Touring the Extreme North for Signs of Man's Influence

Robert Headland, aboard the Russian icebreaker Yamal, is part of an expeditionary tour ship that takes people to 90 degrees north latitude. He talks to Renee Montagne about how human behavior has been affecting the polar region.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Should you like a chillier sightseeing experience, you could head for the North Pole. Over the summer we've been checking in on changing conditions in the Arctic. With advances in maritime technology, commercial shipping and fishing have increased the region, as well as, in recent years, tourism.

The latest group of tourists made the journey to the North Pole aboard the Russian icebreaker, Yamal. Bob Headland is a senior associate of the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge. He was hired to give a series of lectures aboard the Yamal. We got him on the line yesterday as the icebreaker was beginning its journey home.

Mr. ROBERT HEADLAND (Senior Associate, Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge): At this moment we're only a few kilometers from the North Pole. About half an hour ago, air compressors came on and the icebreaker is starting her work and we have only one choice in the matter, we are now heading south.

MONTAGNE: And as you look back at where you've just been, why don't you describe it to us.

Mr. HEADLAND: Well, in fact, looking directly out of the window from the radio room now, there's more mist and fog coming. It's bright. The visibility's only a few hundred meters, but we're making good progress.

MONTAGNE: And how many trips have you taken to the Arctic?

Mr. HEADLAND: This to the North Pole will actually be the 20th time I've been here. I first arrived in 1991.

MONTAGNE: And you would know better than anyone how different that is - that you can, in a sense, just pop up there - compared to how it was for early explorers.

Mr. HEADLAND: Oh, this is something that truly is fascinating. You can get all the theoretical material from the literature and hear what they've written, but to actually be here in practice and to the effort that it takes to get here, even now in the height of summer, it certainly gives you a good appreciation of the history.

MONTAGNE: And now you are actually on what amounts to a tour ship. I mean, it's an expedition but people pay good money to go to the North Pole.

Mr. HEADLAND: Yes, indeed. There is a shipload here of passengers who are very keen on it. It is expensive. The fuel, after all, is uranium. But this has meant that something that was previously obtainable with only the greatest of difficulty can be done, I'll say in relative luxury, because I emphasize this is by no means a luxurious tourist ship. She's a good working icebreaker adapted to carry passengers.

MONTAGNE: Have any of the passengers or have you all working there on the ship been able to get off the ship and actually walk on the ice?

Mr. HEADLAND: Yes, at the North Pole we arrived, stayed overnight, and just after breakfast went down to the ice. The ship had moved to a larger ice floe. There, indeed, we had an extremely pleasant barbeque lunch.

At the stern of the vessel, I'd say about half the passengers and similar proportion of the crew actually dived in.

MONTAGNE: Mr. Headland, you know this geography, you know the history of it, you know the climate. What do you think the future holds for the Arctic?

Mr. HEADLAND: I think one will look at the Arctic becoming generally warmer, The thickness of the ice becoming less. Already the Russians operate the northeastern sea route as a major cargo and transshipment route. In North America, perhaps the Northwest Passage might have more cargo working on it. So this area will become more used.

But the accessibility with improvement in technology on all icebreakers is getting more and more. It's quite amazing how we're talking so easily (unintelligible) satellite telephones. In the old days this would have been over radio and we'd be saying change all the time.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, we'd be saying over.

Mr. HEADLAND: Over (unintelligible) exactly.

MONTAGNE: Well, I'll say to you, over and out just now. Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. HEADLAND: Thanks very much indeed.

MONTAGNE: Bob Headland is a senior associate of the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

And I'm John Ydstie.

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