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April 20, 2006

The North Pole Was Here: New York Times reporter writes about chilling in the arctic

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“They call their project the North Pole Environmental Observatory, but that name gives the impression that it’s some exotic domed facility,” writes New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin. Revkin, who journeyed to the North Pole in 2003 as part of an expedition led by polar scientists from the UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory, has written about his experiences in a new book The North Pole Was Here.

“The reality is clear to me soon enough. After a quick ride in a Russian helicopter with black soot stains on its orange sides and a fabric strap holding the cargo doors shut, we arrive at the science camp. It consists of two tentlike huts, each about the size of a garden shed, and a scattering of buoys, tools and boxes. At this point, instruments recording sea currents and temperature were dropped to the sea floor one year ago on a 2-mile-line. Now they have to be retrieved from beneath that shifting ice.

“The procedure will require several of the researchers to get into diving suits and drop through a small opening melted through the ice. And I thought I was being adventurous,” Revkin writes in his book on polar science aimed at middle and high school students.

The book was released about a month before the start of this year’s North Pole Environmental Observatory program, which runs April 10 through early May. That program is followed immediately by another UW-led expedition concerning what’s called the freshwater switchyard of the Arctic Ocean, through about May 17.

Follow reports from the field at: http://psc.apl.washington.edu/northpole/NP2006Reports.html  

The National Science Foundation-funded programs are monitoring changes in the Arctic where, last fall, the lowest amount of ice cover in more than a century was recorded, the fourth consecutive year of record and near-record lows.

Traveling to the ice this year for the projects are 23 scientists and engineers from eight U.S., Japanese and Norwegian institutions and one Canadian firm. About half the participants are from the UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory including scientists, engineers, divers who go under the ice and logistics-support people.

With APL oceanographer Jamie Morison as the science lead and APL engineer Andy Heiberg as the logistic lead, the North Pole Environmental Observatory program is recovering a mooring with instruments that has been in 2 ½ miles of ocean near the North Pole. The instruments give year-round information about layers of water that help determine how thick — or thin — the ice is in the Arctic. After the mooring that has been out there for the past year is recovered, a new mooring is deployed. This is the sixth year in a row that a mooring will be deployed.

Automated drifting stations also will be deployed. These are buoys and instruments that are embedded in the ice and left for as long as they survive the shifting ice. They send data back to scientists via satellite. Surveys are planned where researchers use airplanes or helicopters to fly across wide areas, landing in various places along the way to lower instruments into the ocean, take readings and bring the instruments back up.

Such surveying is the key activity of the Freshwater Switchyard led by APL oceanographer Mike Steele. The surveys are in a part of the Arctic Ocean between Canada’s Ellesmere Island and the North Pole that’s been found to reveal changes in the varieties of freshwater that the Arctic Ocean exports southward to the Atlantic Ocean. The area is like a train switchyard in that different “freshwater cargo” from various locations, such as major Russian and North American rivers, arrives there.

Changes in how fresh the water is in that region of the Arctic are of interest because the salty, dense water in the North Atlantic Ocean helps drive global ocean circulation.

The New York Times reporter’s book weaves information about the Arctic with stories of his time near the North Pole with the 2003 expedition led by Morison.

“We are stranded,” he writes at one point in the book. “I am sitting in a barely heated blue-and-pink tent on the sea ice, with half a dozen tired, hungry scientists and other expedition members. We have been waiting four hours for a Russian helicopter to shuttle us several miles to the scientists’ base camp, and we have just learned that it may be another four hours before it comes. . .

“It is around this time that we share the crunchy, half-frozen salmon-salad sandwich that one of the scientists, Jamie Morison, was smart enough to slap together back in Resolute Bay, Canada, half a frozen ocean ago.”

As they say in the Arctic, never pass up a meal, a shower or a flight south.