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What does the future hold for the polar regions? Q&A with explorer Felicity Aston

The explorer and former climate scientist reflects on the fragile, frozen environments at the ends of the earth and the challenges they continue to face.

By National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Published 7 Sept 2019, 07:00 BST, Updated 23 Jul 2021, 12:24 BST
Felicity Aston
Felicity Aston MBE.

The polar regions put the human race into perspective. For me, it’s their sheer size and age. You could say the same thing about jungles and deserts, but it’s the other-worldliness of the Arctic and Antarctica that affects people like nowhere else. There’s something spiritual about them — nobody comes back from Antarctica unchanged. 

It almost feels like setting foot on another planet. A lot of people who travel to the ice are doing so with the heroic explorers in mind, hoping for a taste of that sense of exploration. It’s a place to test yourself, to prove yourself. 

Wildlife plays a huge role in people’s experience of the poles. But polar bears, for example, are harder to see due to melting sea ice. In Svalbard, they’re staying on land, as they were born and raised on land and aren't used to a marine-based life. We’re seeing staggering generational changes in an incredibly short space of time.

Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard are real, accessible Arctic destinations. There’s also Siberia, which is difficult to get to because of political obstacles, but it’s truly exciting. Its remote, northeastern reaches feel like a final frontier and the place is just enormous: mighty rivers, lakes that freeze over, whole mountain ranges the locals don’t even know the name of — they're all just swallowed up in the vastness of the wilderness.

But the Arctic changing really fast. At the extreme end of adventure tourism, you could say that time is running out for skiing to the North Pole; in a single-figure number of years it won’t be possible due to the diminishing ice. Skiing from land to the North Pole was last done in 2014, and it’s widely believed it’ll never be possible again. 

As for Antarctica, there’s a debate that keeps raging on. Should we close it off to everyone (except scientists) or make it accessible to as many as possible? I think it’d be extremely difficult to make people care about a destination they could never visit. It’s a powerful thing when you see people travel there and become determined to go home and make a change. 

To verify that change is happening, you need to return again and again. Five to 10 years ago, you could see whole glaciers that today have receded right back, and islands that were ice-locked are now true islands once again. You really don’t have to travel too far to see for the changes. But there’s never one clear, black-and-white answer. But if you travel to the polar regions, then you’ll see for yourself how quick and dramatic these fundamental changes are.   

Felicity's top tips

Try before you buy
Before you splash out on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Antarctica, an adventure in the more affordable Arctic will give you an idea of what you’re letting yourself in for when you book an adventure  in the more extreme Antarctic. 

Do your homework
AECO is an association of cruise organisations plying European Arctic waters, while IAATO has a list of member organisations operating responsibly in Antarctica. Be sure to check in advance and book with companies that are signed up to these bodies.  

Snap away
Bring a good compact camera with you. While brilliant, the big DSLRs mean you’ll be fumbling around in your bag with your gloves on and risk missing that fleeting wild encounter. Most people travel to polar regions for wildlife and there’s nothing more annoying than missing it!

Published in the Adventure guide, distributed with the October 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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