Steve Connor: Bets still on for ice-free North Pole

Science Notebook

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Back in June we published a front-page story about the possibility of there being no sea ice at the North Pole this summer. Well summer has come and gone, and there is still ice at the North Pole. How could we have got it so wrong?

First, I'd like to make it clear that we of course stand by our story (We would say that, wouldn't we?) In June, the thinner, first-year sea ice formed last winter had for the first time been pushed over large areas around the geographic North Pole. As a result, Arctic scientists were taking bets over whether this first-year ice would melt so that open water would appear at the North Pole. Some put the odds at greater than 50:50. This is why we thought it interesting and important enough to put on the front page – complete with appropriate caveats.

What actually happening during July, August and September has now been analysed by the same scientists. They found that the summer melting period for 2008 was unusual in that more first-year ice survived at the end of the 2008 summer compared to 2007. This was due to a combination of factors, such as the more northerly latitudes where the first-year ice was found, the warmer temperatures, and winds that had not compacted the ice as they had done in 2007. As a result, 2008 came second to 2007 in terms of record melting of sea ice – and the North Pole remained iced up.

What's interesting now, though, is that we are entering Arctic winters with smaller and smaller amounts of thicker, multi-year ice. This makes it less likely for there to be a substantial build-up of thick ice over winter. It is surely only a matter of time before we will see an ice-free North Pole, and indeed a totally ice-free Arctic Ocean,during summer. My own bet is that we will see the former within the next decade.

Dry place for a product

Much is being made of the latest Bond movie Quantum of Solace because of product placement. One product that the movie should place centre-screen is the European Southern Observatory in Chile, one of thelocations where the film was shot.

Having been to this remote outpost high in the Atacama desert, I can confirm it has all the trappings of a true Bond location. Theastronomers' living quarters are constructed underground, with a huge glass dome letting in sunlight. Being in the driest part of the world, all the water has to be shipped in by tankers each day and is recycled several times before being finally used on the vegetation.

And just to prove my Bond credentials, here's a picture of me posing in front of the first of 64 radio dishes that will form the millimetre-wave telescope under construction at Chajnantor, which at 5,100 metres above sea level is the highest building site in the world.

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