“Destination” Big Days, Global Warming and the Race Against Time

The Elfstedentocht needs no explanation — at least if you’re from the Netherlands. It’s part of the Dutch DNA.

For the rest of us: the Elfstedentocht is an open-air speed skating race, by some measures the world’s largest ice-sport event. It’s definitely one of the great physical accomplishments that regular people – albeit fit, gritty people — can knock off in a single day.

The race, which has been going on since 1760, follows a 200-km route across the Netherlands’ northern Freisland province, along a chain of frozen lakes and canals, through eleven cities. Part of its charm is that it’s utterly non-commercial. There isn’t even a fixed date: when the ice grows thick enough, it’s on. Competitors gather in the frosty pre-dawn, newspapers stuffed inside their pants and jackets as insulation, and cars on the riverbanks brighten the starting area with their headlights. The last skaters will finish in the dark, some 11 hours later.

At least that’s how the Elfstedentocht has typically played out. But the bottom line is, the race can’t go if the ice isn’t thick enough. And the ice hasn’t been thick enough in the Freisland in 22 years. So the Dutch have had to figure a Plan B: run the event elsewhere.

That’s why, a few weeks ago, thousands of pilgrims converged on the high alpine town of Weissensee, Austria (pop 753) and laced up their skates for what’s been dubbed the “Alternative Elfstedentocht.” On the town’s pencil-shaped lake the competitors skated laps, through eleven phantom cities, until they’d covered the 200 km distance, whereupon they raised a glass to the “ice master,” a gentleman named Norbert Jank.

“Ice master” sounds like the description of a doomed job – in Austria, or anywhere. Global warming has changed everything. In a strange way, it has goosed tourism. Around the world folks are scrambling to knock off Bucket List experiences that seem suddenly, acutely perishable.

Want to ring in Carnival at Copacabana beach? Don’t wait too long. The whole shoreline could be underwater by 2100.

Feed the pigeons in San Marco Square? Venice is sinking; you have 50 years to see it, at the outside.

A float in the Dead Sea? Better get on that. It could be dry by 2050.

A tasting tour in the vineyards of Tuscany or Bordeaux or Napa? In 50 years there’ll probably be no winemaking in these regions; it’ll be too dry.

Oh, and if you’re thinking of visiting Montana’s Glacier National Park, you should probably do so before they have to change its name. By the end of the century the glaciers will likely be gone.

Ditto Alberta’s Athabasca glacier. When friends and I ran the famed Jasper-to-Banff relay 30 or so years ago, the magnificent ice sheet — one of the largest non-polar ice fields in the world — extended its huge folded tongue like an invitation to the tundra buggies. Since then the ice has shrunk by one third.

The irony will be lost on no one: tourists are actually hastening the demise of the very attractions they yearn to see by jetting off to see them. Tourism now accounts for roughly eight percent of greenhouse gases. That’s four times as high as previous estimates. “Growth in tourism-related expenditure is a stronger accelerator of emissions than growth in manufacturing, construction or service provision,” a leading climate scientist recently declared.

So what’s the moral? Stay home? No, crossing borders is actually part of the solution, in the broadest sense. But maybe think of it this way: if you’re planning a Big Day, be strategic. Don’t do one-off destination trips. When you’re traveling somewhere, stay a little longer and make sure you see everything you want to see that’s reasonably close by.

You may not get another chance.

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