The Future of Exploration: An Interview With Explorers Club President Lorie Karnath

In just a few days, an expected 1,000 explorers from around the world will arrive in New York City to attend Saturday's Explorers Club Annual Dinner, the Academy Awards of exploration. Now in her third term as president of the club, Lorie Karnath (pictured) took a break from preparations to discuss exploration with a purpose, the importance of challenging conventional thought, and how technology is changing the game … oh, and the end of the world.—Mary Anne Potts

Adventure: First, Japan. The news just continues to worsen. What role do explorers play in these kinds of world events?
Lorie Karnath: Field research and data collection being done by explorers and scientists may aid in better understanding why and where earthquakes occur, and why they are often followed by tsunamis. The work being done in the field today will hopefully help to better prepare and prevent such disasters as the ones we have just witnessed in Japan.

This year’s dinner theme is the Maya prophecy, which some interpret as predicting the end of the world in 2012. Though the world seems especially chaotic right now, why did you pick this theme?
It’s actually not so much about the Maya prophecy, but about prophecies in general, and how explorers throughout the centuries have not only had to deal with the challenges of exploration, but, on top of that, they have had to deal with going against accepted bodies of thought.

We all know about 2012, but what are some of the other prophecies?
Over and over explorers have had to challenge very erudite groups. For example, think about how long it took scientists to decide that the Earth was not the center of the universe. There were times when there was prophecy that the world was flat and that people were going to fall off the edge of it. And yet explorers still jumped in ships and discovered it was round. Explorers were told if they climbed the highest mountain they would be annihilated by radioactive rays … and on and on.

But each time, explorers were not only willing to go through the hardship that goes along with exploration, they were able to think outside the box and go against the status quo. So part of our role as explorers is not just discovery, but it’s also separating science from fiction.

What prophesies are still intact today?
Today there are all kinds of prophecies about species, climate change, what space might bring, and what might happen in the oceans. That’s a key role for us as explorers—to figure out what might happen and what might not.

What do you think of the Maya 2012 prophecy and how it is interpreted—or misinterpreted?
The Maya themselves didn’t suggest that 2012 would be the end of the world, but this shows again how things do crop up. Even though the Maya didn’t necessarily mean to portray that, there are many who believe, to a certain extent, that the world may end next year. I thought it would make a catchy title, “Exploring 2012, the Maya Prophecy (Because Next Year May Be Too Late)." If that’s really something you believe, I could never have this discussion next year because that would be too late.

People love to declare that exploration is dead. What do you say to that?
I personally think now is one of the more important times ever for explorers. We are exploring today to help preserve the planet. In the Golden Age of Exploration, it was more about filling the gaps on the map. The stakes are so much higher now. The tools that we have are so much more valuable in terms of being able to discern what is really happening to flora and fauna, the Earth itself, the oceans, the glaciers. You can return to the same place, over and over again, and learn new things.

How would you define today’s exploration?
It’s much more adventure with a purpose. I have five words that I think our activity at the Explorers Club revolves around: explore, discover, share, preserve, and sustain. So basically go out and discover, share our knowledge, give back to the community and government, work with businesses and bench scientists, and tell what we have seen out there. Not everyone can get out to see the things we see. Explorers today figure out ways to preserve and sustain the things that are critical in our lives. Exploration must be focused on learning and bringing back—and adding to our overall body of knowledge.

Is there an explorer right now who is doing a great job with this approach?
There are many. I look at this not as individuals, but as a network of explorers sharing knowledge. That is one of the most important roles of the Explorers Club. We offer a hub for this network. Someone might see coral reef degradation in one part of the world, and someone might be experiencing something else in a completely different part of the world that may, in fact, relate to this destruction of a coral reef. Unless we start combining this information, we won’t have the answers. We need to put this information together on a global scale.

How does technology move exploration forward?
Technology is a big part to it, from many sides. That’s actually how we are getting a much better understanding of processes, such as what’s happening to our planet and the species on it. Technology also allows for the sharing of information much more easily and faster. It allows you to share information wherever you are. You can be in the field communicating with a bench scientist who might say, OK, you found that, now find this, take a measurement, and wait until this happens. We are getting a much more accurate means of study. And we have much more access to people who need to be involved. Often times, you might go somewhere expecting one thing but find something totally different, so you need different experts, and you need access to them. This is what technology gives us.

What is a good example of technology-aided exploration?
Our best example is space. Look how much we are learning with what is going on with Mars and other places. In some ways, we know more about space right now than we do about our oceans. Technology is starting to allow us to access the ocean as well. It may not be as far away as space, but it’s just as exotic, or maybe more so.

That's surprising. Why is it that we know more about space than the oceans?
I think that man has always looked spaceward. And that brings us back to our theme about the Maya. They studied the stars; their calendar revolved around them—all of ours do. And that shows man’s natural inclination to want to go there and learn more about it. With the ocean, we can’t see what we see in space, at first. It’s only through technology that we have been able to see things in the ocean.

It was just International Women’s Day. Do you think the field of exploration, historically considered a boys’ club of sorts, has more women than it used to?
I don’t look at being a woman or man as an issue in exploration today. I think that’s the really good news. And even though the Explorers Club only started accepting women members in 1981, it isn’t as if women sat around waiting. They were out there in every domain of exploration. Even early on, women explorers were much more active in the field than we might know, though a lot of them did not get credit for what they did. But early women explorers wrote a lot, so we are now able to give them much more credit because they kept such great records.

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Is there a woman explorer whom you admire?
I really admire the early women explorers, especially from the Victorian era. These women had so many social and other obstacles to overcome. Exploration is not an easy business to start with, and then to try to climb a mountain in petticoats. Annie Smith Peck, she was a mountaineer. And she was the first to design trousers for women. I admire her; she was very gutsy. There’s actually a picture of her in the Explorers Club Women’s Room.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reaching the South Pole. Why is this expedition important today?
One thing the anniversary has done is put a lot of focus on the Poles again. For sure, the Explorers Club began around the Poles. Back then, the Poles were the area that seemed the most remote and caught everyone’s attention—like how we view space today. The anniversary has refocused the discussion on what is going on with the Poles, which brings us to the whole question of what does climate change mean? And what can we as explorers add to help understand how the world changes and balances itself—and how it doesn’t?

So is it fair to say that you think climate change is the big issue for explorers to tackle?
There are so many questions about climate change. I also think there has always been climate change, one way or another. And there are most likely a variety of causes and effects. Part of our role as explorers is to help unravel these. We do this by going to places around the world where few people go.

Oftentimes, particularly in urban scenarios, we become divorced from nature. Part of the Explorers Club role is remind people that it doesn’t matter if you live in an apartment in a high-rise or in a jungle, nature is all around us, and that’s what sustains us. We can’t live in isolation.

What are you doing next? Any big expeditions?
I’m going to a remote area of Yunnan province in China right after the dinner. My husband and I have funded the building of a school. We have done a couple in China. So we are going to the opening of that school. And that’s part of the idea of sharing knowledge to help educate. Before, there was no classroom. This opens a whole new door. Then later in the year we are going to Mongolia to go on a dinosaur dig in the Gobi.

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