Chilling: Arctic explorer Yamazaki sees climate change impact up close

by Rintaro Sawano


Spending six months of every year in the Arctic, adventurer Tetsuhide Yamazaki sees the impact of global warming firsthand through the region’s thinning sea ice, the expanse of which has roughly halved in the last three decades.

The ice is “very thin this year,” Yamazaki, 45, said after confirming a thickness of 118 cm with a drill during his recent exploration of an area at the North Pole. Sea ice in the area is usually almost 2 meters thick, according to Yamazaki, who senses the ice grows thinner every year.

Born in October 1967 in Hyogo Prefecture and raised in a coastal town in Fukui Prefecture, Yamazaki decided to become an explorer when he was in high school in Kyoto after reading a book by well-known adventurer Naomi Uemura, who climbed Mount McKinley solo in 1970. The explorer was lost on the mountain in February 1984.

After graduating, Yamazaki worked in Tokyo to save funds for his first trip at age 19 — rafting the Amazon. But it ended in failure after his boat capsized. The following year, Yamazaki successfully rafted some 5,000 km down the river in over a span of 44 days.

This February, he camped on an ice floe in the Arctic at a latitude of 74 degrees north. The temperature was minus 41 degrees, and the inside of his tent was covered with frost that formed from moisture released from his body. The dogs drawing his sled were around the tent.

“A wind would cause frostbite,” Yamazaki said, putting ice into a pot on a camp stove to boil dried rice and two pieces of steak-size meat. In such severe cold, eating is necessary to maintain body temperature.

Yamazaki learned how to maneuver a dog sled from Ikuo Oshima, a 65-year-old Japanese who has lived in an Inuit hamlet in Greenland for years. While even the Inuit use snowmobiles nowadays, “dog sleds don’t break down and make it possible to go much farther,” Yamazaki said.

In addition to measuring the thickness of ice, Yamazaki checked 15 other items, such as temperature and wind velocity, and recorded the data in his notebook. “I send data to researchers in Japan as I hope they will be used for studies on global warming and climate change,” he said.

Yamazaki became interested in meteorological observation when he stayed in the Antarctic between 2004 and 2006 as a member of an exploration team dispatched by the government. After returning to Japan, he went to the Arctic and began observing meteorological conditions. He then started to receive requests from researchers for data on ice and snow.

The data collected by Yamazaki are “important because they enable us to understand the conditions of ice that satellite photos cannot show,” said Hiroyuki Enomoto, 55, head of the Arctic Environment Research Center at the National Institute of Polar Research in Tokyo.

When Yamazaki was driving his sled in January 2007, the sea ice suddenly cracked and although he managed to escape, the sled and all of the dogs were swallowed by the sea. Recalling that experience, he that he felt like he had lost all of his important “partners.”

“It’s unthinkable that sea ice cracks there in the dead of winter,” Yamazaki said. “Something wrong is happening to the Arctic.”

While the average global temperature rose 0.74 degrees over the past 100 years, the mercury climbed twice as much in the Arctic, according to the Fourth Assessment Report released by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007.

In addition, the extent of sea ice in the Arctic, which covered in excess of 7 million sq. meters in the 1980s, shrank to a record-low 3.49 million sq. meters last year, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency reported.

During the six months that Yamazaki spends in Japan every year, he delivers speeches to finance his stay in the Arctic. Recently, he has also been paid for his support of researchers.

And he is not alone. His wife, who joined him on a previous Antarctic observation team, currently works at a university in Osaka.

She gave birth to the couple’s first child, a boy, last year.

“There are things that no one but I can do,” said Yamazaki, whose face bears scars from frostbite, vowing to continue gathering vital information about the changing Arctic climate. “Now I know what I should do.”