Explorer, adventurer and environmental champion Pen Hadow has seen how human intervention is threatening wildlife in the Arctic Circle. And it is likely to impact on everyday life across the planet.
Pen, who lives near Fontmell Magna, will explain why his project to designate a North Pole marine reserve needs adopting now, during his talk at St James Church in Shaftesbury.
Pen Haddow is the only person who has solo-trekked from Canada to the North Geographic Pole, carrying all of his provisions with him. He winced when I described him as a ‘visionary’ and he modestly brushes off Time Magazine’s declaration that he is a ‘hero of the environment’.
“I’m not so sure that it’s heroic. The way that I have led my life and the things that I’ve done I think are just different,” Pen said. “If you want to do things that others haven’t it’s often for a good reason. It’s too uncomfortable emotionally or physically. It’s too expensive or too complicated. You’re going to have to let go of some things in order to achieve what it is you want to achieve,” he added.
Pen is clearly determined and focussed to undertake feats of stamina, resolve and endurance that most people will never attempt. He’ll share his personal journey from childhood to today during his talk on 27th September.
His session will offer Shaftesbury residents an understanding of the Arctic’s wildlife and how it is being threatened. “Most people have a perception that there’s nothing around the North Pole, that it’s inert, lifeless, and pointless. I want to demonstrate that it is rammed with life,” Pen explained.
In summer 2017, Pen led the first boat expedition without icebreakers into waters surrounding the North Geographic Pole. The Arctic Mission, using two 50-foot sailing vessels, entered previously impassable areas now navigable because of ice melting. “We went 300 miles deep into it. We reached over 80 degrees north, about 600 miles from the Pole. Imagine what serious commercial vessels can do right now,” Pen warned.
“The ice had provided a natural barrier to access. Now, in the summer, 40% of that ice is no longer there and it’s possible to go deep into the central Arctic Ocean. It’s getting worse in terms of increased accessibility to commercial fishing, international shipping and hydrocarbon extraction,” said Pen.
“The sea ice is decreasing in area. It is also getting less in depth. If you know the area and the thickness, you then have the volume of ice. Even when the area seemed not to be as receded as in previous years, the volume is still going down. It’s all about the volume if you’re looking to forecast how long we’re going to have ice there at all in the summer,” he added.
Pen says sea ice is a habitat. “There are animals and plants living above it, seagulls in summer. Everyone knows about the polar bears but there are other animals on the surface. There are animals and plants living in the sea ice – some of the smallest forms of life – phytoplankton or plant plankton, and zooplankton, which is animal plankton. Plankton drifts with the ocean. There are plants under the surface of the ice and animals and plants living in the first 100m of sea water underneath the ice. You’ve got an entire, layered system. If you have less sea ice, you’ve got less habitat.”
Pen is keen to explain how this ecosystem is entirely dependent on the existence of sea ice. “This ecosystem evolved over tens of thousands of years, and adapted. The physical makeup of the species has worked out how to survive in a peculiarly challenging ocean environment. It is pitch dark for three months of the year. Where else do you get that in an ocean? Nowhere,” said Pen.
The Arctic fox has adapted to the hostile environment. “Some of them worked out that the best way to survive is to track polar bears, who kill a seal every five or so days, eat what they want and move on, leaving the carcass. Arctic foxes track the bears to find seal carcasses which they can eat as well.” Pen has seen Arctic foxes 1,000km from the nearest land.
He is concerned about the fate of the Greenland shark. “It is the most extreme animal on earth. They have found a way of surviving in this unusual ocean environment. They move slowly in the waters and their lifespans are very long indeed.” Pen is worried that commercial fishing could impact on Greenland sharks. The females don’t reach their reproductive peak until they are around 150 years old. “Take a few Greenland shark out by accident and they may never recover as a population up there,” he said.
As well as commercial fishing being able to extend further because of ice melting, Pen believes that resource exploration and new shipping movements could prove disastrous. “We are playing the biggest role in ice melting through climate change. The irony is some people are thinking they can now access whole new areas of natural resources. And they can treat it as a shipping route. They can get to Rotterdam and New York from the Pacific rim countries through the Bering Strait quicker than going through the Panama Canal or Suez Canal.”
Pen believes that further study will provide the scientific evidence to the policymakers at the United Nations, who could then introduce an international treaty to protect the Central Arctic and North Pole. “We need to study ecosystems before we start to trash it and disrupt it through the acoustic noise of shipping or damaging with explosive devices used for exploration of the seabed, which then damages animal life around,” Pen explained.
He is committed to bringing in the sort of protections enforced in Antarctica. “My work is about providing the leadership behind the vision, to create the world’s largest wildlife preserve, covering the entire body of international waters that surround the North Pole. The area is 3 million square kilometres, roughly the size of the Mediterranean Sea. It would put in a ‘no go’ area,” he said.
Most locals will never visit the Arctic and as Pen shares stories of continual seasickness and extreme cold, few would wish to. He’s hosting his talk to offer an insight into the area and he wants to ensure that threats to the Arctic are not out of sight and out of mind.
“There are things I’ll be able to share with people that will give them a very strong clue as to why they may want to take a serious interest,” said Pen. “Just because it’s not around Shaftesbury is to grotesquely miss the point about how everything is interconnected in the natural world.”
Pen Hadow talks at 7.30pm on Friday 27th September at St James’s Church, Shaftesbury. He is giving his time in aid of the Restoration of St James’ Church East Window. Donations towards the appeal will be welcome. Drinks and nibbles will be available.