Living on thin ice (1)

In a single year, the Arctic lost an area the size of Alaska. How long before it melts entirely? Juliette Jowit meets the British explorers risking their lives to find out.

On a cold Monday in December, one of Britain’s most experienced polar explorers is sitting in an even colder room in Portsmouth, on the south coast of England, explaining his latest mission. The temperature has been turned down to a mere -20° Celsius, tropical by comparison to the almost inconceivable conditions he will have to endure during his next expedition to the Arctic.

There, temperatures can drop as low as -90° Celsius; it is dark all day or the sun can blind people in minutes. The explorers will wake up, their eyelashes frozen together, in sleeping bags full of shards of ice. The ground beneath the trekkers’ feet will be only inches of frozen water that can open at any moment into icy rivers that will kill almost instantly. And, apart from the odd grey seal, the only life they are likely to meet is a hungry polar bear.

Meeting Pen Hadow for the first time is something of a shock. He is the first man in history to have managed one of the ultimate feats of human endurance — to trek solo and unaided to the North Pole. But instead of the great strapping giant of a man you might expect, the 46-year-old explorer is slightly built, and his hand, when he shakes mine hello, is almost the hand of a woman.

As Hadow talks, his breath frosts the air in front of his face, but he looks unperturbed while sitting still in this giant concrete freezer. Such small extremities, along with his brown eyes, olive skin and naturally low heart rate, make him ideally suited to a life of spending months at a time alone or responsible for teams of amateurs in one of the most inhospitable environments on earth.

Now, though, Hadow is about to embark on a very different expedition. Later this month, he is to leave northern Canada to trek more than 1,000 kilometres to the North Pole; what’s different this time is that he is travelling with two fellow polar explorers, his friends Ann Daniels and Martin Hartley, and they will be dragging with them not just food and repair kits but 100-kilogramme sleds each, laden with equipment to take up to 12 million readings of the depth and density of snow and ice beneath their feet.

The readings that Hadow and his team are taking will feed into our understanding of the Arctic’s relationship with climate change. Based on occasional submarine journeys and more recently satellite data, charts of the total area of Arctic sea ice have shown a gradual decline over the past 40 years. Then, in 2007, the line on the chart appeared to drop off a cliff, plunging below 5,000,000 square kilometres a full three decades ahead of forecasts.

The dramatic events of two northern summers ago, when a Russian submarine rushed to plant a flag under the pole and Canadian and European governments tersely laid rival claims to sovereignty, led many scientists to warn that the Arctic sea ice could disappear entirely during the summer months much sooner than had been feared.

Most experts agree on the impact this will have on five million Arctic inhabitants and the rest of the world — from the loss of the unique habitat that exists under the ice to rising global sea levels and possible changes to the ocean circulation and the weather patterns of the whole planet. Yet forecasts for when this will happen range from just four years to the end of the century. The reason is that very little is understood about the depth and density of the sea ice, and therefore the total volume of water frozen at the top of the world.

This is what Hadow’s Catlin Arctic Survey — appropriately sponsored by an insurance company — hopes to put right by providing the much-needed data about how much ice is left, and so help work out how much time we have to prepare for what probably is the most immediate, truly global threat of climate change. The survey is supported by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Prince Charles and the conservation charity WWF.

“If you want to understand climate, we should invest more in making observations of climate change, and as the Arctic Ocean is the amplifier of global warming, we should concentrate on the Arctic region to understand how fast the warming is taking place,” says Wieslaw Maslowski, a research associate professor in oceanography at the United States Naval Postgraduate School and science adviser to the Catlin survey.

Hadow puts it more chivalrously: “I see the Arctic as a maiden newly discovered on the social scene, and we’re melting away her petticoats, and there are some avaricious types peering underneath, and someone needs to defend her honour.”

Hadow’s defining 75-day trek to the North Pole in 2003, alone and with no airplanes to resupply him, began with a spur-of-the-moment promise to his father on his deathbed, a promise that was to haunt him for 10 years through two earlier failed attempts and financial and health problems. So obsessed did he become that in his autobiography, Solo, Hadow wrote: “Above all other things, even the birth of my son, it seemed to be absolutely central to my being.”

The roots of that trip and Hadow’s long love affair with the Arctic lie deeper, though. His parents, Nigel and Anne, hired a nanny named Enid Wigley who had looked after the Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s son Peter, and her routine involved teaching the young Pen to endure the cold by leaving him outside. She also spent years telling him stories of Antarctic explorers.

Years later, drifting in an unhappy job with a sports management group, Hadow found a book in the library of the Royal Geographical Society in London that was to bring back those memories, lead him to both poles, and now set him on his mission to alert the world to the imminent threat to the Arctic. The book was the translated diaries of an obscure 19th-century German ornithologist called Bernhard Adolph Hantzsch who, after being shipwrecked, died trying to trek across the far north of Canada to find a ship home. Hadow was captivated and decided to finish the German’s journey.

“I remember walking back to the office, thinking: ‘Of all the books I have, 90% of them are written by adventurers and explorers and scientists: Francis Chichester, Jacques Cousteau, Chris Bonington, Ranulph Fiennes, [Robin] Hanbury-Tenison,’” recalls Hadow. “It never occurred to me until that moment that I could ever lead a life approximate to those. In that moment I thought: ‘I’m going to start this journey.’”

The official history records that, thanks to “Nanny” Wigley and Hantzsch, Hadow advertised for a companion, made his first journey and was hooked on exploring. Reading between the lines of his biography, though, there appears to be another crucial factor in his career choice: an extraordinarily strong need to prove himself, from hanging upside-down from trees as a child to taking up competitive gardening and school sports.

“There were lots of reasons why I did it [the solo trek] which were based around this vow I made, the main reason being that at the time it was regarded as the ultimate feat to be done,” Hadow admits in conversation.

If anything, the latest expedition comes even closer to fulfilling this need. After the solo feat, Hadow was researching his book; while in bed one night, he read a report by the US navy that discussed design changes to its ships, undertaken to cope with changing sea ice because of global warming.

“I thought: ‘Even I don’t really know about this and I’m in the almost unique situation of having this relationship with the Arctic,’” he says. “I thought: ‘I could be the amplifier or explainer; I might be the person to reach out to as wide an audience as possible, globally, to tell them what’s going on.’ That’s what explorers do, classically. They discover information and then have the potential to engage audiences.”

With a new reason to return to the Arctic, Hadow asked climate scientists how he could help. He discovered that measurements of sea ice began in the 1960s, but for three decades there were only annual submarine voyages, providing too little data to be sure what was happening more broadly. Since the 1990s, satellite maps have been used to calculate the height of snow and ice above the waterline, but experts have to make assumptions about the roughly five-sixths of mass underneath, and there is a “hole” in the data over the North Pole that is 1,600 kilometres across.

The satellites show that in 2007 alone, the Arctic sea ice lost an area nearly the size of Alaska, reaching an all-time low of 4,130,000 square kilometres on 16 September. Following this and another poor year in 2008, the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) now calculates the permanent sea ice — measured in September at its nadir — is receding by 11.7% a decade, or an average area the size of Scotland every year.

Little is known about thickness, nor about the density of different layers of snow and compacted ice. Submarine data suggests a 40% thinning between the 1960s and 1990s. Last year the journal Geophysical Research Letters published a paper by three experts at University College London (UCL) that calculated that the ice in the winter of 2007-08 was thinner than the previous five-year average by 26 centimetres, plus or minus 5 centimetres. The margin of error reflects the lack of long-term and wide-ranging data.

Last September, despite a cooler summer, the sea ice only recovered to its second-lowest recorded extent, possibly because there was more thin first-year ice than usual. And some scientists think the total volume last year was even lower than 2007, says Maslowski.

Part of the wide range in estimates for when summer sea ice will disappear is due to uncertainty about how quickly the exposed darker sea will warm, triggering a cycle of more melting and warming. The models also differ in their varying assumptions about ice thickness. Maslowski, whose team has projected the most aggressive date — between 2010 and 2016, based on current trends — argues, for example, that too little is known about increasingly warmer water brought by ocean currents from the Pacific and Atlantic, and its contribution to melting sea ice.

A few scientists do venture to the far north, usually by boat or plane, to drill cores or take radar measurements, but in an area that in winter can cover up to 4% of the globe, there are only about six such locations, says Seymour Laxon, one of UCL’s experts. The problem is that few scientists have the inclination, physical endurance, time and money to do the training necessary to spend months in such harsh conditions, says Hadow, who has raised almost US$4.4 million and spent years planning the trip, including an extra delay after funding fell through for 2008.

“What captivated me more than anything was that I could do this,” says Hadow. “For once in my life I was in the right place at the right time.”

NEXT: Into the cold

Follow the expedition team — with regular updates on the explorers’ progress, physical condition and more — at

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

Homepage photo by Catlin Arctic Survey