North Pole shuns explorers with bad weather

Posted from Resolute Bay, Canadian Arctic

British polar adventurer Ben Saunders will return to London this morning [Monday] after bad weather aborted his attempt at the fastest solo, unsupported trip to the North Pole.

Not a single expedition has managed to leave for the Pole this year – either from the Canadian or Russian territories that border the Arctic – as a result of ‘freak’ weather above North America.

Adventurers aiming for the North Pole from land (the only ‘authorised’ way of saying you’ve walked there) traditionally leave from two main departure areas, Cape Arkticheskiy in Russia and Ellesmere Island in Canada. In recent years wide ‘leads’ of open water between Russia and the Arctic sea ice have delighted shipping companies but thwarted would-be polar heroes.

On the Canadian side this spring, extreme skiers have been unable to fly from the frontier town of Resolute to their start points at Ward Hunt and Cape Colombia at the northern tip of Ellesmere Island, leaving at least four frustrated teams stuck on land. Consistent low cloud and blowing snow has meant pilots are unable to discern between ice and horizon or scout for suitable landing areas.

“There’s been very strange weather over the Arctic this year. I’ve never seen anything like it since I started watching this sort of thing in the 1990s,” said Mr Saunders as he prepared to board a flight back to the UK. This was his third attempt at beating the current record time of 41 days to reach the North Pole solo and unsupported.

“I’m devastated. I’m fitter and better equipped than I’ve ever been, but it was impossible to land the plane,” he said.

Arctic adventurers aiming for the North Pole have a tight departure window. To walk in daylight they must wait until the end of February for the sun to rise high enough, yet they must arrive before the sea ice at the top of the world becomes too thin to take the weight of a plane.

“Most expeditions aim to get to the Pole by late April. Historically they went much later – in the 1990s they were landing there in June, but that’s out of the question now,” said Mr Saunders.

There will still be people at 90 degrees north this year. A Russian company establishes an Ice Station near the geographic North Pole every year to host scientists and adventure tourists. Bulldozers are parachuted in to create a landing strip (some of which are reputed to have sunk at the bottom of the ocean having fallen through thin ice), allowing jets to land and provide adventurers with a relatively cheap exit from the ice.

Despite the weather problems a team from the Catlin Arctic Survey aims to fly to the Pole next week and start skiing back towards Greenland, measuring ice thickness and ocean currents as they go.

“We need a break in the weather to get us up there but we’re interested in gathering data on what is happening with the ice, not breaking records. If we have to wait a while for a window it might mean we get a shorter transect, but we’ll still accomplish our goals,” said the British co-leader of the expedition, Ann Daniels.

Mike Christiansen of the Polar Continental Shelf Program in Resolute said that their operations had been unaffected by the bad weather. “It’s pretty standard up here. Every year has ebbs and flows. Operating in this environment is what we do.”

The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on the planet, and so far less sea ice has formed than at any other year on record, tying with 2006. Some have blamed the unusual weather on the shrinking ice:

“I’ve never seen this before. Usually in March it’s quite cold and very sunny, making for superb flying conditions. Now it’s completely different, very warm with a continuous stream of low pressure systems coming up through the region. I suspect it’s the thinning and lessening ice that’s causing this,” said Wayne Davidson, who has runEnvironment Canada’s weather station in Resolute since 1997.

The more the sunlight-reflecting sea ice retreats, the more the dark, open ocean absorbs heat. Ice-covered areas of the Arctic have warmed by 3 degrees centigrade, and where ice has been lost average temperatures have increased by 5 degrees. An unusually warm Arctic caused havoc in Northwest Europe last December when polar conditions were pushed south.

British explorer Wally Herbert was the first to reach the North Pole in 1969 having travelled by dog sled (there are earlier claims, but are all contested). More than 200 people have accomplished the feat since then. Herbert was also the only person to have traversed the Arctic Ocean by its longest axis, skiing from Alaska to Svalbard.

No-one has ever repeated this feat, and open water now blocks the route.

Mr Saunders is realistic about future prospects for expeditions over the Arctic sea ice: “I’d like to be back in 2013 and have another go, but I’ll wait to see what the ice is like then.”

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About Frank Pope

The world's first dedicated Ocean Correspondent, for the Times of London. View all posts by Frank Pope

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