Will future North Pole expeditions be impossible?

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – @BednarChuck

It was just over 100 years ago in 1909, when Admiral Robert E. Peary purportedly completed the first expedition to the North Pole. However, a lot has changed since then as global temperatures climb and the amount of ice around the Polar Regions melt at a rapid rate.

These warming temperatures and climate shifts have led National Geographic to ponder if the days of humans embarking on expeditions to the frozen northern frontier have come and gone; if melting ice means that mankind has already made its last overland trek to the North Pole?

Based on criteria set forth by Tom Sjogren from adventurestats.com (the record-keeper of all Arctic travel-related feats), a true expedition to the North Pole requires that the participants travel from the coastline of Alaska, Greenland, Canada, or Russia over the polar ice mass to the North Pole, which is located at a latitude of 90 degrees north.

Once the team reaches their destination, it is acceptable to make the return journey on a plane or helicopter, though Nat Geo noted that purists believe that a 100 percent human powered trip (one that doesn’t rely on air-dropped supplies, dogs, or motorized vehicles) is the only way to go. To date, a total of 47 of the 247 expeditions to the North Pole have met these criteria.

On thin ice

Unassisted expeditions, the website explains, requires travelers making the journey to ski, swim, claw, and climb their way along a roughly 480 mile route, all while bringing a nearly 300-pound sled of supplies along with them on the strenuous 50 to 70 day trek. However, with temperatures on the rise, only one unsupported, unassisted expedition has made the trip since 2010.

In comparison, it had been accomplished seven times in the previous five years. Why such a drop off? Nat Geo explains that it is due to changing ice conditions due in the Arctic due to warming temperatures. This March, the month’s sea-ice extent was the lowest since the data started being collected back in 1981, and multiyear ice is disappearing at a rate of 15.1 percent per decade.

Multiyear ice typically survives the summer melt, and historically, it would be several feet thick and “relatively stable,” Eric Larsen, a polar explorer from Colorado and a veteran of three North Pole expeditions, told the website. Now, the ice is “thinner” and “breaks up more often,” he said, and “as a result, you have a more rough surface area, which is more difficult to cross.”

Richard Weber, a Canadian explorer who has traveled to the North Pole a record six times, said that he did not believe that the newer ice was more difficult to cross, but that camping on thinner ice was “dangerous. It’s thin, and nothing’s going to stop it from cracking under your tent.” He added that there is more open water in the region now than ever before.

Arctic drift, lack of air service compounding matters

Climate change has also led to a greater number of ice formations, further complicating travel to the North Pole. The melting of multiyear ice has caused changes to the Arctic drift, or the direction in which ice tends to float in the Arctic Ocean. Thinning, broken-up ice can cause an explorer to be thrown off course, adding additional extra miles to an already difficult journey.

Drift is nothing new, but it has become more irregular and dramatic in recent years, experts told the website. Ron Kwok, a senior research scientist at NASA, said that the ice was moving faster than it was two or three decades ago, and was more responsive to the wind due to how thin it is. Add in the fact that the only charter company to support polar expeditions recently decided to no longer provide such service, and it makes the trip riskier than ever.

Thomas Ulrich, a Swiss adventurer who abandoned a recent expedition to the North Pole, said that the lack of air charter service was like “if you weren’t allowed to use oxygen any more on Everest,” and while he does not believe that Arctic expeditions are a thing of the past, he told Nat Geo that people planning to do an unsupported expedition should “plan on sailing.”

Would you risk it?

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