Down to earth – with Caroline George in Iceland

Caroline George is a pro athlete in the POW Riders Alliance, mountain guide, yoga instructor and mom, and recently took part in the Down to Earth expedition, together with fellow POW athlete Lexi Dupont. Here she talks about her experience on the first leg of their voyage, in Iceland.

Texte : Caroline George / Photos : Gabe Rogel & HP Gubler

Iceland, 2007: “What ?! we need to carry our skis to reach snowline ? “10 years ago, snow no longer reached the valley floor in April, even though we were so close to the Arctic circle. And already, we blamed that on global warming and its impact on our winters.

Fast forward to April 2017: Ten years have passed and we are experiencing the same scenario. It’s warm, too warm. A very warm wind is blowing down the mountain side, much like the Foehn in the Alps, or the Shinook in America. We are quite literally watching snow melt away. We are greeted by rain on our summits. This year, the regular weather patterns have shifted: it snowed to the southwest rather than to the northeast – a rare event in Iceland. On sunny days, it is so warm that we longingly eye the shimmering sea down below, and dream of skiing straight into the ocean to cool off from the relentless heat.

I was amazed at the temperature in Iceland this year throughout my two weeks of skiing and guiding there. I started by exploring the Isafjordur region with the Down to Earth expedition to raise awareness about global warming in the Arctic Circle area. As Iceland’s northernmost point is only 5 kilometers south of the circle, the Westfjords of Iceland was an excellent base for this project created by American Waldorf teacher, Michaela Precourt.

The goal of this project is to travel and ski in countries close to the Arctic Circle and show children how global warming impacts nature, ecosystems, economy and culture in countries closest to the melting ice sheet of Greenland, as what happens there will impact greatly the rest of the planet: rise of sea levels, changes in weather patterns, droughts, shortage of drinkable water, etc, which will in turn have of important economic, political and environmental consequences. We also wanted to talk to locals and see how they were being impacted and how their local government is responding to climate change.

Our goal was to have an adventure with a minimal global footprint. Though traveling by plane does not match this vision, there is no other way to show what is happening there without actually traveling to these remote areas. We need to remain realistic in how we approach global warming and what we can do to change our habits without making it so constraining that you won’t want to pursue your resolutions.

For example, I love to travel because I get to experience other cultures, see how the environment is changing over time in different places, taste different food, learn and so much more. And I can only experience that by going there. But once at home, I change my habits by choosing to ride my bike or the train to commute whenever possible; I can choose to train closer to home to minimize my footprint; I can choose to buy more local, reduce of consumption of meat, use an energy efficient car (note to self, I need to change my car!).

To lower our footprint on this trip, we chose to limit the use of cars, preferring to walk whenever possible or carpool with as many people and as much gear as possible in one car when we needed to drive to ski. We decided to abide by the 100 mile diet guidelines and only eat local or Icelandic products, excluding all imported goods. We soon realized how difficult of a mission this was, between dealing with people’s food intolerances, needs, diets, preferences, etc, and what was available. We soon realized that options were pretty limited to fish, potatoes, carrots, lamb, cheese and bread since vegetables mostly grow only in the southern part of Iceland, so we expanded the circle to the whole island.

Eating habits are hard to change, but luckily, it was only for a week. After exploring the lines around Isafjordur, we embarked on a sailboat to ski from the boat. We tried to use only sails to navigate, but the engine proved indispensable in some places. To reach shore, we sometimes used Stand Up Paddle Boards when the sea was calm, but when the sea was too strong or when it was raining, or, god forbid, when we were too lazy (!!!) we used dinghies. The shores offered us several magical meals made of different kinds of algae and mussels that we harvested for the evening meal; a delight that we had the luxury to have thanks to the knowledge of the boat’s skippers who knew which algae was edible. I’m not sure I could forage in my backyard and create such a beautiful local meal if they came to visit my hometown! When, why and how did such a heritage of local knowledge about our surroundings get lost in our culture?

We had an immensely eye-opening and educational visit with the only fishmonger within a 400km radius of Isafjordur. To him, the drift of our society and its consequences – global warming – is mainly due to the fact that we lost our understanding of knowledge about nature, how to live with it, adapt to its pace, feed from it and be in harmony with it. We do not need much and nature offers us everything we need to live. Today, children are playing less and less outside, preferring technology, but when there is no electricity, how will they know how to survive? They will have everything they need around them, but will be unable to distinguish what is edible or not, unable to fish or hunt. They will have gained knowledge from books, without experiencing the content for themselves.

This fishmonger comes from a long line of fishmongers in this village. He learned his trade from his ancestors, but also all the secrets of nature around him: fish cycles, their migrations, their interaction with their ecosystem and the impact of climate change on their way of life. In his youth, he could jump from one roof to another as there was so much snow in town but this year, he only had to shovel twice! On the map, he pointed to the few kilometers of fjord that separated Isafjordur from the coastline on the other side and explained that he could skate from one side to the other.

Now it only freezes once a year and the ice never gets thick enough to venture into it. The temperature of the sea has increased by 1.5 degrees since last year in the Arctic circle! Fish feel that the water is warmer and species begin to migrate farther north to cooler waters and it is possible that in a few years, Icelandic fish will be found in Greenland’s Danish waters, thus belonging to the European Union. This will create major political disputes over fish ownership. But also, this will have an impact on the local economy and on the ecosystem as other fish will come to populate these warmer waters. Also, the melting of the ice cap may accelerate this process as the fresh melting ice-water sinks to the bottom of the sea and raises the warmer water to the surface. According to predictions, the north of the globe will warm up, accelerating the melting of the ice cap and thus the rise of the waters – up to 7metres! – while Europe is going to experience a period of cooling.

Our friend the fishmonger finished our conversation with these words: the best knowledge we can acquire is to know how to live with nature and to limit ourselves to consuming what we need. There is no need to go back in time as we are lucky to live in this era, but we have lost our connection to nature and finding a middle ground could enable us to mitigate the damage caused, and even find ways to end some of the negative impacts of our current ways of living. To this end, we must bring awareness to the way we consume and work on modifying the habits we can change.

Small list of ideas:

  • read labels and avoid buying food containing palm oil or genetically modified products
  • eat local to avoid the transportation of products in the world, which has a huge carbon footprint
  • limit our consumption of meat to certified organic meat. Methane emissions from cows’ indigestions have a significant impact on the ozone layer
  • buy cars that consume as little fuel as possible
  • turn off the lights in the house
  • an electric bike is the compromise between taking a bike or taking the car
  • cleaning products pollute soil and water – choose green products.