Climate Change Is Transforming Wilderness Exploration
And our world will never be the same
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
As the earth warms, our mountains, rivers, glaciers, and oceans will change, some in unpredictable ways. So we pored over the research and called a few experts. Here’s a little of what we have to look forward to.
Backcountry Skiing Becomes Bony
In the past 50 years, average snowpack in the western U.S. has declined as much as 30 percent. One projection for the next century has the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada dropping another 60 percent from today’s levels. Resorts are investing in snowmaking technology to help offset the decline, but backcountry skiers will have fewer and fewer options.
Surfers Have More Giants to Ride
Climate change is contributing to larger, more intense storms, particularly in the tropics. The same systems likely to devastate coastal communities will also create enormous swells for big-wave surfers—including, perhaps, the fabled 100-foot wave.
Rivers Change Course
The Fourth National Climate Assessment, a report produced by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, reported that heavy rains have increased in intensity and frequency since 1901, though not evenly across the world or the U.S. In the arid Southwest, precipitation is expected to decrease, spelling the end of paddling on some sections of the Salt River and the Rio Grande. In the Northeast, rains may increase, opening up new whitewater in places like the Adirondack watershed.
The Route to the South Pole Shrinks
Antarctica’s Ross Island is home to Ernest Shackleton’s hut, the historic launch point for expeditions to the South Pole. Soon, though, explorers starting out here might need a boat. A section of the California-size Ross Ice Shelf, a frozen mass over the sea that adventurers ski or sled across to reach the Antarctic continent, is losing nearly six feet of ice each year—a number that’s only expected to increase.
The Northwest Passage Gets Busy
It took centuries to find a navigable route through the sea ice of the Northwest Passage, and hundreds of adventurers lost their lives along the way. But as the Arctic has warmed, the ice has receded. Now cargo vessels and even cruise ships make regular trips through the widening waterway. Next year, adventurer Karl Kruger will become the first to attempt to paddleboard the passage.
Deserts Are Deserted
Scientists project that entire swaths of the Middle East and northern Africa will soon be nearly uninhabitable for humans, due to drought and heat waves that will spike temperatures to upward of 122 degrees. Areas like Oman’s Wadi Bani Awf region, long known for its canyoneering adventures, could become too hot to visit, while Morocco’s multi-day 156-mile Marathon des Sables, already touted as the world’s toughest footrace, might become impossible.
More Avalanches on Mount Everest
In 2018, scientists at the University of Geneva found that over the past 150 years, the number of slides in the Himalayas has increased dramatically. As researchers wrote in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, recent warming is “the most plausible explanation.” As snowfall remains consistent and temperatures rise, the destabilized snowpack may lead to more frequent releases. In the past five years, 32 people have died in avalanches on Everest.
RIP Great Barrier Reef
In 2016, high water temperatures caused a massive bleaching event in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef that killed nearly 30 percent of its 134,634 square miles of coral. A new report from the Climate Council, an Australian think tank, projected that by 2034, similar bleaching events could occur every two years, “effectively destroying the Great Barrier Reef.”