This story appears in the December 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.
On this wintry day along the shores of Canada’s Hudson Bay, five of us are rumbling over the tundra in a purpose-built vehicle, searching for polar bears. Outside, a snowstorm has created near-whiteout conditions; it is, observes one of our number, as if we are driving inside a Ping-Pong ball.
Then the heat goes out in our Tundra Buggy, and despite repeated attempts at resuscitation, it refuses to sputter back to life. There is nothing but a thin layer of glass and metal protecting us from the elements.
The sun is setting. It is cold.
But we are perfectly safe; we’re within range of warm accommodations, even if we’ll be feeling the effects of the elements by the time we get there. We bury ourselves deep within our insulated parkas. We find a bottle of wine, and one of whiskey. We crack slightly hysterical jokes about our situation.
It is cold, but we are happy, and I am in my element.
From crunching through Arctic sea ice on icebreakers to battling through Antarctic storms, from living in a cabin in Alaska to standing at the North Pole, most of my life highlights involve bracing against occasionally mind-numbing chill. These are the places and environments in which I feel most at home, the places where I choose to live and the ones I long to visit, the environments to which I always return.
Which is not to say I embrace the cold without reservation. There are nights when I kick through the snow like a happy child, overjoyed at how beautiful winter can be. There are also days when I frantically train space heaters on frozen pipes and wish I lived in, say, Hawaii. I’ll not deny that there are times when my favorite part of winter is the fact that spring will soon replace it. I’m not alone in this, even among chionophiles (the scientific name for us cold fans). “I love the quietness” of life in cold climates, says my friend Alysa McCall—a scientist with Polar Bears International, a resident of Yellowknife, Canada (where winter temperatures can reach the minus 40s), and a fellow passenger in the aforementioned freezing Tundra Buggy. But, she confesses, “I have definitely been outside waiting for the bus in the middle of winter and wishing that the air didn’t hurt.”
Another friend takes it further. Eric Larsen has skied to the North and South Poles, ascended Everest, and traversed the Greenland ice sheet. The tagline in his emails is “It’s Cool to Be Cold!” And yet, he notes with a laugh, “I don’t like to be cold, quite honestly. I hate being cold. I like being warm in cold places.”
I hadn’t thought of that until Eric mentioned it, but he’s right. It may sound counterintuitive, but one of the great joys of being in the cold is keeping it at bay. Meeting that challenge engenders a special camaraderie: the reliance and partnership that teams feel when setting out on a polar quest; the knowing nod between strangers, bundled up to the eyeballs, passing each other in the frozen streets. Pushing through winter, to emerge on the other side, elicits a feeling of communal triumph.
In a world that seems to move ever faster, where smartphones and social media demand immediate responses, the cold enforces a slowing down. It allows us—even compels us—to be aware of self and surroundings in a way that few other environments can.
Life at low temperatures requires more thoughtfulness because of the “lack of safety that being in cold environments presents,” Eric says. He perceives “a level of severity in these cold environments that I find really attractive because it’s a bigger challenge.”
It’s also a challenge that fewer and fewer of us may ultimately have the opportunity to accept. While there’s no danger of cold places vanishing from the planet in the foreseeable future, their extent, and the length and depth of their coldest periods, may be shrinking. The world is warming. And the cold is warming most of all.
Since the turn of the 20th century, average winter temperature in the United States has increased by almost twice the rate of the summer temperature. Over the past five to six decades, the Arctic has warmed by approximately four degrees, substantially more than the rest of the globe; annual minimum Arctic sea ice extent is declining by about 13 percent per decade. As I write this in the northern summer of 2019, Greenland’s ice sheet is experiencing rates of melt that models had not predicted until 2070.
Here I should correct what I wrote earlier about standing at the North Pole: To be precise, I stood in close proximity to it. When I was there in August 2017, the area around the pole itself was mostly open water.
I think of Eric saying how different his last North Pole trip was from others—how he kept falling through ice thinner and more broken than he’d ever experienced. I think of another friend, who spent decades studying seals on Arctic sea ice, lamenting that his son wouldn’t have a chance to do the same.
I think anew of my own experiences in the cold, and how impoverished my life would have been without them. I think of Antarctica’s Ross Sea in January 1993, of climbing up a cliffside with a fellow crew member of the M.V. Greenpeace and sitting at the top, looking down at the bay below. Ours had been a long and arduous expedition, scouring the ocean for whaling ships that did not want to be found. For several days previously, Antarctica had thrown its worst at us, bombarding our ship with screaming gales and freezing waves until the vessel was coated with a thick layer of ice. When the storm abated and after the ice had been chipped away, my crewmate and I took the opportunity to set foot ashore.
The fierce wind bit angrily at the small patches of exposed skin on our faces, and we retreated into the scarves and hoods that cloaked our heads. And then, suddenly, the wind died down. For a moment there was silence. We looked at each other and grinned.
We didn’t say a word. We didn’t need to. We just sat there, on a cliff top in Antarctica. Smiling. In the silence.
In the cold.
Kieran Mulvaney is a wildlife and environment writer whose books include At the Ends of the Earth: A History of the Polar Regions. When not voyaging in the Arctic and Antarctic—his ninth trip was this year—Mulvaney lives in the relative warmth of Vermont.