April 17, 2009

Explorers Surprised At Lack Of Permanent Arctic Ice

Three British explorers trekking to the North Pole to assess how fast the Arctic ice sheets are melting said they were astonished at how little permanent ice they have discovered.

The team began their 620-mile walk from Canada's Arctic to the North Pole in early March, and had set down in an area scientists were sure would contain permanent multiyear ice.

But so far, the average depth of the ice has been slightly less than 6 feet, indicating the team was finding mainly first year ice that will meld during the summer months.

"To discover that there's virtually no multiyear ice in this part of the (Arctic) is a real surprise to me," a Reuters report quoted lead explorer Pen Hadow as saying this week.

The team said the findings indicated less summer ice around the Pole this year.

Last month, a leading polar expert warned that the Arctic is warming so rapidly that the summer sea ice cover could disappear entirely as early as 2013, decades before some had predicted.

Indeed, the Arctic is warming at twice the rate of other parts of the world, with the sea ice cover shrinking to a record low in 2007 before slightly increasing in 2008.

Scientists have linked Arctic warming to global warming brought about by emissions of greenhouse gases.

The team also discovered that the snow cover on top of the Arctic ice is thinner than many expected, according to Chip Cunliffe, the team's head of operations for the mission.

"What we were looking at was potentially that we would start in an area of multiyear ice and then move over into first year ice as they headed north," he said during an interview with Reuters on Friday.

"The average thickness ... is obviously telling us that it's more likely to be first year ice than anything else."

Summer ice is typically concentrated around the North Pole while a majority of the thicker multiyear ice is located around the islands of Canada's Arctic archipelago.

"What we are finding is that amount of multiyear ice around the archipelago is probably thinner than might have been expected," Cunliffe said, declining to speculate on the underlying cause.

The three adventurers spend four hours a day drilling into the ice to obtain measurements.  Hadow's manual drill can reach depths of 15 feet, but he has only hit ice that deep four times.

"If we'd had more multiyear ice there it's more likely that he would have got (that deep) on more than just four occasions," said Cunliffe.

The team had initially planned to use an experimental portable radar set to more accurately measure the ice, but were forced to use drills after the fierce cold disabled the radar.

British insurer Catlin is the lead sponsor for the $5.4 million mission.  The team, which are set to be picked up in late May, has covered roughly 240 miles so far.


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