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Explorer with a cause

For decades, Arctic adventurer Lonnie Dupre has been travelling to some of the world’s most extreme environments to raise awareness about the consequences of global warming.

This article reports on the impact of Rolex’s Perpetual Planet initiative, which supports outstanding individuals and organizations that are implementing novel solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. The initiative includes the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, a program that for over four decades has recognized changemakers from around the world, including Arctic adventurer Lonnie Dupre, who is featured in this story.
Published in November 2020Time to read: 4min 9s

There’s a reason no one had ever successfully trekked to the North Pole in summer. In the winter, the region is covered across with snow and ice; travelers can trust they’ll primarily be traversing solid ground. In the summer, by contract, the Arctic is a more variable environment. Vast ice sheets are broken up by arteries of water, adding more topographical dimensions—and dangers—for adventurers. But for Lonnie Dupre, setting off amid the summer’s melt was precisely the point.

A veteran polar explorer, Dupre had dedicated his adult life to crisscrossing the world’s most frigid, faraway places. He’d trekked 3,000-miles via dog team across the Canadian Arctic and successfully circled the entirety of Greenland using just kayaks and dogsleds. This trip, however, was different. Dupre and a partner set out not only to become the first people to navigate the North Pole in summer, but also to help address the dramatic effects of global warming in the region. “My main goal was to get the word out about global climate change, more than making a crossing of the Arctic Ocean,” he said.

On May 1, 2006, Dupre and his partner—each carting some 250 pounds of gear—set off from Canada on the 600-mile journey. The trip was made possibility with the support of Rolex, which had honored Dupre with a Rolex Award for Enterprise. Throughout, the duo documented the deterioration of the ice coverage. “The expedition was a tool to communicate the dramatic changes that are happening to a worldwide audience, who hopefully will be influenced into action.”

In early July, the adventurers finally made it to the top of the world. It was the end of an unspeakably grueling few months for Dupre, from training to the ultimate trek. But in a more important sense, it was the beginning of something—an enduring commitment to find solutions to mitigate the effects of a warming planet.

When the ice melts

Dupre’s environmental awakening happened over time. Growing up in northern Minnesota, he had an abiding passion for winter activities like snowshoeing and skating. He recalls early memories of ice-fishing with his grandfather on frozen lakes in the dead of winter. When he first started learning about global warming in school, he was distressed simply because he feared his favorite pastimes might soon be lost for good. “That was more on the selfish scale, but it really bothered me,” he noted.

Those concerns eventually fell by the wayside, however, when he became an Arctic explorer as an adult. By the mid-1990s, his voyages across vast fields of ice—and the changes he witnessed over time—confronted him with far more dire truths.

“I started realizing the impact it would have on the indigenous Inuit people who rely on traveling by dog teams from village to village, from hunting ground to hunting ground, if the snow goes away,” he said. “And then I thought of the animals up there that also rely on snow and ice—the seals that get up on the ice to sun and the polar bears that use the ice for traveling and hunting. And that was when I started really thinking about climate change in a big way.”

One of the key changes that Dupre’s expeditions have chronicled is the progressive loss of sea ice, which can have a critical impact on global climate stability. Because ice covers much of the Arctic Ocean, it serves an important cooling function for the planet. For half of each year, the polar region’s vast sheets of solidified water reflect a barrage of indirect sunlight back out to space, essentially acting—in conjunction with Antarctica—as a heat shield for the globe. Thus, the more polar sea ice melts, the warmer the Earth gets. In addition, any melting ice on stretches of land bordering the Arctic Ocean results in an incremental but important global sea-level rise. Over time, that can make low-lying cities like Manhattan and Miami at higher risk of flooding. Finally, the other major danger is the release of potent greenhouse gasses. The methane trapped under the frozen tundra near the North Pole, for instance, is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Should that tundra fully melt, the impact could be catastrophic.

“I think climate change surpasses all other issues, and we’ve really got to nip it in the bud and take care of it as soon as we can,” Dupre said. “We used to talk about the Arctic Ocean being a ground zero of climate change. Now I think the entire world is ground zero of climate change.”

I started realizing the impact it would have on the indigenous Inuit people who rely on traveling by dog teams from village to village, from hunting ground to hunting ground, if the snow goes away.Lonnie Dupre

Advocacy through adventure

Exploration and conservation have long been intertwined. But the role of adventurers in the environmental movement has become even more significant recently, notes Lizzie Carr whose work, like Dupre’s, blends extreme travel with environmentalism. That begins with research. “The line between adventure and conservation is becoming increasingly blurred, as we find ways to build intelligence-gathering activities to aid a deeper understanding of environmental issues affecting the planet today,” Carr said. “Adventures should double as scientific field expeditions as well as personal challenges.”

Notably, Dupre’s expeditions have offered an up-close look at some of Earth’s most worrisome changing conditions, providing information to climate change scientists that augments other measurement tools. The 2006 trip to the North Pole, for example, helped researchers document sea-ice thickness in a place where summer fog can make it difficult for satellites to successfully scan the landscape.

Yet Carr notes that contributions to science are only part of the mission. “We both use our love of adventure to advance understanding among everyday people about environmental challenges,” she said. “We can use it to engage the public.” This is central to Dupre’s work. Chronicled in articles, books and documentary photography and film, Dupre’s adventures have introduced people all over the world to the challenges that Arctic communities and wildlife face as the sea levels rise and the ice around them continues to melt.

Soon, Dupre will embark on another awareness-raising expedition. The trip will mark the 20th anniversary of his earlier journey to Greenland. “We're going back to visit the Inuit people—namely, the polar Inuit, the northernmost people in the world—and to find out how their lives have changed either for the good or not so good over the past 20 years,” he said. The project is set to be chronicled by a German film crew; Dupre hopes it will inspire a new generation of climate activists to kick into gear. And inspiration, he believes, forms a necessary foundation for sustaining environmental advocacy over the long haul.

“Find your passion,” he said. “Whatever your passion may be, whether it might be kayaking or going into politics, find that passion and then tailor it in a way that helps the environment.”

Supporting the efforts of adventurers

Since 1976, Rolex has supported the ingenuity of environmental leaders through their Rolex Awards for Enterprise. This effort got a boost in 2019 with the launch of Perpetual Planet, an initiative that encompasses the company’s wide-ranging efforts to support research and advocacy on environmental issues. For Rolex Laureates like Lonnie Dupre, the award can amplify vital but often under-recognized efforts to protect the planet.

Q: What was it like to win the Rolex Award for Enterprise?

“I remember that day. I got a call at four in the morning, Minnesota time, and I’m wondering, ‘Who's calling me at four o'clock in the morning?’ And to hear that we were the recipient of the Rolex Award was just a dream come true, for sure. Then I knew we could really implement our message and had the resources to do so in a big way.”

Q: What did it do for your expeditions that might not have been possible if you hadn't received the award?

“Well, it definitely gave our expeditions a level of credibility and opened many doors for us, not just with other environmental organizations, but with getting further funding to push our message. It allowed us to enact an educational program on Greenland, for instance, that talks a little bit about their culture, a little bit about the climate change, a little bit about the animals in Greenland and things like that. We even created a book for children after the Greenland project. And all of that is a result of getting funding and support from Rolex.”

These stories highlight Rolex's commitment to support research on environmental issues and join forces with individuals and organizations aiming to find solutions to protect the environment. This content was produced independently from The Washington Post Newsroom.

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