Eye in the sky helps expedition to land explorers far out on the Arctic Ocean

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The Catlin Arctic Survey has two teams out on the frozen Arctic Ocean to research climate and environmental change. Once there, each team knows what it has to do and has the equipment and skill to be largely self-sufficient. The problem is getting them safely into position. This week, its team of explorers were successfully deployed to within 115 miles of the North Geographic Pole to begin a trek in the direction of Greenland to survey the changing ocean beneath the ice. Here’s how the story played out pre-departure.

The Explorer Team and the support crew at the floating ice landing strip where they began their expedition Photo: Catlin Arctic Survey

Just getting explorers to the North Pole to begin their expedition is a major operation needing satellite images, skilful pilots, a good support team and favourable weather.

Just getting explorers to the North Pole to begin their expedition is a major operation needing satellite images, skilful pilots, a good support team and favourable weather.

The last minute preparations ahead of a major Arctic expedition are fraught and tense. Kit has to be checked and packed. The explorers need to start their mental preparations for a physical and psychological challenge that is by any reckoning extreme.

The logistics and operations support team has other things to focus their attention on. Top of their list of concerns is the state of the ice at the destination. “The Arctic Ocean may be frozen, but the ice is constantly moving and breaking up” says Chip Cunliffe, Head of Operations at the Catlin Arctic Survey. His eye is fixed on a satellite image he has just received from MDA Geospatial Services Inc. He is looking for an indication of what the pilots who will fly his team to the North Geographic Pole will find when they get there. “I need to see where the most likely place is to land the plane. A large, stable pan of ice close to the Pole is what I’m hoping to see.”

This is the expedition equivalent of military intelligence. He can see several points which have potential. “Of course, we could simply send the team up to the Pole and rely on the judgement of the pilot as he sees it from the plane. But if we can see in advance the best places to expect good ice, we are saving a lot of time and can be a lot more confident the deployment will be a success.”

The Catlin Arctic Survey is a unique collaboration between experienced polar explorers and scientists researching rapid changes to the Arctic Ocean. Last month the University of Colorado Boulder's National Snow and Ice Data Center reported the sea ice to be at its smallest extent in winter since satellite observations began. The Survey is looking at dynamics which could be impacting the rate of sea ice loss, but also, crucially, how changes in Arctic Ocean may also affect the powerful deep ocean current, or Thermohaline Circulation, which helps to moderate the prevailing weather of Europe and much of North America.

For the explorers heading to the Pole, it is the start of a 300-mile expedition across the frozen ocean to capture data for their research partner in the United Kingdom.

“The Arctic is simply too extreme an environment for most people. That is why we are conducting the survey work for them,” says Adrian McCallum. His job on the expedition is to drill through the ice to lower devices down into the water beneath to capture information on temperature, salinity and the direction of currents. “It is going to tell the scientific community a lot about an important area of the ocean where there is a major outflow from the Arctic into the North Atlantic. Every day I’ll be drilling through ice that is at least six feet (1.85 metres) thick.”

Everything the team needs has to be carried on sledges weighing about 265 lbs (120 kilos) which the explorers must haul across miles of undulating ice. Each day they will walk or ski about six to eight miles before pitching camp and starting the survey programme. “If it could be done as accurately without the effort, we’d not be here,” says his colleague Ann Daniels. She is on her third Catlin Arctic Survey expedition and knows just how tough their mission is going to be. “To slog away for a whole day in temperatures rarely above minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit before starting hours of hard physical work drilling through ice is exhausting. What we do know is that we have been adding significantly to what is understood about the Arctic Ocean. That is what motivates me when the going gets tough.”

At Resolute airport, the pilots at Kenn Borek Air have the latest weather forecasts, the last but essential factor to be considered before the flight can go ahead. To reach the Pole region it was necessary to build a cache of fuel part way out to extend the range of the DC3 aircraft. When the plane leaves with the expedition team onboard, it will fly to Eureka, a research station, before starting the final leg of the operation. After a 4-hour long flight the pilot will be flying low over the ice looking for the best place to bring the aircraft down. Once on the ice, the explorers have little to do apart from offloading their kit. Within 40 minutes they are completely alone at the top of the world with everything they need to survive beside them. And a long, long journey ahead of them.

The writer, Rod Macrae, is Head of Communication for the Catlin Arctic Survey.


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Rod Macrae
Catlin Arctic Survey
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