowledge and experience of the ice could be very important. I have spent half my life in these regions, making my observations. As an explorer, I’m more than happy to respond to the needs of governments and drop off weather buoys in extreme and remote locations, and hopefully make a positive contribution to the world’s weather predictions. Ultimately, I’m excited to keep exploring and experiencing places as glorious as the Arctic. These environments are challenging but rewarding – particularly in the face of the global climate change crisis. If we can show enough people first-hand the influence of humans on these remote parts, people can better understand the impact of climate change and take action.