The State of the North Pole Environment

Time for another update. As part of the planning for the expedition, we need to consider many factors. Recently I've started to review the current and projected ice depth and extent as the figures will have a direct impact on the approach and equipment we take.

There's some interesting information out on the web. I pulled up some surprising sea ice statistics from this website: http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/

Full North pole treks might soon be at an end.

The trends and predictions don't look promising. Here's a very quick summary of the changes the Arctic ice has undergone since:

The ice extent (the overall coverage) is currently 810,000 square kilometres below the anticipated the long term average of 15 million square kilometres. Don't worry if that doesn't make senses, here's a very simple way of looking at the figures: Wales is only 20,000 sq km! In the last forty years or so, the Arctic has shed the equivalent of 40 countries the size of Wales.

Another factor of great concern in the ice depth. Back in 1975, the average ice thickness was around 3.6 metres. Now, in 2015, the median has fallen to about 1.25 metres. Not completely familiar with metric measurements? How's this - down from just under 11.8 feet to 4.1 feet.

Is it all Doom and Gloom?

It looks like it, but lets dig a little deeper.

Going back to the NSIDC website and checking out the satellite observations page, it would appear the rate at which ice extent shrinks is slowing. That is, the polar ice cap is shrinking at a slower than it was in 2010.

Phew! So the future of polar exploration is no longer in doubt?

Actually, it is. Borek Air, the only private charter company providing flights and resupplies to Arctic travelers has shut up shop and now concentrates on other routes. That means no flights in or out of Ward Hunt Island, the traditional starting point for full distance treks, and no resupply during the journey.

Then the problem of thinning ice rears its ugly head again. Think about it: every night you pitch your tent on a comparatively thin layer of ice. Then what do you do? Spend the whole night praying the ice doesn't break up under you. Closer to the pole, this isn't such a problem. Further out, at the furthest reaches of the extent, the cracking process can cause major problems for explorers.

Any Other Problems at the Pole?

Yes. The thinning ice is more susceptible to drift (the rate at which it moves under the influence of the wind). Here's one example of how extreme the drift has become: in 2007, on one particular day, Richard Weber walked for around twelve hours. At the end of the day he checked his position and found he'd been effectively walking on the spot for the entire day. Great way to keep fit, but soul destroying for an explorer.

One more problem caused by the thin ice and drift are the pressure ridges. I discussed these in my post about what to expect at the North pole. Quick recap: thinking of them as house sized obstructions made from ice. All an explorer needs to do is navigate them. Easy? Well, in 2014, Erik Larsen's two man team on managed to cover an average of 2.78 miles per eight hour day for the firs 18 days of their journey!

Even worse, sights like this seem to be an inevitable consequence of the melting ice:

Polar bear standing on sea ice

Now all this might seem a little depressing and maybe it is.

In 2016 I will be leading a shorter trek - 220 kilometres, or so - but I'd also like to complete a full distance expedition at some point in the future. The odds don't look good, but I'll keep my fingers crossed and continue to aim for that target. Who knows, I might end up canoeing to the North Pole - now that would be epic.