The Accidental Explorer and His Quest to Fight Climate Change

The winds were increasing and the waves swelled as the fifty-seven-foot, two-masted sailboat christened the “Cloud Nine” cruised west across the Baffin Sea. The coast of Greenland had long been out of sight. Sailors must pay attention to shifting winds and even subtle changes to the sky – anticipating trouble at sea can be the key to survival. But, even a landlubber would have known the ominous gray-turning-to-black clouds gathering on the horizon were a bad sign. Shelf clouds often are. By the looks of these, this storm promised to pack a punch. Sails strained by wind pushed the boat forward in a now-churning sea as the last rays of sunlight were choked in the heavens. The final few strands of a golden day bounced off tumbling waves before perishing in the dark water. David Thoreson zipped his rain gear tightly and made sure the safety harness was secure before leaning off the side of the Cloud Nine. Thoreson knew he had one chance to get this right. Lashed by four-foot waves and freezing mist, he did what he had been trained to do. Thoreson grabbed his camera and captured a potentially killing storm on the edge of the Arctic Circle along a route know as the Northwest Passage, one of the most remote places on earth.

It was 1994. The Northwest Passage was the world’s most treacherous sea route, running for nine-hundred miles through Canada’s Arctic Archipelago. Sailing the Northwest Passage required navigating thousands of drifting giant icebergs between Greenland and Baffin Island and finding an opening through the polar ice cap as it crowds Alaska’s shallow coast in the Bering Strait, between Alaska and Siberia.

An American crew had never successfully navigated the ice-clogged waters of the Arctic, let alone tried doing so in a fiberglass sailboat like the Cloud Nine instead of a steel-hulled ice cutter. The boat Thoreson and team sailed, a Bowman 57 ketch sailboat, is a sturdy vessel, but the Northwest Passage was and still is a mysterious and mostly uncharted route. The risks of sailing through waters clogged with ice were immense. The Northwest Passage was a part of the world once thought to be permanently frozen.

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The amount of ice in the most isolated stretch of the passage that summer made movement impossible for the Cloud Nine. The crew was forced to stop. Anchoring the Cloud Nine was risky. Hundreds of tons of moving ice could have smashed the boat’s hull. The crew decided to lash the vessel to a large piece of ice, float with it, and wait in hopes a clearing would appear. After a few days, the space where the Cloud Nine floated began to narrow. The ice island to which it was moored and another larger one were on a collision course with the Cloud Nine resting in the middle. Just as the crew began to prepare to abandon ship, with no prospect of immediate rescue, a small gap wide enough for escape appeared to the east. Minutes after the Cloud Nine made it to open water, the giant pieces of ice collided with thunderous force. The 1994 voyage ended in a retreat.

Thirteen years later, in 2007, the crew of the Cloud Nine, sailing from east to west in frigid but not ice-clogged waters, became the first Americans to sail the Northwest Passage. Something dramatic had occurred in the intervening years: the world’s climate had started to change.

“Our crew could not believe what we saw as we reached the spot where the ice had almost crushed us thirteen years earlier,” Thoreson recalled during an interview conducted on a mild day in his home state of Iowa. “The sea was completely open. There was not a single piece of ice in sight. That summer we witnessed firsthand the climate change scientists had been talking about in the abstract. Our world had changed before our eyes.”

Standing on the bow of the Cloud Nine in 2007 gazing at water devoid of ice, sailor, photographer, and explorer David Thoreson suddenly began to see himself differently. He had witnessed one of the most intense changes to the environment during man’s time on earth. The experience turned the adventurer into an advocate.

The time Thoreson spent as an ice expert and photographer with a thirteen-month effort launched in 2009 reinforced his desire to become an advocate for the environment. The Around the Americas voyage was a 28,000-mile circumnavigation of the continents of North and South American of the Ocean Watch, a sixty-four-foot sailing vessel. Funded in part by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Ocean Watch crew collected evidence of climate change. The team surveyed jellyfish in coastal waters, recorded marine mammal sounds, collected data on dust, smoke, and moisture in the atmosphere. They deployed high-tech buoys measuring air pressure and sea surface temperatures. It was important research. His participation in this voyage and the earlier one aboard the Cloud Nine made Thoreson the first and only American sailor ever to navigate the Northwest Passage from east-to-west and west-to-east.

Today, Thoreson, who is part scientist, explorer, artist, and teacher, is most proud of his latest adventure: advancing science and environmental issues, such as climate change, ocean acidification, plastics in the ocean, arctic ice loss, energy and resource development. He exudes a restless vitality that spreads across any room he occupies, sounding and moving like a person built to push limits. In his fifties, Thoreson is still basketball-player trim and maintains the urgent stride of a dancer. Confident and engaging, he is the type of person who might strike up a conversation with a stranger while waiting in line at the coffee shop and continue talking in the parking lot as if they were old friends.

Thoreson regularly welcomes visitors to his crisp, quaint art gallery, Blue Water Studios, in the peaceful Iowa recreation destination town of Lake Okoboji. His knack for capturing light radiates from photos hung on the neutral walls. In rapid-fire style, he tells Blue Water guests, as he does the audiences that gather to hear his lectures, how he grew up in Iowa, attended the University of Nebraska in Omaha, and put aside medical school to pursue a photography career. He tells of meeting a pig farmer from Minnesota who introduced him to sailing. After taking a breath and giving his guests the sly grin of a stand-up comedian, he will usually say something like, “Yeah, I bet the thought of a kid from Iowa and a pig farmer on the high seas has you wondering.” Thoreson tells stories with the eagerness he pursues exploration.

Thoreson’s love of watersports began during childhood summers spent on Lake Okoboji in the corner of Northwest Iowa. He liked the water, but it was Richard Swanson, the former-Navy-officer-turned-pig-farmer-turned-ocean-explorer who Thoreson tells his guests about, who introduced Thoreson to ocean sailing in the early 1990s. Shortly after they met, Swanson convinced Thoreson to join his 1992 crew that would attempt a trip deep into the Antarctic Circle. The voyage was ultimately successful, albeit treacherous. The Cloud Nine was tossed in high seas and faced winds varying in speeds from thirty-three to seventy-five knots, approximately thirty-eight to eighty-six miles per hour. The conditions stalled forward movement for more than three days as the crew tried to re-enter the Antarctic Archipelago, the group of islands in the South Atlantic Ocean, off the NW coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Despite, or perhaps because of the adversity, Thoreson was hooked. “I was looking for adventure, but I did not plan on this,” Thoreson said. “We live in a time of such great advancement, but there is still so much we have not seen and do not know. I wanted to go where few had never been, but I did not expect it would mean I would witness history on this scale.”

“I have spent two decades witnessing one of the greatest environmental events in world history. The Industrial Revolution resulted in once-unimaginable innovation and transformation,” Thoreson told an audience of Iowa community leaders recently, a first stop on his latest book tour. “But the Industrial Revolution has reached its limits. Our oceans and atmosphere are telling us we have hit the ceiling.”

Thoreson often concludes his speeches with a glance at an iPhone he removes from the pocket of a shirt stretched across his athletic frame. “It is amazing we carry all this in our hands. We rely on it, and we expect the device, our computer phone, will evolve and change to meet our needs. We should demand the same of the energy, transportation and manufacturing systems that are causing climate change.”

During a recent interview, Thoreson spoke of his belief that climate change can be slowed and possibly reversed through man’s innovation. Thoreson spends most of his time these days speaking, writing, and sharing his photography to show others how man is changing the planet. He wants to be the bridge between the scientific community and the public. Once driven by the excitement of adventure, Thoreson has become a motivational teacher. Once a young college graduate in search of excitement, he has grown into a determined man interested in doing all he can to help his world slow and, possibly, reverse climate change.

“I am the accidental explorer,” Thoreson explained during an interview near the shores of his beloved Lake Okoboji. “I did not set out to do this, exactly. One thing led to another, and before I knew it I had spent a couple of decades exploring the outer reaches of our planet,” he says. “We need to rediscover our sense of curiosity, and I want to be the inspiration to make people want to get out there and explore our world.”

Charlie Wittmack is another Iowan-turned-world-explorer. Wittmack has summited Mount Everest twice. Now the general counsel of the Explorers Club, an international society of explorers founded in 1904, Wittmack rubs shoulders with the era’s most celebrated adventurers and scientists. He thinks David Thoreson stands out even in that crowd.

“Explorers are ego-driven,” Wittmack explains. “We are most often motivated by a desire to be the first, to go the furthest or to be the fastest. But, it is how we use these stories to change the world is what matters in the end.” Wittmack thinks David Thoreson just might be one of the rare people who is getting it right by translating his exploration experience into action.

Thoreson’s first book, "One Island, One Ocean," a photo essay about his voyage around the Americas was published in 2011. His latest book, “Over the Horizon: Exploring the Edges of a Changing Planet” landed on bookshelves early this year.

When asked who inspires him, Thoreson does not hesitate. He talks about the work of scientists such as Jason Box, who is studying dark ice in Greenland; American sailor Matt Rutherford and his work with NASA; Katharine Hayhoe, an associate professor of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas Tech University; and Columbia University’s James Hansen and Pennsylvania State University’s Michael Mann and their studies of climate change.

Thoreson makes a point to conclude his lectures by remarking on the nine-hundred passenger cruise ship Crystal Serenity, which this summer became the first luxury cruise ship to traverse the Northwest Passage. The thought of a cruise ship effortlessly making such a voyage was beyond imagination when the Cloud Nine sailed those waters.

“There were more people on that ship than any of the Arctic villages they visited. These communities are not equipped; they do not have the facilities required to service this number of people. The potential for ecological disaster and loss of life is incalculable.”

Thoreson worries about the human impact cruise ships full of alcohol and the other excesses of Western civilization plying the seas of the Arctic might have but hopes those who made this journey, and those who are likely to follow, will use their experiences for good. “I hope some of these cruise ship passengers will, in some twisted way, advance stories that bring the change so many of us are working toward.” There was a slight catch in Thoreson’s usually upbeat tone as if he was willing others to act positively. After a moment he continued, “I have great faith in human ingenuity and believe our history shows we are ready. We have faced, as humans, great challenges, but this may be the first time we have faced an all-encompassing problem. Humans are threatening the life support systems on our planet. But, the answers are dangling right in front of us. We have reached the tipping point. It is time for us to invent energy two-point-oh.”

There may be a day when Thoreson heads back out to sea, but he appears content on land. Thoreson may have become an explorer by accident, but he is carefully planning how he can help guide the debate regarding how and why people should act now to slow climate change. There is little reason to expect Thoreson will fail. Failing is not something David Thoreson readily accepts.