Russia is breaking records at the North Pole. America is being left in the cold.

Fasten your seat belts and, uh, put on your snow jackets. A new world speed record has been set.

That's because on Christmas Day 2015, the Russian icebreaker Vaygach completed a journey along the north coast of Siberia — a trip known as the Northern Sea Route — in just seven and a half days.

Which, for a boat that looks like this:


Image from Dudinka_Apu/Wikimedia Commons.

is like:

Vaygach left the Bering Strait, near Alaska, on Dec. 17, and covered over 2,200 nautical miles to get to the White Sea, just off the north coast of Finland, by Dec. 25. It ended up coming in about a half-day faster than previous trips.

One reason they went so fast might be that there wasn't as much ice.


"Climate change means Arctic sea ice is vanishing faster than ever," said President Obama in a speech at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy Commencement in May 2015. It's true. In fact, 2015's maximum ice was the lowest on record. (This winter's numbers aren't in yet because, well, winter's not over yet.)

"By the middle of this century," Obama continued, "Arctic summers could be essentially ice free. We’re witnessing the birth of a new ocean — new sea lanes, more shipping, more exploration, more competition for the vast natural resources below."

Less ice will likely mean more traffic throughout the Arctic.

Even if the ice is still pretty thick in places, more and more ships are making the trip along both the northern coast of Siberia and through the Northwest Passage that stretches from Alaska to Greenland.

Image from NASA/Wikimedia Commons.

"From the 1980s on, voyages through the Passage have become an annual event," said a report by Canada's Northwest Territories' Department of Environment and Natural Resources, "The number of transits increased from 4 per year in the 1980s to 20-30 per year in 2009-2013."

But if the U.S. wants to be able to patrol this new ocean, we're woefully unprepared.

Not every ship can plow through the arctic ice — you have to have specially designed icebreakers like the Russian Vaygach or the Coast Guard's USCGC Healy.

America currently has two fully functional icebreakers. Just two. Russia, on the other hand, has 40. And they're building more. China also is becoming increasingly involved in Arctic expeditions.

I bet they have no trouble at parties. GIF via Patrick Kelley/YouTube.

Alaskan Senator Dan Sullivan said, "The highways of the Arctic are paved by icebreakers. Right now, the Russians have superhighways, and we have dirt roads with potholes.”

Obama has since called on the U.S. to build more icebreaker ships, but it's not set just yet.

U.S. military operations on Arctic land could face trouble for melting ice too.

A report from the Government Accountability Office found that coastal military sites are in danger from climate change. In Alaska, for example, coastal erosion from thawing permafrost and rising sea levels is putting Air Force radar and communications stations in danger. Roads, sea walls, and runways have also been damaged.

When permafrost thaws, anything built on top of it is just kind of out of luck. Image from USGS/Flickr.

Climate change will challenge the military's entire mission.

Increasingly unstable weather could mean more humanitarian missions both abroad and at home — think about all the work the Coast Guard had to do during Hurricane Sandy.

Plus, climate change could fuel more competition for scarce resources like food and water, which could lead to more global instability, more extremism, and more refugees. Some reports have pointed out that severe drought and crop failures helped fuel early unrest in Syria, for example.

This isn't partisan rhetoric — this is coming directly from the Department of Defense.

“The Department of Defense's primary responsibility is to protect national security interests around the world," said officials in a July 2015 release. "The department must consider the effects of climate change — such as sea level rise, shifting climate zones and more frequent and intense severe weather events — and how these effects could impact national security.”

So it's a little frustrating to hear Congress prevaricate about it. I mean, some senators are still treating climate change like some sort of conspiracy theory. If the military has already accepted it as fact, why can't the rest of the government?

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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In a North Carolina neighborhood that looks like a present-day Pleasantville, a man carries a cup of coffee and a plate of brownies out to his car. "Good mornin!" he calls cheerfully to a neighbor jogging by. As he sets his coffee cup on the hood of the car, he says, "I need to wash my car." Well, shucks. His wife enters the camera frame on the other side of the car.

So far, it's just about the most classic modern Americana scene imaginable. And then...

A horrifying "rrrrawwwww!" Blood-curdling screaming. Running. Panic. The man abandons the brownies, races to his wife's side of the car, then emerges with an animal in his hands. He holds the creature up like Rafiki holding up Simba, then yells in its face, "Oh my god! It's a bobcat! Oh my god!"

Then he hucks the bobcat across the yard with all his might.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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