Once in Resolute Bay you feel like you are at the edge of the world, your view is of nothing but snow covered hills and sea ice.
Explorers walking to the North Pole are flown from here to locations northward for their trek across the frozen sea. This is not our final destination either. We are headed further north to a more remote location, the sea ice in the jaws of Deer Bay (Ellef Ringnes Island).
You don’t walk here or even drive and there are no commercial flights. Instead I boarded a twin otter airplane which was stacked full with all my gear and we took off for the most exciting flight I have ever experienced.
Seven people plus one Canadian Inuit Dog does not make for a very comfortable flight. The plane is noisy and cold, but the view is wonderful. I managed to scratch off some of the ice on the inside of the window to see a snow covered vista, nothing but frozen sea and land. I think at this point I truly realized that we were going to be alone up here. I spent most of the flight eagerly looking out the window expecting at any moment to see the red tents of camp.
Three days earlier four of our team had left to set up the infrastructure of the camp. These were the tents and friends that I was watching out for. Finally the plane started its descent and after one pass of the "runway" to check for condition we landed. For me landing is always the most nerve-wracking part of any flight and this was the most exciting landing I’ve ever had. The pilots up here definitely know what they are doing: to land on a snow and ice runway which has bumps and cracks in it is no mean feat. Finally I was here, this camp will be my home for 6 weeks, no running water, no central heating and very little contact with the outside world, perfect for the job we need to do.
The camp is small: two science tents which will become our labs, one communications tent through which we can connect with loved ones, colleagues and HQ, a mess tent big enough for nine people, a toilet tent which is very rustic, and our sleeping tents which are surrounded by an electric fence to keep out any curious polar bears. Only the science, comms and mess tents are heated.
Our first days here are spent unpacking and finishing up the camp. On the day we arrive two other flights come in with more science and camp equipment. All of this is gradually unpacked into our lab tents.
Our first night out on the ice is a learning experience - how to get into your sleeping bag as quickly as possible in the -38oC temperature, how to close up your sleeping bag so only your nose is visible and how to deal with having to go to the toilet in the middle of the night.
The next day most of us had only gotten a few hours of sleep with many of us lying awake in this strange new environment. So far the weather has been glorious, very little wind, beautiful blue skies all day, and a bright moon at night. Each day our hours of sunlight will gradually increase until in the beginning of April we will have 24 hours of daylight. Each week we stay here the weather will get warmer until we hit the magical -25oC at which I have been told you feel much more comfortable. I can’t believe that I am thinking about -25oC as "comfortable" as I have become used to the warm weather in southern Virginia.
We are all looking forward to the Catlin Arctic Survey Explorer Team arriving in camp in another week, as they trek towards us while taking measurements of water column temperature and salinity on their way. It’s strange to think of having people pop into the camp for tea!
Right now we are busy digging our science holes through which we will be able to sample the ocean under the ice, digging a hole through 1.7 meters of ice is certainly a good way to stay warm. In another day we will have our science underway and will settle into a routine of sampling and analysis, although there undoubtedly is nothing routine about life at the Catlin Ice Base.
Photo credits: The Catlin Arctic Survey
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.