Magazine article Geographical

Our Survey Said ... Mark Rowe Reports on the Catlin Survey's Attempt to Reveal the Sorry State of the Arctic

Magazine article Geographical

Our Survey Said ... Mark Rowe Reports on the Catlin Survey's Attempt to Reveal the Sorry State of the Arctic

Article excerpt


A polar expedition that ultimately fails to achieve its goal leaves its participants with a bittersweet sensation. When the Catlin Arctic Survey called it a day to escape the annual summer thaw after travelling for 432 kilometres across the frozen Arctic Ocean--far less than the 1,300 kilometres they had originally hoped to cross to reach the North Geographic Pole--that feeling was intensified by the gloomy manifestation of climate change they encountered.

With the exception of the first day, the three explorers--Pen Hadow, Ann Daniels and photographer Martin Hartley walked only on first-year ice, which, as the name suggests, is newly formed after the summer melting season. This was unexpected and appears to have provided evidence from the ground that the polar ice sheets are melting rapidly.

The members of the expedition knew this because, in the first co-ordinated effort of its kind, the three explorers carried out research on the state of the polar ice as they went along. The survey combined the almost conventional Herculean polar trek with a scientific research project to evaluate the state of ice and provide some clues as to when it might disappear.


The trio captured around 16,000 observations and took 1,500 measurements of the thickness of the ice and snow, as well as its density, in order to help scientists get a clearer understanding of what is happening to the Arctic Ocean's floating ice. The project was endorsed by WWF, and the data are being analysed by the Polar Oceans Physics Group (POPG) at the University of Cambridge.

The results collected and processed so far indicate that the extent of the thicker multi-year ice is reduced compared with expectations from satellite and submarine data, and is now confined to a narrow strip east of 130[degrees]W along the northwest Canadian Arctic archipelago and Greenland coasts.

Over the 75 days of the survey, the average thickness of the sea ice was 1.774 metres, according to Hadow. 'This seems to suggest that it was almost all first-year ice,' he says. 'Our science advisers had told us to expect thicker, older ice on at least part of the route, so it's something of a mystery where that older ice has gone. It'll be interesting to see what scientists think about this.'

The scale of the melt appears to have surprised all involved in the planning of the expedition. The survey's route was designed so that the team would haul their sledges from the edge of the permanent sea ice of the Beaufort Sea, beginning on multi-year ice, transit briefly through a region primarily covered with first-year ice, then enter a region in which second-year ice prevails. The focus was on the 'health' or thickness and extent of the older remaining multi-year ice and the growth rate of first-year ice.


The expedition also encountered the more predictable hazards of such a trek, including frostbite to Hartley's left big toe and equipment failure. The team had developed and tested an experimental, portable ice-penetrating radar that, in theory, would have enabled them to measure the thickness of the remaining ice, assessing its density and the depth of the overlying snow, as well as taking weather and sea temperature readings.

However, the trip was thwarted to an extent by the stubborn refusal of this new radar system to work. 'This would have measured ice thickness through a pulsed radar,' explains Professor Peter Wadhams of the POPG, who is evaluating the data the team recorded. 'Previous devices are just too heavy to pull. …

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