non-sexy, unglamorous, protocol

Every 2 kilometers we stop to measure snow.
Sometimes we would rather ignore this science because stopping and doing 10 measurements, writing down coordinates and snow depths is tedious, and time consuming.
We know that this kind of science is non-sexy, unglamorous but perhaps one of the most important contributions to understanding the arctic.

After our successful fly-over by NASA a few days ago, we are motivated to really give scientists relevant and valuable data, from the 224 km we ski to the pole.
This means you need to follow a protocol- don’t deviate and let the snow sampling be favorable to your location but take it as it comes.
So today was another frigid day, -36C likely -40 with the windchill, not a day to stand around and ensemble a probe pole, take out your notebook (and gloves) and write down the measurements.
However by doing this consistently we are starting to get a good feel for the snowpack.

Since today we are skiing over big frozen leads – that were open water lakes before the cold spell.
Ironically the closer we are getting to the North Pole the bigger the leads.
Good for us they are solid now and we ski right over them but in a few months from now this will all be water.

As you can imagine the amount of snow on top of a lead is marginal – no more then 3 to 4 cm.
But more important question would be when did it snow and how long ago?
Scientists would like us to register windslabs on top of the snow and today we continuously walked on crusty and collapsing layers, the ones that are a curse for our sleds and they break right through.
It means it has been windy here close to the pole.

This in combination with drift and current, the North Pole is dynamic and ever changing.
Underneath the slab we find hoarse crystals — a sign of severe cold.
This is a crystal that doesn’t bond with anything due to its size and formation.
When you ski through them it sounds like you ski through broken glass.

I am starting to really enjoy this micro analyzing of the snow we ski over mile after mile.
Kudos to Ann who volunteered to do the snow stabbing while we warmed ourselves.

A little green sledge is my life support

I don’t want to keep banging on about the hardships up here and I will say that they’re far less than what real Polar explorers endured a hundred years ago and more.

The pressure of the environment, however, remains the same.
This little green sledge is my life support system.
Without all the kit – tent, stove, fuel, sleeping bag, down jacket and food – I wouldn’t survive up here for long.

My friend, the solo cave diver @Andy_Torbet, says of his sport that ‘you’re OK or you’re dead.’
There is a gap between OK and dead up here, but it’s not a big one.
If I were to stand still in the same clothes I was wearing when this photograph was taken the environment would’ve killed me.

Ironically, it’s by keeping cool that you find the most comfort – sweating  is an efficient way to discover hypothermia.
But cold management is not easy, especially where fingers and toes are concerned.

If your fingers get cold, you cannot put up a tent or, even worse, light a stove.
All these factors are controllable though.
And once you trust yourself enough to keep away from the sharp teeth of the cold then you can almost enjoy being here.

Skiing across the surface of the Arctic Ocean gives me the profound feeling that we are on a planet, and that alone is worth the toil.

Martin Hartley
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Being cold… Very cold

Rather optimistic this morning, Martin poked his head out of the tent and reported it was not as cold as the day before.
Sure, we know that coming from a warm tent everything is relative even being cold but the idea of skiing and not having to deal with frostbites of our hands or feet would be very welcome at this stage of our expedition.

Since our drop off the temperatures have being around -31C to -34C and according to Martin’s  temperature gage on his camera,  today was an absolute record of -41C.
Sometimes it is better not knowing how cold it really is because the weird psychology of being uncomfortable starts to kick in.
Next are the questions in your head: what are we doing here?
And will I be safe?

The good side of the cold is that all leads are frozen and we ski over everything.
Even 10 degrees warmer and we have to deal with open water.

The Arctic looks like the Arctic when it is cold – constantly reminding you that it is a place only for those who can handle its environment.
Not for us, non-fur bearing kind of species.
We have to deal with face masks, down mittens, and multiple layers because every piece of skin exposed will freeze in less then 5 minutes.
There is a saying that being cold doesn’t exist only bad clothing but today with all the best clothing from Arctic specialist Bergans from Norway, I was still shivering to the bone.
All Day.

The times we were warm is when we hauled our sleds over pressure ridges and with the first sip of a hot drink.
That adds up to perhaps 30 minutes of the 8 hours we were outside.
I make a fist inside my mitten to get the blood back to my thumb but then the cold radiates to my fingers.
You can’t  help it, if you use ski poles and your hands are up, the blood races to the core and leaves you with absolutely numb hands.

Luckily for us there is no breath of wind.
Nothing to add to the windchill.
Our sleds have a lot of friction when the snow is coarse and cold.
I bet we can do more miles each day if you can slide effortlessly over the ice.

At 17:30 today we couldn’t take it any longer and set up our tent.
Our stoves or rather the fuel which has been given us have difficulty and we pray each night they work so we can eat and drink but most important give us some heat.

Perhaps in a week time we are wishing for freezing temperatures but for now we need to think warm thoughts to keep going.

It’s dangerously cold, day and night

The first few days of a polar expedition are usually the coldest and with the sledge at maximum weight the first few tugs over the smallest of lumps seem disproportionately hard.
Trying to describe what it’s like to be here in order to help someone who hasn’t is like explaining what wine…. or beer tastes like to someone who has never touched a drop.

Suffice to say it makes no sense to be here, it’s dangerously cold, day and night  it’s far away from everything I and everyone I love.
Life here on this surface of ice is only ever uncomfortable .
So why bother..?..

Partly out of a sense of duty to serve the environmental cause and a token gesture to science, and that is always good food for  the soul.
This place has the most beauty and charisma of any environment I have ever lived in.

Nothing can explain that it’s just a feeling I have when I’m here.
It is getting harder to be here but the ‘return’ on my physical investment is still the same.

Maybe I’ll change my mind on that tomorrow…   

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NASA overflight happened today!

Today was a great demonstration of total collaboration between many parties all wanting to achieve the same objective; measuring the arctic sea ice.
When Martin and I got invited to an ESA meeting in January we met Nathan of NASA who told us about the Icebridge campaign and their new flight route over Svalbard in the spring.
Their objective is to get a better understanding of the Eastern Arctic, something they haven’t been able to do.
We compared our routes and we quickly decided that NASA should do a flyover over our route to the North Pole.
Many emails, coordination and planning went into this.

Icebridge is coming from Thule Greenland and flew over the icecap measuring ice, snow, temperature en route to Svalbard.
First it appeared NASA was going to be a lot earlier then our planned drop-off but then we got delayed by 4 days and risked to miss NASA all together.
Luckily, as if this important mission was serendipitous, today at 3:30 pm the Icebridge P3 plane flew right over us the coordinates perfectly communicated.
Even a minute of latitude to the east or west, there is the chance of missing us completely on this immense Arctic Ocean.

Back in Svalbard is Kyle – engineer but much more really: a genius with GPS and a neck for coordination.
Our Iridium Rock Star sends GPS coordinates every 15 minutes to NASA.
Kyle compiles them and put them in a document for John Sonntag who instructs the pilots where to go and Nathan who is the project manager keeps an eye out for us from his big window in the plane.
John Woods had given us buoys to deploy when we got dropped off with the helicopter to mark a starting point and one to leave on the day of the fly over.

Just following our GPS coordinates would not be enough since we move and the ice drifts.
Flooded with data  and everybody’s participation, this morning at 7 am we heard to news of the planned flyover for today coming from Henk-Jan our Basecamp manager.
The plane flew first to the North Pole and 30  minutes later we heard the loud engines and saw the contrails aiming right for us.

Martin filmed from below, Jefferson from the plane and the instruments are working hard to process our data.

Why does this matter?
Each day we are doing 50 measurements – 2 km apart to understand the snow depth on the ice.
By flying over us, Icebridge can calibrate our coordinates on the ice with the coordinates they measured and to get a ground check of the snow we measure each day versus the measurements they get from the snow radar on the plane.
In a few weeks we give them our 1250 measurements and plot them against their flight path ( our trek) and examine if the data is consistent.
This was a real highlight and we feel honored to have work with Icebridge,
Thanks Nathan, John, Kyle and Henk-Jan for making this happen today.

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OIB completed the high priority Svalbard North mission.

OIB completed the high priority Svalbard North mission.
This mission was designed to sample sea ice on the eastern hemisphere side of the Pole, within the Russian FIR boundary which had formerly been off limits to OIB.
A portion of the return leg to Longyearbyen was along an ICESat-2 ground track.
In addition to Level 1 Requirements SI1 and SI2, this mission addresses sea ice level 1 baseline requirement SI3d by sampling sea ice in the eastern Arctic.
We also coordinated an overflight with the 2Dgrees expedition party, they arrived on the sea ice on April 4 at 88N latitude and 150E longitude and are taking snow depth measurements on their way to the North Pole along a portion of our flight track.
We passed directly over the expedition party at 13:16:05Z and saw them in the DMS, CAMBOT, and FLIR images.

The weather forecast for the mission showed mainly clear skies with some clouds on the southern portion of the line near Svalbard and haze near the eastern most end of the line.
Haze was indeed present along the southern portion of the line on both the outbound and return legs, and there was also some near the North Pole.
But the haze was thin enough for all instruments to see through and collect good data for most of the mission, with about 15 minutes of ATM data lost on the southern portion of the line due to clouds.

ATM CAMBOT visible image of 2Dgrees team. (NASA/Robbie Russell)

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Today is a special day…

Today is a special day for the expedition.

Exploration is about going somewhere collection new information and then sharing it.

Today as we ski along taking snow depth measurements a NASA plane will fly over the top of our route collecting the same data as we do all the way to 90 Degrees North.

Making this happen on constantly shifting surface is not easy. Thanks to the brain power and enthusiasm of the NASA geeks we have managed to do this.

We stepped onto the P3 plane yesterday to meet the whole team and look at the array of equipment all of which is dedicated to measuring sea ice and land ice thickness snow depth and drift.

To be in a unique position to help these amazing people who’s thirst for knowledge about ice on our planets surface is a huge huge honour.

Our ground truthing will help the radar scientists work out if what they are recording and observing is in line with the data they are hoovering up as they fly over.

After three years… Back in business

As soon as I stepped inside the helicopter today at Barneo it all came back. The endless vastness of frozen sea water, 7 million square kilometers, the size of Europe. The incredible hostile and forbidden arctic that pushes you away – we humans are not welcome – but beckons you to come back if you stay away for long.

It has been 3 years since our last expedition to Canada from the North Pole yet the routine and expectations and anticipation has not changed one bit.

The Sleds were loaded into the Anatov 74 at 6 am along with lots of gear for the Barneo camp. Somehow there were 4 seats for people to sit on and the rest of us sat on foam pads strapped along the length of the plane. No seat belts were found. This is not an ordinary plane – it flew from Moscow to Svalbard since it can land on ice on a special runway built with a tractor.

During the flight we slept since there are no windows and the suspense of going and flying kept us awake the night before.

Barneo is still getting set up for the tourists that fly there, a marathon that is being held at the North Pole and the odd scientist who comes to collect data. After a wait of about one hour we flew to 88 N and 150 East were the pack ice is good and the drift in our favor.

From the window it looked spectacular but when the fog appeared we saw new leads of open water below us and lots of them.

It got me worried because the open water stretches were giant and potential expedition stoppers if you had to cross them. After 100 East conditions approved and it appeared we were back in thinker and more stable ice that is less dynamic of the influence of current or wind.

Miraculously the fog lifted too as we headed to our drop off point at N88 and 150 East. Helicopter touched down but did not shut off the engine as we got our sleds out and quickly disappeared back into the fog.

Then it was quiet. Quiet in the head, mind, body, all stress slid off me and the only thing that matters now is getting to North Pole – welcome back to simple life – where being warm, staying safe, fed and hydrated counts more then anything else.

I call it my arctic retreat.

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