Scientific experiments and climate tourism with Extreme E
It was raining when, along with the rest of the Arctic X Prix Extreme E team, I posed for the first time on the Greenland ice cap. It was a rare event, some of our local guides told us, something they have only seen a handful of times in their lives, but not impossible. What should have been impossible, however, had happened a few days earlier: he had rained at the top of Greenland.
Standing in an ever increasing stream as we listened Professor Carlos Duarte tell us what the rain is foreshadowing. First of all, rain means that the air temperature is warm enough to create liquid precipitation, which has not happened in recorded history. The rain then collects on the ice cap, drawing more heat from the sun and melting the ice under the rainwater. It promotes the growth of algae, which attracts the sun instead of reflecting it and – you guessed it – warms the ice even more.
Our trip to the iceberg ended in the name of science – everyone received a vial and asked to collect scoops of ice cream; the shape means there is sediment inside which ice formed the same way a cloud forms, and that sediment comes from northern hemisphere forest fires – but I couldn’t not help but think that we are contributing to the problem. It was like climate tourism.
Climate tourism is basically the name of the growing tendency of people to visit parts of the world that are increasingly suffering hardship due to climate change. Local guides had shared stories the night before about how they had started to see an increase in tourists keen to see the icebergs before they left. At the same time, these tourists bring with them garbage, trespassing and emissions.
Having flown from San Antonio, Texas to London, England, then from London, England to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, I kinda felt like I was there for a bit of perverse indulgence at the end of the world. After all, I had jumped at the chance to attend the Extreme E event because I had always wanted to see the beautiful, inhospitable country of scrub-covered rocky mountains dripping under thousands of feet of solid ice. And my desire to see these landmarks has grown in recent years, as the urgency of rapid melting – sometimes up to 8.5 billion tonnes of surface mass will melt in a single day – feels like for forcing my hand.
Balancing this boundary between climate tourism and legitimate change has been difficult for me to reconcile in normal life, and it has only become even more difficult with Extreme E, making it absolutely prevalent every step of the way. that we were here with a mission in mind when all the races were done. I felt it every time I ate breakfast (on my own dishes to avoid excessive waste), used the bathroom (where we were encouraged to cover our poo with other compostable material to mulch rather than the flush), and, yes, while we were taking ice samples in a small vial to measure the amount of sediment that was accumulating on the Greenland ice sheet as a result of forest fires.
I’ve read several people criticizing Extreme E’s goal of raising awareness about climate change – we’re all aware it’s happening, right? And I won’t pretend to disagree that there should be serious actions, not just discussions. And while Extreme E crosses that barrier by doing field research, I totally agree: it’s hard to balance work and play. It’s hard to get into a racing weekend when constantly asks you to take a critical eye on the impact of each step on the world. I want to agree that we should be paying attention to climate change just for its own sake, but it clearly hasn’t worked. We need something else to get our attention and draw it to the problem.
This is partly where I think Extreme E excels. It draws attention to the impact of climate change in very specific places, which is crucial in helping us pinpoint the severity of what is happening. It is one thing to hear that five million people have died. It’s another to have this number described in such a way that you can imagine it on a very human level. Yes, we can hear time and time again that climate change is bad and causing widespread destruction of the planet – but the planet is very difficult to visualize.
Standing on the Greenland ice cap with a climatologist, tour guides, and locals whose families have been here for generations was just that. He highlighted the impact of a changing land. Even as we walked through boulders to the leaf, locals mentioned that it had never been so difficult to reach the ice, that they had never seen it rain this way, than the The look and feel of ice had drastically changed over the past five years in ways that previous generations of their families had never seen before. Then hearing Professor Duarte tell us that Greenland ice is essentially the Earth’s temperature regulator, which is why it is so important, made the problem clear.
It can be difficult to convey this feeling through a TV screen, I admit. It’s much easier to relate to someone you spent the previous night drinking beers with and who spent the morning explaining the history, science, and folklore behind certain places you came across. But it’s something the racing series would also do well to emphasize more strongly in its shows.
In person, Extreme E really trains you in the impact of your every move you make on the place. It makes you understand. But those same feelings don’t translate to home viewers, many of whom remain confused about the show’s mission. This is not a permanent flaw in the series, which is always looking for the best way to operate. Yet it is a great opportunity to learn.