Arctic sea ice predictions

There is huge uncertainty among scientists when the Arctic sea is going to be ice free in the September low minimum.
Some models predict this century while others may suggest it will be closer to next century.
There are some predictions that it may even be this summer since we already know that 2017 will go down as the lowest year of sea ice on record, after 2015 and 2016.

People have been wondering why we have suddenly a 30 degrees temperature difference in a week but perhaps the temperature we experience now is the normal and the extreme cold was a temporary event caused by colder ocean current coming in fed by more fresh cold water.
The Arctic Ocean is  slow to react to forces coming in but once set in motion it is difficult to stop it.

According to scientists the CO2 we put in the atmosphere will have a direct effect on the Arctic melt.
“We can directly estimate that the remainder of Arctic summer sea ice will be lost for roughly an additional 1000 Gt of CO2 emissions based on the observed sensitivity of 3.0 ± 0.3 m2 September sea-ice loss per ton of anthropogenic CO2 emissions” according to the University of Colorado.
“Since this estimate is based on the 30-year running mean of monthly averages, it is a very conservative estimate of the cumulative emissions at which the annual minimum sea-ice area drops below 1 million km2 for the first time” but models still vary as to when the certainty of when this is –  around 20 years as to the first year of a near-complete loss of Arctic sea ice.

For current emissions of 35 Gt CO2 per year, the limit of 1000 Gt will be reached before mid century.
On the other hand if any measures are taken to mitigate CO2 emissions, it  will  directly and immediately  slow down the ongoing loss of Arctic summer sea ice.
“In particular, for cumulative future total emissions compatible with reaching a 1.5°C global warming target, i.e., for cumulative future emissions significantly below 1000 Gt, Arctic summer sea ice has a chance of long-term survival at least in some parts of the Arctic Ocean”.


The sound of a locomotive in the middle of the Arctic

In the last few days we have been getting messages from Mark Drinkwater from ESA to veer to a radical  easterly direction instead of going straight North to the pole.
Apparently spring has arrived in the Arctic somewhere in the 7 million square km and the ice is starting to break up as it transport  ice from the Arctic into the Fram Straight between Greenland and Svalbard.
The last days the wind has been hauling 12 knots or more from the east blowing us to the west.
Before that is was blowing from the west and transporting us to the East.

The wind shifts around the pole and we are governed by its randomness.
According to Mark if we get into the critical low east coordinates we may get caught in a southerly drift, and have difficulty reaching the pole.
All this wind shifting in combination with the current makes the Arctic sea ice suddenly mobile.

The temperatures are still cold -25C with windchill but today for the first time we see that spring has arrived.
Wind doesn’t do much for freezing leads but a shift of 10 degrees does.

Within minutes after leaving our tent this morning, we passed over previously frozen cracks now filled with water.
Brand new pressure ridges are formed and today we watched two plates collide minutes after passing through.

With all this comes the sound: some have described it as squeaky styrofoam or a pressure cooker going off, a diesel locomotive coming to a screaming halt.

The sound of moving ice, its force, the power of all this mass put into motion at once is amazing and terrifying.
We will see open water in the next days, the first signs are here.
Temperature is going up and the Arctic will react.

So far the trek has been easy but it could very well be possible that our last 70 km to the Pole may the be most challenging.

A life in the tent

People have asked what our camp life is like and what we do once we crawl in the tent.
Our tenting routine is quiet laborious but also very disciplined because by the end of the day we are not only tired but extremely cold, so we need to get warm in a hurry.

We all do our jobs when we arrive at the campsite.
We set up the tent together and while Martin and I finish securing the tent with skis, ice axes and other equipment, Ann goes inside and sweep the tent clear of condensation and loose snow on the tent floor.
This is important because nothing on the North Pole ever dries and you don’t want to start the stove in a wet tent It would increase more moisture and everything will get wet including your sleeping bag.

Martin cut snow blocks for water – very dense and dry blocks ideal for melting water in a very efficient way.
Then Ann and I have usually our girl moment in the tent while Martin fiddle around with his camera equipment.
Once we have our belongings inside and the stoves lit, the undressing starts.

Our frozen jackets hats, face masks and mitts, down jackets and ski pants all has to come off and dried on our makeshift laundry line where we hang things from safety pins.

Then the most painful moment of all: taking off our boots.
We quickly put on dry socks and down booties and finally have time for a hot chocolate.
That is when we say life is good in the Arctic!

We turn on our GPS write down our position for the night that I have to report at 20:00 sharp to our base camp at Barneo in case of an emergency.
We make 10 liters of hot water for drinks and for a hot water bottle inside your sleeping bag to stay warm and to be ahead of the melting cycle in the morning.
After my check in I call a sponsor on the list – every night a conversation about our findings on the North Pole and lastly I call Henk Jan our Basecamp manager for the final update.
Around 21:30 I can start to write my blog.

By then Ann is asleep and Martin and I have just selected a picture to accompany my blog.
Somewhere in between we manage to eat.
We carry expedition food meals, just add water wait 10 minutes and ready.
Meals are not the highlight of our evening but just necessary calories to function here in the cold.

After sending a blog I go to bed immediately.
No time for reading or chatting because the alarm will go off at 6 am when Ann lit the stove.


Position camp:

If there is a God. Today he is in the Arctic.

If I had to choose a favorite day so far on this expedition, it will be today.
Not just because we are now on the other side of the countdown to 90 degrees but because of the gifts the arctic gave us throughout the day.
Thanks to the excellent weather forecast from Helga van Leur and drift forecast from Mark Drinkwater, we were well prepared this morning for the challenges ahead.

Forecast was for strong winds and low visibility but just one hour out of camp, the sky opened up, sun poked through with perfect ‘Jesus’ beams and lit up the blue ice blocks in front of my skis.
I am not particularly religious but if there was a religious moment this must be it.
The wind quit completely and the sun actually manage to give a bit of its warmth.
Ice crystals were glistening in the sky, the whole arctic suddenly became winter still.
I stopped and took off my skis, unleashed my sled and breathe in this special moment.

Most of the time we see the tips of our skis because our heads are tugged inside our hoods of our jackets, too afraid to have any skin exposed and face frostbite but when these precious moments arise, you need to embrace them.
I like to think that the Arctic is given us some gentleness after its relentless war with cold, and wind and it is showing us that she can be gracious and kind.
For all of us out here it has been very challenging due to the extreme cold temperatures but we persevere and the rewards of today were incredibly welcome.

A few hours later we skied over the biggest frozen lead so far.
The size of a lake with snow drift blowing over its surface, so different that we normally see here on the North Pole.
The sky closed in again around 16:00 hours and left us with a sliver of light in the northern horizon.

A dramatic day – a seascape full of contrasts – a day you re thankful for being here at all costs.

Halfway the trip… halfway our luck?

It warmed up in the Arctic today and we noticed!
For the first time I did not have frost inside my jacket or clumps of ice hanging from the fur in my hood.
The inner soles of my Baffin boots were not frozen neither were the zippers of my outside pockets.
All this to a great start this morning.
I was able to ski without a ski mask and didn’t have to breathe through neoprene to prevent getting frostbites on my face.
We left our hand warmers behind and our skis slid smoothly over the surface.

At lunch the cheese tasted like cheese again and nuts tasted salty.
So far all good, but we noticed the wind is coming from the west and south so that is why the air is warmer.
We think it is -26C instead of -36C a big jump in temperatures and the Arctic is already reacting.

Every night we report we haven’t seen any leads, that everything is frozen solid but the threshold of this cold arctic  has almost been reached.
Much warmer then -25C and the ice will start to melt.

I was thinking about  this when the Arctic was 25 degrees too warm in November and how the ice was unable to form due to the extreme warm ocean temperatures coming from the Atlantic.
Small increases in temperature can cause huge reactions.
Like the thermostat at home: 21 degrees is comfortable but 23 degrees is too warm.

Here in the Arctic it is like that too: -30C keeps everything solid and the ice can grow in thickness and extend.
Anything less in the Arctic will respond and start to melt.

Today we noticed the leads are changing color: from light blue to light grey.
The next thing will be a thin layer of mush on top and then eventually water and the lead will open and turn liquid.
Lets hope the freezer box will stay on for a while longer – for the sake of the Arctic.

We reached a new milestone today: 89 degrees and skied our first degree of latitude.
We are now half way our trip.

Location of camp:


The Arctic changed in a very frightened way

A journalist asked me for a few days ago if I can see the difference here at the North Pole between 2007 and this year.
I had a think about it because you are here so briefly in one area at a specific time of the year so any observations I can make and compare would not be realistic.
But today I revise this opinion.

The Arctic has changed since 2007 and in a very frightened way.
The old arctic had hedges of ice protecting the big fields (pans) in between, making the ice stay compact and together, drifting wholesomely to whatever direction the wind or current took it.
Now you see lots of chaos; a battlefield of ice blocks collided, folded over each other and long stretches of flat one year ice where the wind has scoured the surface.

At certain moments you might as well be in Antarctica – the sea ice has new similarities of an icecap.
All these one year ice blocks have been pushed to the surface by the trans polar drift.

This also happens in 2007 of course since this is what currents do – they take ice from one region and transport it to another.
In the Russian Arctic (where we are) it spins around and gets dumped eventually in the Bering Straight into the Pacific Ocean where the warm ocean temperatures melt the ice.

Since this part of the Arctic has much warmer sea temperatures then the Canadian or Greenlandic Arctic – we experience more movement and fluidity.
The ice may only be 1 to 1.5 meter thick here so it can move around much faster, set in motion by just the slightest wind, whereas in Canada the ice can up to 4.5 meters thick and more stable.

So yes, the ice is different today than 10 years ago despite the cold we face we can only imagine what an increase of 20 degrees will do to this part of the arctic in few months.

Melt completely.

Location camp:

It’s like walking in a glass of milk

The weather report of today (thanks Helga van Leur and Mark Drinkwater) finely came through.
Warmer temperatures (-28C), snow and wind from the southwest, luckily in our backs.
Navigating becomes challenging in this kind of weather, you don’t know what north or south is or up and down.
The sky and surface all blend into the same color of grey.

We usually navigate with the sun and take the angle of our shadow so we know that at 9 am the sun is due west and at 16:00 hours due north.
The sun rotates around us so you will need to use your own shadow to find its position.

If there is no sun you will have to find features on the ice to help you steer in the right direction.
Sastrugi – wind dunes – form here from the west to the east since the prevailing wind is from the west.
Going north means crossing them perpendicular, wind in your back.

A compass is absolutely useless here, the needle spins around and needs time to settle but it will never be a stable orientation and you cant trust it.
Leaves us to use a GPS but even that can fool you as you get closer to the North Pole.

So best on a day like today to use your senses, observe the features and check occasionally if the needle of the compass is at least going to the right direction.

Despite the low visibility we made good time – 16 km and we may be heading for one degree in two days time!

Tracks on the ice… We are not alone here

Once in a while the Arctic throws something at you which makes you stop in your tracks and you need a  moment to comprehend what just happens.

Today we had such a moment.
Still being unbearable cold, the first hour out of the tent is the moment of the naked  truth – rested, warm and fed – now you need to face the reality of the day.
Fifteen minutes into our first hour I came across fresh tracks heading straight to our camp.

After taking a closer look, I recognize the tracks of a polar fox, a single set crisscrossing over a wide pan of wind slab.
After a moment of disbelief you wonder what a polar fox is doing out here.
Nothing to eat because everything is frozen for hunting.
Is it just tracking a polar bear and scavenge the scraps of his meal?

Normally you should be wary to see fox tracks but I felt at awe with the presence of another creature roaming around here, we’re no longer alone.

A few hours later while Ann and I were struggling through rubble of ice blocks and pulling our sleds over junks the size of a refrigerator, Martin saw a tern flying over our heads.
First it circled Ann and seconds later it zoomed over my head.
A bird and a fox in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, close to the North Pole, the furthest one can be from any source of food and vegetation.

A tern flies all the way to the Arctic, turns around and flies back to the Antarctic – it travels the greatest distance of any bird in the world.

We were discussing this today.
What is the point?
To go through such effort and then not even enjoying your arrival?
But then again why do you want to spend time here in the absolute freezer box when it is nicer only a few degrees to the south.


Our first important milestone

A milestone today – skied 1/2 degree of latitude.
Victor Serov who I call into every night with our position is really happy with our progress: ” You are doing very well Bernice and you are doing science” is his encouraging response every time I call in.

I imagine he is sitting in a tent in Barneo with a giant map, North Pole in the middle, and plotting all routes towards the pole.
Each team on the ice has to call in coordinates at night so if something happens, they are standby with 2 MI8 helicopters to assist.
Like yesterday somebody had to get evacuated because of frostbite.

To get a compliment from a Russian scientist who has spend a year in Vostok in Antarctica [coldest place on earth] as well as being an accomplished polar explorer, we should be proud of ourselves to have skied 1/4 of the way on day 5.
But it hasn’t come easy.
The half degree has been really hard work temperatures dipped to -41C too cold to film, do science, all we can do is keep moving until we need to eat and drink.

The sleds weigh over 80 kilo’s and new pains and aches show unexpectedly in places you don’t want them, like my back.
On the odd break, I would get the notebook out, jot down the GPS position while Ann pokes into the snow and yells the various snow depths to me.
The rest of the day we are doing cold management: toes we don’t feel anymore and need nurturing or placing your thumb between the fingers to warm them up inside your mit, and worse letting your arm hang so the blood can race back to the extremities.

If you are cold all blood flows to your heart and core to protect it, so to call it back is playing a trick with your mind.
Despite this careful nursing, I still end up with frost nip on all fingers.
I now need to be extra careful with exposure to cold.

Today I kept thinking how the suffering for half degree of skiing is somewhat symbolic for the suffering we need to do to combat climate change and the sacrifices we will need to make to reduce our carbon footprint to stay under our 2 degree agreement.
Just like our expedition the beginning will be the hardest to execute.
Did it take 3 hours to get ready in the morning now we can do it in 2 hours.

Skiing nonstop and pulling a heavy sled, was only manageable for 1.5 hours at the time, now we do it 2 hours without stopping.
I suspect that at day 24 all the laborious work is easy, fluent and natural without ever thinking it could be so difficult.
Could our half degree of skiing be symbolic for the commitment to stay under 2 degrees of global warming?
And once you start the expedition there is no turning back and the only option is to stick with it all the way through to 2 degrees.

Lets hope we can pull this off for the sake of the gorgeous Arctic and eventually for us.