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ROBERT SMITH, host:

Here's the mission: Travel more than 600 miles, mostly on skis, across the Arctic Ocean. The temperature: 40 degrees below zero. It's the Catlin Arctic Survey, a British expedition to the North Pole. But they're not going for the glory; they're going for the data. It's this week's Science Out of the Box.

(Soundbite of music)

SMITH: The three explorers are entering the 35th day of their trek. Pen Hadow is leading the exhibition. We caught up with him by satellite phone yesterday. He was on the ice, about 450 miles away from the North Pole.

Later in the trip, though, temperatures will rise, and the ice will start to break up. Hadow's team is ready.

Mr. PEN HADOW (Leader, Catlin Arctic Survey): We will be swimming between the floes of ice in the sort of latter phase of the project.

SMITH: So wait a minute. You'll be swimming with your equipment?

Mr. HADOW: Yes. We are anticipating having to swim up to two hours a day in the latter phases of the project. It's like, a bit like James Bond when he gets in his special suit over his dinner jacket and swims across the moat to the castle to rescue the girl. We lower ourselves into the water and swim through open water to the next piece of ice.

SMITH: So you're 150 miles into your expedition. How's the team doing?

Mr. HADOW: The team - are holding together very well. We've been through a very challenging, tough time, mainly due to the weather, also due to the drift of the ice, the floating ice that we're traveling on, which has been going backwards, driven by the winds from the north.

SMITH: We already know from satellites that the Arctic ice is shrinking up there. So why did you have to go in person to do your experiments? What are you doing up there?

Mr. HADOW: Satellites are, as you say, very good at measuring the area of the ice on any given day in the whole of the Arctic Ocean, but there's actually no instrumentation on any satellites - and never has been yet - that is specifically designed to measure the thickness.

If you want to understand better how long the sea ice will be with us as a permanent feature of the planet, you need to know its thickness. And that's where the polar explorer skills and being able to travel on the ice, making long journeys, combined with the various technologies that we have at our disposal, enable us to take these very particular measurements.

SMITH: Now, you say technology, but isn't it fairly old technology? Don't you just drill into the ice?

Mr. HADOW: Yes, well, we have sort of three techniques. One is to make visual observations of every surface feature that we pass. We also have a portable radar, which takes measurements every 10 centimeters. And finally, we have a manual drill, and we can drill right down to through the sea icing.

SMITH: Now, there are the obvious dangers in the Arctic, like the shifting ice and polar bears, I imagine, around there somewhere. But on your first few days, you actually encountered other dangers, I know, including a bar of chocolates?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HADOW: Well, yes. Having - I had extensive reservations - all the fillings in my teeth in preparation for this project because the teeth take a tremendous hammering up here. You're drawing in air of minus 45 degrees centigrade. Meanwhile, you're drinking cups of very hot tea.

Well, I was given a gift for my birthday, which I brought up here, of a bar of chocolate, and sure enough, I wasn't concentrating. It's like an iron bar, breaking into chocolate, and three-quarters of a tooth fell away.

SMITH: Ow.

Mr. HADOW: It isn't giving me pain at the moment, but it's one of my dreads. It's very difficult to do any dental work in this environment.

SMITH: Yeah, and you have one member of your team who has frostbite, and you're still continuing.

Mr. HADOW: Martin Hartley, one of the world's leading photographers for expeditions, and particularly in polar environments, is with us, too. And he has got severe frostbite of several toes and is being incredibly gutsy keeping moving with the team and is determined to make it to the far end.

SMITH: Well, that's amazing.

Pen Hadow is the leading the Catlin Arctic Survey across the ice to the North Pole.

Good luck, Pen.

Mr. HADOW: Thanks very much, Robert.

SMITH: Despite those frostbitten toes, the Catlin team is taking some amazing photos. We've got one on our Web site, npr.org. There's also this link to the team's Web site, where you can actually monitor the three team members' body temperatures and heart rates in real time. When they spot a polar bear - boom, through the roof.

Let me check myself. Right now, I'm about 75 beats per minute, but after the break, I expect some major palpitations.

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