Remember that scene in the movie Marathon Man when Laurence Olivier, playing the evil dentist, repeatedly asks Dustin Hoffman, "Is it safe?" That is a question I ask myself more and more with regard to my 14-year-old daughter, Gaia. The world, in my estimation, is crusting over with merciless consumerism. War gives birth to more war. Earth's temperature is rising. I find myself wondering, What will become of our planet—and my daughter, whose very name means earth?

My girl is a wild Blink-182 fan who values her independence and urgently wants a tattoo and a nose ring. Her mind is not necessarily occupied with such questions as whether the earth will survive. So when on a chilly February day in London, my friend Joanna Kerr, executive director of Greenpeace Canada, calls to invite Gaia and me on an expedition to the Arctic to observe the effects of climate change firsthand, I have mixed reactions. The first is a bit of nervousness about safety. Wasn't some young man devoured by a polar bear a few years back? Perhaps not the wisest choice for a holiday. And then there's the fact that while I like to think Gaia and I are pretty close—she still wants to join me in baking and reading and doing each other's makeup—the chances of her wanting to go to a place even colder than England in winter, where I will have access to her 24/7 and where she will have no access to the Internet, seem as slim as Kate Moss. But her mum is an environmental activist who's never taken no for an answer when it comes to this topic, so much so that at times I've managed to turn off entire dining tables full of guests, and I sense an opportunity to share something once in a lifetime with my daughter. I decide to give it a go.

"Hey, Gai-bags," I say in a voice that I hope suggests lighthearted fun. "What d'you think about global warming?"

"I think it's very worrying. Why?" She looks up at me with just the tiniest bit of suspicion.

"Wanna go to the Arctic with me for Greenpeace and check out what's going down?" Not sure where the "going down" came from.

She lets out an excited squeak, then hugs me tight.

"Where are my long johns?" she calls out, reaching for her duffel bag.

AUGUST 1
We're on our way.

At Heathrow Airport, we buy some magazines and whisky for the Greenpeace crew, who've been without such luxury items for months. Snickering to myself, I tuck in a magazine chronicling Prince George's first year, thinking, Ha-ha, it's easy when you're far from home to forget about the important things. But the joke curdles when I take a closer look at George's little face and realize he really is what's important. He's a baby. He'll be around to see what happens to the planet well after I'm gone. He might want to have babies of his own, which means we'd better hurry up and save the Arctic before global warming makes most of the world uninhabitable.

We board one plane, then a second, much smaller one, and finally disembark on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, where the sun is shining brightly. We shield our eyes and rub our arms against the bitter chill.

"Mum—it's midnight!" Gaia says, pulling on another pair of socks and a parka over her jeans and sweater.

We look around. The landscape resembles huge, sharpened black teeth set between molars made of ice floe glaciers, covered in white sugar. We've been to Borneo, to the Amazon, to the Galápagos, but Gaia and I agree that this is unlike anything we've ever seen. It is startlingly, terrifyingly beautiful.

AUGUST 2
"Sleeping in broad daylight is quite tricky," says Gaia as we leave the ship and allow ourselves to be spooned into an RHIB (rigid hull inflatable boat), and our exploration begins. Gaia is a grab-your-rubber-boots-and-run kind of gal. On her last vacation, her father taught her how to use a chain saw. I was terrified. I had to hole up in the kitchen with a vodka. My girl spends her summers out on the hills with farmers' boys; they gather sheep and cut their toenails along with other sheepy stuff. Steering the RHIB, she confidently whizzes around like Sir Walter Raleigh on his way to meet the Spanish. I don't know whether to feel proud or to throw up.

We reach our primary home for the next eight days, a ship called the Esperanza, nicknamed Espy, and get into a heated exchange about the sleeping quarters.

Gaia: "Mum, we are going to be together for ages. We are bound to get into a row, and I don't want to be on a boat where I can't get away from you. I want to share with someone else."

After some negotiating, we finally end up in a tiny four-bunk dormitory with two crew members, which somehow mollifies Gaia.

Soon we are back in the RHIB, called Daisy, to investigate the tundra. We disembark onto a shore of moss-covered quartz and shale dotted with alpine flowers. Guillemots crowd the cliff above us, their cries reminiscent of a massive, hysterical cocktail party. Reindeer wander about, occasionally flinging us disgusted looks.

Gaia traipses up a small glacier, alone.

"Stay within my sight!" I screech, convinced there's a bear behind every hill.

I notice a patch of snow that is glowing and flamingo pink. A guide named Jason, who seems to know everything about everything, informs me it's algae that grows only on snow, thanks in part to all the guillemot guano (bird poop). The ecosystems here exist in a delicate balance, he says. When nature alters that balance, species usually adjust, but when human intervention alters it, those changes can prove catastrophic.

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