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Last Updated: Friday, 20 January 2006, 09:05 GMT
Time to return the Arctic favour
Royal Geographical Society fellow Glenn Morris
Glenn Morris

The Arctic has become a playground for wealthy holidaymakers while the indigenous Inuit population is struggling to cope with effects of climate change on the region, argues Glen Morris in this week's Green Room.

Glenn Morris pulling his sledge (picture courtesy of Glenn Morris)
Glenn Morris pulling his sledge

The Arctic today is no longer the menacing enigma that manifested itself in the minds of the people of the 19th Century.

Almost every square inch of frozen tundra, glacial ice, mountain and lake has been studied, photographed or travelled over. If Mary Shelley needed a home for her monster today, she would need to look elsewhere.

Nevertheless, so called "adventurers" are still driven by their egos and the need to "find themselves" to travel into this frigid and unforgiving environment.

But no longer are there bays, remote islands or glaciers to name after the wealthy patrons as was the custom of the early pioneers.

No longer do expeditions spend years enduring hardship and privation seeking new passages, trade routes or, worst still, disappear entirely without trace as happened to the tragic John Franklin.

Expedition team in bad conditions (picture courtesy of Glenn Morris)
The Arctic's harsh conditions attract people wanting to test themselves
These days the Arctic, and to a large extent the Antarctic, has become a playground for the wealthy holidaymaker.

They play out a heroic charade which bears little or no resemblance to the real explorers of yesteryear.

One could be forgiven for thinking that when Sir Wally Herbert became the first person to (undisputedly) set foot on the North Pole in 1969 that would be the end of that particular quest - alas, no.

They still come in their droves - the first solo trip, the first woman, the first relay, the first wearing a red and blue parka, the first by pogo-stick.

It is all meaningless nonsense and is still viewed by the real heroes of the Arctic, the Inuit, with bemused and bewildered amusement.

So often travellers to the Arctic rely on the Arctic peoples to help, guide or share their expertise with them.

Glenn Morris on the meaning of Inuit

Without the Inuit sledge drivers, Arctic pilots or native guides, the adventurers would be completely and utterly helpless and out of their depth in the harsh environment.

Yet, when they return to their after dinner talks and ego-fanning book launches, the very people that allowed them their indulgence are hardly mentioned or even acknowledged.

After their few weeks in the Arctic with their new five-season sleeping bags and their support planes, they return to central heating and comfortable homes, while the Inuit hunter still stands at the top of a block of ice looking for his next meal.

'Real people'

In my opinion, the British seem particularly churlish with regards to how they deal with the people of the Arctic, even to the point, in one case, of not allowing a guide to appear in the expedition celebratory photographs.

Inuit hunter (picture courtesy of Glenn Morris)
The Inuit are forgotten by people dependent upon them, says Morris
I have travelled to the Arctic more than 14 times and owe an enormous debt to the local people, or as the word Inuit literally means, the "real people".

I have had the great fortune to spend time with people who have befriended me, shared their houses with me, given me food, transported me via dog sledges across hundreds of miles of frozen ocean.

The anonymous pilots of twin otters and helicopters and those that just by their humour, strength of character and sheer ingenuity have allowed me to share their environment and return happy and unscathed.

My most recent journey to the Arctic was to be a study of the effects of global warming, focusing specifically on the lifestyle of the Inuit hunters of northwest Greenland.

Glenn Morris describes the Arctic landscape

The Arctic is the world's early warning system and the red light is flashing
Glenn Morris

We were to travel in the footsteps of Knud Rasmussen, the great Greenlandic explorer on an outward journey by dog-sledge in traditional style and return retracing a route across the ice-cap originally undertaken by the American explorer Robert Peary.

In the circumstances, events conspired to thwart our attempt and, ironically, because of global warming the ice broke up early and our plans changed.

Climate concerns

I spent many hours talking to the Inuit hunters and the people of Qaanaaq and Siorapuluk who told me of the problems they were facing in terms of changing weather patterns.

The ice is melting sooner and freezing later, it's thinner which makes hunting difficult; the winds are more unpredictable.

The polar bears and other animals are changing their hunting and migratory patterns; the type of snow falling is changing, which again is making hunting on the ice more difficult and dangerous.

I left the Arctic having formulated the conclusion that their concern over their land and future is great, although an element of sad resignation exists.

The Inuit voice is almost inaudible on the world stage and one cannot help but wonder if anyone even knows they exist.

Glenn Morris talks to a dog driver

Amid the media hype of the race for the US presidency in 2004, I noticed a tiny newspaper report that said the world's foremost scientists predicted the north polar ice would all but disappear in the next 50-70 years.

Dogs pulling sledge (picture courtesy of Glenn Morris)
Dog power is often preferred to horse power in the Arctic
I noticed the evidence of that during my latest trip and the more observant travellers to the Arctic have been highlighting this, too.

The Arctic is the world's early warning system and the red light is flashing - just how arrogant and complacent can we afford to be?

It is the duty of the those explorers, holidaymakers or adventurers who have travelled to the Arctic to look outside their own little worlds and give something back to the place that has given them so much.

We need to act, and act fast.

Glenn Morris is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and has travelled extensively in the Arctic. His most recent expedition, Greenland by the Polar Sea, looked at the impact of climate change on the Inuit people.

The Green Room is a new series of environmental opinion articles running weekly on the BBC News website

Labouring for a greener planet
12 Jan 06 |  Science/Nature
Earth is too crowded for Utopia
06 Jan 06 |  Science/Nature

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