Sitting down with Parker Liautaud

(Rebecca Wolenski/YH Staff)

For the past three Aprils, Parker Liautaud, DC ‘16, has gone on hiking trips—to the North Pole. One of the youngest-ever polar explorers, Parker seeks to engage our generation in the escalating debate on climate change. The Herald sat down with Parker at Blue State, where we talked about checking into the North Pole on FourSquare, ways to raise $150,000, and how to plan an expedition to the Antarctic.

YH: How did you become involved in exploring?
PL: It was kind of an accident. When I was that age—I was 13 when I started—I was extremely unimpressive, athletically and academically. I first got started by being interested in the issue of climate change. I met Robert Swan [a British explorer and advocate for the protection of Antartica] through a friend. I realized the two interests that were developing alongside each other—environmental issues and exploration—would go well if I tried to do something with him. He wasn’t really open to the idea at the beginning. Eventually I got lucky and then he let me come [on an expedition].

YH: What was that first expedition like?
PL: It wasn’t a really difficult polar expedition. About 60 people went, and it was a great introduction to the polar regions. It really opened my eyes to the issue of climate change, and not just through the things that we got to see, but [through] talking to people, business leaders, about how climate change is going to affect their business in the future, talking to scientists. When I came back I didn’t want to just go back to class. This was something I was really interested in.
Then, I got this idea. It was really idiotic and irresponsible: I wanted to be the youngest person to walk the North Pole. I didn’t really think it was something I would actually end up doing. I couldn’t [even] do 10 push-ups. This is an expedition where I would have to drag a sled in -40 [degree weather], 12 hours a day, for weeks. I thought that I could, through the process of trying to put this expedition together, learn a lot about environmental issues, about fundraising, about crucial life skills, logistics.

YH: The North Pole—that sounds expensive. How did you raise the money?
PL: I created a budget, did everything I possibly could to slash it to the smallest possible amount, and then started trying to get corporate sponsorship, but I knew no one in the corporate world. I went to places like These companies get like 5,000 requests per day.
YH: How much did you need to fundraise?
PL: $150,000. 80 percent of the cost of the expedition was the planes. You have to charter a Russian pilot to fly you out to the Arctic Ocean. You also need helicopters available for an emergency evacuation. There’s all the insurance, like cancellation insurance, evacuation insurance, all the equipment. That’s a good $20,000.
So, I stopped and shifted my strategy to something completely different. Usually at the end of every press release there’s a press contact. I would use [the format of] that email address to figure out how the email addresses were formatted at the company, and just wrote to every executive I thought would be relevant at the company.

YH: Did your expeditions address climate change issues?
PL: At the time, there wasn’t any scientific component because I couldn’t possibly do that when I was 15. So, what I did is partner with a bunch of different organizations and we talked about polar climate change. We wanted to talk about it in a credible format without having the lack of credibility that I bring to the table, so we partnered with, for example, Scientific American.

YH: There was a story about your trip in the Scientific American. How else was it publicized?
PL: We worked with a British designer called Vivienne Westwood. She is a climate campaigner in addition to a fashion designer, so she designed the flag that we were going to plant at the pole. [General Electric, the company that ended up funding my trip], helped me a lot; we created a social-media based campaign. We did the first check-in at the North Pole on FourSquare. It was really about trying to get people talking about an issue that is potentially not that exciting to my generation, just something we’ve been bombarded with throughout the entirety of our youth.

YH: Beyond creating a dialogue, what is your vision for the future of climate change, and what are you doing here at Yale to help realize it?
PL: Well, this is where the story really starts to develop, because I didn’t make it to the Pole. The temperature got really, really high, there was drift away from the North Pole, and the summer melting period started a little early. We got within 15 miles of the Pole.
I got attacked a lot in the press for being young and making statements that were not really something that I had the right to talk about, so I sort of eliminated that component of the expedition and I created a scientific research program.
I personally am going to become a scientist. My major is Geology and Geophysics. So, what I’m trying to do is a couple of different things—to continue the research path, to create a dialogue in a way that is productive. By productive, I mean actually engaging policy makers, and we did that a little bit last year. We created a campaign [named Wake-Up Call], in 87 countries. We changed policies in countries like Nepal [and] Algeria.

YH: Can you tell me about your trip to Antarctica this coming year?
PL: It’s an expedition to the South Pole. It’ll be about 900 kilometers; it’ll probably take about a month and a half to complete. And it’s by far the biggest expedition I’ve ever done.

YH: When you’re on your expeditions, what are the dangers that you face?
PL: Polar bears are a risk, but usually they don’t go as far north as we go. Because once you get 150 miles away from the coast, it’s too far north.
Statistically speaking, the much more important danger in the Arctic is the cold. The average temperature is maybe -35 [degrees]. But, I think by far the biggest danger is water. It’s very hard to tell sometimes how thick the ice is. It ranges from about two meters to nothing. I’ve fallen through the ice three times. Twice it was just my boot. Another time it was up to here (points to mid-chest). It’s scary, you know, if you’re alone and you can’t get yourself out within a minute, there’s a good chance you’re not going to make it out at all.
The Antarctic is a different story. There, there isn’t open water. There isn’t shifting ice, which is good. But then again, it’s higher. People don’t realize how high it is—it’s at eight to 10,000 feet, so you’re out of breath quicker.

YH: You say Antarctica is a different story. How are you training for that?
PL: I don’t really train for altitude, but I have a much more rigorous training regimen for this trip. The other danger is that it’s colder—it’s not regulated by the sea, so you have more extreme temperatures. Other than that, there are very strong winds, and that’s about it, no polar bears.

This interview was condensed by the author.

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