Editor's Note: The Catlin Arctic Survey is a unique collaboration among polar explorers and scientists to gather data on the impacts of climate and environmental change in the Arctic.
This 10-week international scientific expedition will travel to the farthest reaches of the Arctic to research the impact of melting ice caps on the world's oceans and weather systems. In recent years, the surface area of Arctic ice has declined to levels that were not expected until 2070. The Catlin Arctic team will seek to understand how climate and environmental changes affect ocean currents, which have a major impact on weather patterns throughout North America. Scientists are predicting that climate-related changes in the way that ocean currents circulate could result in a dramatic increase in the frequency and intensity of storms and cause extensive flooding, coastal erosion and damage to crops, homes and cities across the U.S. and around the world. The scientific team will be based at a unique research station located on sea ice in the Canadian Arctic shelf.
Simultaneously, a team of polar explorers will undertake two separate Arctic missions: the first across the Prince Gustav Adolf Sea, and the second from the North Geographic Pole toward Greenland.
Victoria Hill is research professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences at Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Va.
Opening my eyes in the middle of the night I see the sparkle of my condensed breath frozen in the air, I remember where I am; in a tent in the tiny town of Resolute Bay in the high Canadian Arctic, sleeping outside in –30 degrees Fahrenheit. The reason that I am here is the Catlin Arctic Survey 2011, a wonderful opportunity for me to collect data in the early Arctic spring.
I arrived in Resolute Bay three days ago with three other scientists. This is our base camp before we head off for 6 weeks of camping on the sea ice off Ellef Ringnes island. A separate team of explorers will be walking across the floating sea ice collecting additional profiles of temperature and salinity, while we remain in our relatively cozy camp.
The aim of the expedition is to improve our understanding of the impact of the changing Arctic climate on ocean acidification, carbon cycling and thermohaline circulation. Before we can start our sampling we have to undergo five days of training, including polar bear awareness, how to avoid frostbite, safety on the ice, navigation and how to sleep in the extremely cold temperature we will find ourselves in, which brings me back to my condensed breath sparkling like tiny stars in the light of my headlamp.
Sleeping in the extreme temperatures we will find ourselves in is a complicated procedure: first you have to remove your outer snow clothes in record time and slip into the four layer sleeping bag; the vapour barrier is closest to your skin to prevent your sweat from freezing in the down sleeping bag; next is your fleece liner then a down bag, followed by an outer fiber pile and pertex bag. Once inside you tighten various cords and zippers until you have a narrow hole for your breath to exit. This is definitely not for the claustrophobic!
On emerging from our tents the next morning we congratulate ourselves on making it through our first night, as for many of us this was the part of the trip we were most nervous about. To combat the cold the best way to stay warm is to eat. The chef at the hotel here in Resolute is used to feeding explorers and we have three cooked meals a day: eggs, sausage and bacon for breakfast, beef, vegetables and rice for lunch and yet another meal of ribs and potatoes followed by chocolate cake for dinner. With all this food and right inner and outer layers of clothing we actually break a sweat when taking down the tents.
On day four we graduate from our polar training with a mini-adventure, packing a sledge with tent, ice coring gear, stove and supplies we get our harnesses on and head out onto the sea ice just down the road from the hotel. Our departure is marked by the barking and howling of the sled dogs tied up outside houses: they take offence at us doing their job!
After a 10-minute walk we find a suitable location on the ice and after digging away at the 20cm layer of snow we hit ice. This is the first time that I have tried out the auger which we use to drill a hole in the sea ice. This is, in essence, a giant corkscrew which you push down on while turning the handle with both hands. Once we have a good sized hole we start chipping away at it with giant ice chisels. This is the technique for making our 1m by 1m wide science hole through which we will sample when at the ice camp.
Chiselling through 2 meters of sea ice is hard work and will take all of us one whole day for each hole that we need. Abandoning our "science hole", after everyone taking a turn, we pitch a Hilleberg tent for some shelter and brew a cup of tea to warm us up. After this successful adventure we trek back up the hill to the hotel for our well deserved lunch.
All that is left before we leave for our home on the ice is to check over our science gear and pack up all of the clothing kit that we have been issued with. My nervousness at living in this extreme environment for so long without the luxury of coming home to a warm hotel at the end of the day is tempered by my excitement at being able to collect the data that I have been thinking about for the past three years.
I am hoping to find a piece of the puzzle that can explain the rapid ice retreat observed in the Arctic. My hypothesis is that the absorption of solar energy into surface waters is higher than we have all previously thought due to the presence of a particular type of organic material that absorbs light. I am hoping to see the production of this material during my time at the camp.
Every data point collected during this trip will be hard won and I will spend the rest of the year analyzing my data. Leaving for the ice camp in a few days is a source of excitement for all of us, and we spend the last nights fueling up our bodies for the extreme temperatures to come.
Image credits: Martin Hartley