Science Experiments And Climate Tourism With Extreme E

It can be difficult to reconcile my travel to Greenland with the fact that I'm also harming it.

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Photo: Colin McMaster / Extreme E

It was raining as I, along with the rest of Extreme E’s Arctic X Prix crew, first stepped onto Greenland’s ice sheet. It was a rare occurrence, some of our local guides told us, something they’ve only seen a handful of times in their lives, but not impossible. What should have been impossible, though, had happened days earlier: It had rained at the summit of Greenland.

Standing in an ever-increasing pour as we listened to Professor Carlos Duarte tell us about what that rain portends. First of all, rain means that the air temperature is warm enough to create liquid precipitation, something that has not happened in recorded history. The rain then pools on top of the ice sheet, further drawing heat from the sun and melting the ice beneath the rainwater. It aids the growth of algae, which attracts sun instead of reflects it and — you guessed it — further warms the ice.

Our trip to the iceberg was completed in the name of science — everyone was handed a vial and told to collect balls of ice; the shape means there’s sediment inside that the ice has formed around in the same way a cloud forms, and this sediment is coming from northern hemisphere forest fires — but I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were contributing to the problem. It felt like climate tourism.

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Climate tourism is, in essence, the name for the growing trend of people touring parts of the world that are suffering increased hardships as a result of climate change. The local guides had shared stories the night before about how they’ve started to see an uptick in tourists eager to see the icebergs before they’re gone. At the same time, those tourists are bringing with them trash, intrusion, and emissions.

Having flown from San Antonio, Texas to London, England, then from London, England to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, it did feel a bit like I was there for a bit of perverse indulgence in the end of the world. I had, after all, jumped at the chance to attend the Extreme E event because I’d always wanted to see the beautiful, inhospitable country of rocky, scrub-covered mountains trickling out from below thousands of feet of solid ice. And my desire to see these landmarks has grown in recent years, as the urgency of the rapid melt — sometimes as much as 8.5 billion tons of surface mass will melt away in a single day — feels like it has forced my hand.

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Balancing that line between climate tourism and legitimate change has been a difficult one for me to reconcile in normal life, and it only grew all the more difficult with Extreme E making it absolutely prevalent every step of the way that we were here with a mission in mind once all the racing wrapped up. I felt it every time I ate lunch (on my own dishes to prevent excess waste), used the bathroom (where we were encouraged to cover our poop with other compostable materials to make mulch rather than flush), and, yes, while we were scooping ice samples into a little vial to measure the amount of sediment that was collecting on Greenland’s ice sheet as a result of forest fires.

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I’ve read several folks criticizing Extreme E’s goal of raising awareness about climate change — we’re all aware it’s happening, right? And I won’t purport to disagree that there should be serious action, not just talk. And while Extreme E is broaching that barrier by doing on-the-ground research, I can definitely agree: it’s hard to reconcile work with play. It’s hard to throw yourself into a race weekend when you’ve been consistently asked to turn a critical eye to the impact your every step has on the world. I want to agree that we should pay attention to climate change simply for its own sake, but that obviously hasn’t been working. We need something else to catch our eye and draw it to the problem.

That is, in part, where I think Extreme E excels. It draws the eye to the impact of climate change in very specific locations, which is crucial in helping us localize the severity of what’s going on. It’s one thing to hear that five million people have died. It’s another to have that number described in such a way that you can picture it on a very human level. Yes, we can hear time and again that climate change is bad and that it’s causing widespread destruction to the planet — but the planet is very difficult to visualize.

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Standing on Greenland’s ice sheet with a climate scientist, tour guides, and locals whose families have been here for generations was exactly that. It brought the impact of a rapidly morphing earth into stark view. Even as we walked through some rocks to the sheet, locals were mentioning that it had never been so difficult a trek to get to the ice, that they’ve never seen it rain this way, that the look and feel of the ice has drastically changed in the past five years in ways that previous generations of their family had never seen before. Then, to hear Professor Duarte tell us that Greenland’s ice is essentially the Earth’s temperature regulator, which is why it’s so important, drove the point home.

It can be hard to convey that sentiment through a television screen, I admit. It’s a lot easier to relate to a person you’ve spent the previous night drinking beers with and who spent the morning explaining the history, science, and folklore behind certain locations you passed by. But it’s something the race series would also do well to emphasize more strongly in its broadcasts.

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In person, Extreme E really does pull you into the impact your every move has on the venue. It makes you understand. But those same feelings aren’t translating to viewers at home, many of whom remain confused about the series’ mission. That’s not a permanent fault of the series, which is still figuring out the best way to operate. It is, however, a prime opportunity to learn.