‘There is no planet B’: seeing the world through the eyes of an international explorer

December 18, 2017 | Campus Life

He has walked into raging hurricanes. He’s stood at the bottom of a flaming, gaseous crater. And in November, storm chaser George Kourounis made his way to Edmonton.

The international explorer and host of Angry Planet has faced some of nature’s most powerful forces during his efforts to document the effects of climate change.

Facing phenomena that could kill him started with a keen interest in the weather, but that changed as the topic of climate change started heating up.

“Now, it's taken on much more importance because I'm seeing the weather getting worse," he said at the Images of Climate Change speaker series event, a collaboration between MacEwan University, the University of Alberta and the City of Edmonton. "I'm seeing things that frighten the hell out of me."

He has seen the rapid melting of permafrost in Siberia. It’s uncovering amazing things, like the remains of petrified wooly mammoths. But George cautions that it could also uncover ancient bacteria that could makes us sick.

He has seen sea levels rising to the point that a country is at risk of becoming uninhabitable; the crops on the island nation of Tuvalu are getting destroyed by salt water intrusion, George said. As sea levels rise, salt water gets into the country’s fresh water supply, killing the crops.

"They are already making plans to evacuate the entire island," he said, noting that this would be the first time in history that an entire country would have to relocate.

He has also seen a wildfire ravage Fort McMurray.

"This is the kind of event that we could potentially see more of," the explorer said, highlighting how warmer temperatures facilitate the combustion of materials. George’s television show Angry Planet has filmed in 65 countries, so he has seen the effects of climate change across the globe. But he said that working to counteract these effects can be done from any location, and you don’t have to be a worldwide traveller and risk taker to do it.

"What I really would love is for you and the generation coming up next to put me out of a job,” he told the audience at the event.

A seemingly difficult task, but George insists that it doesn’t have to be. If more people commit to driving less, recycling and using LED bulbs, the impacts can be huge. "But the one thing that you can do today that makes a tremendous difference that affects your life very little is to eat less meat," he said, adding that people don’t need to adopt fully vegetarian diets to make a difference.

Or, people can take on bigger projects.

"Whether you're an innovator, whether you're an entrepreneur, whether you have a green project — whatever it is that you're doing,” he said, “keep doing it and be the first to do whatever it is you're working on. That will get you remembered."

One of George’s most memorable moments came when he pitched a crazy idea to National Geographic. He wanted to go to Turkmenistan and rappel down a massive, flaming crater called Darvaza so he could collect soil samples in search of microbial life at the bottom.

"And the fools said yes," he said.

So, his team stretched fire-resistant ropes across the span of the crater so he could rapel to the bottom in a heat suit. He had 17 minutes’ worth of air — just enough time to gather the samples, which did, in fact, contain microbial life.

No one had ever done that before.

"I hope that other people will step out of their comfort zone and take on initiatives and follow their passion," he said. "There is no planet B."

The next Images of Climate Change event is on January 30.

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