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Arctic team turn to traditional methods as technology struggles against forces of nature

The Catlin Arctic Survey team have turned to traditional methods to report on the thickness of ice and snow, after extreme weather conditions affected their high-tech equipment.

The Catlin Arctic Survey team have turned to traditional methods to report on the thickness of ice and snow, after extreme weather conditions affected their high-tech equipment.

SPRITE – the pioneering Surface Penetrating Radar for Ice Thickness Establishment - and the team’s on-sledge computer kit have, despite rigorous testing ahead of the expedition, both been disabled by the extreme conditions. A further fault has prevented use of a SeaCat probe which measures the water column beneath the floating sea ice, although a new version will be despatched on the next re-supply flight.

“No one should underestimate how challenging this has been so far.” said Simon Harris-Ward, the Catlin Arctic Survey’s Director of Operations, “The extreme weather, even by Arctic standards has affected much of their tried and tested standard kit. They’ve had breakages to equipment such as stoves and skis”

Speaking on satellite phone from the team’s latest floating camp, Pen Hadow acknowledged that losing their technical capacity is very frustrating, but admits that it is also unsurprising given the hostile conditions. “It’s never wise to imagine that either man or technology has the upper hand in the natural world,” he said. “It’s truly brutal at times out here on the Arctic Ocean and a constant reminder that Mother Nature always has the final say.”

Nonetheless, the team have released the first ice and snow measurements, obtained by manual drilling, which reveal that the floating surface over which the team have travelled is predominantly new ice, with an average thickness of 1.77m. The team had not expected to find what is known as ‘First Year Ice’ in this part of the Ocean – having chosen their route, in conjunction with science advisors, to begin in an area where there would be multi-year ice. Pen Hadow, said: “To discover that there’s virtually no Multi Year Ice is a real surprise to me. I am really interested to know what the scientists make of it.”

Their findings suggest that the older, thicker ice has either moved to a different part of the ocean or has melted. This First Year Ice will only have formed since September 2008 and, being thinner, is less likely to survive the annual summer thaw. The results indicate there will be even less summer ice covering around the North Geographic Pole this year.

Beginning at the end of February, during the harsh Arctic winter, Pen Hadow and colleagues Martin Hartley and Ann Daniels have been battling typical daily temperatures of down to -40°C, with significant wind-chill plunging temperatures still lower. So far they have covered over 260kms of frozen ocean.

Despite the technological setbacks the team has so far conducted over one thousand one hundred separate measurements to date of the snow thickness, ice thickness, snow temperature and density, along with detailed topographical observations of all rubble fields, pressure ridges, ice pans and stretches of open water along their route. Experts say this will be of high value to the scientific community, independent of any technologically-gathered data.

“There’s no question that the Catlin Arctic Survey’s manual measuring techniques will provide the most comprehensive data set of ice thickness measurements to come out of the region for many years,” says Seymour Laxon, from the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling at University College London. “Drilling holes might be the most basic method, but it’s also the most fundamental.” In spite of its setbacks, the team is committed to continuing its science programme and gathering as much data as possible as they push northwards.

The main focus for the team is now the manual drilling programme. Currently, it takes about three hours to complete the data collection at each site and with an increase in sampling planned, there will be less time available each day to make headway on the route. As a result the team may decide not to make the North Geographic Pole its end point. “The overall focus is the science, so reaching the Pole is largely irrelevant to this expedition,” explained Director of Operations, Simon Harris-Ward, said: “What matters most is gathering the maximum amount of data possible over a scientifically interesting route.”

After 44 days on the ice, the survey team are still only halfway through the project. With all three experienced in polar regions, they know only too well the challenges they may still face; from blizzards and continual subzero temperatures to swimming across stretches of open water.