Explorers Find Thin Ice at the North Pole Every spring there's a brief window for explorers and scientists to try to reach the North Pole. But that window is growing smaller due to a warmer climate.

Explorers Find Thin Ice at the North Pole

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For NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

It's really just an imaginary spot on the pack ice, but the North Pole has quite a pull for adventurers and scientists. Every spring, before the ice begins to fracture, there's a brief window for voyagers trying to reach it. Now, that window is shrinking due to a warming climate.

Earlier this year, Elizabeth Arnold headed to the pole as part of our Climate Connection series with National Geographic. She reports that storms and melting ice forced polar travelers to cut their expeditions short.

(Soundbite of jet landing)

ELIZABETH ARNOLD: A small Russian cargo jet designed for extremely short takeoffs and landing touches down on a makeshift runway on the ice, 60 miles from the North Pole. Crouched on a nearby snowdrift, Victor Boyarsky crosses himself and swears. His eyes are on a foot-wide splintering black crack in the ice, which the jet narrowly misses.

This was the first plane in a week to attempt the landing. No one's been able to get in or out or here. Nicknamed Borneo and run by Boryarsky, this is the only floating ice camp anywhere near the North Pole.

Borneo is a cluster of blue tents, a few generators for heat and two helicopters that serves scientists and adventurers trying to reach the top of the world. Gail force winds have grounded everyone here, tent space is limited, and the vodka has been flowing.

(Soundbite of people singing)

ARNOLD: Dr. James Morison, of the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington, has spent more than 30 seasons in the arctic. This one, he says, is the worst. He's the go-to guy of the polar research community — but even he can't get his work done. His main concern is finishing up a hydrographic survey - observation points that provide a detailed picture of how seawater and sea ice are circulating.

Dr. JAMES MORISON (Oceanographer; Chairman, Polar Science Center, University of Washington): Of course, now the survey has been sharply curtailed because of the problems of the break up of the runway and all that kind of thing.

ARNOLD: A team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution did manage to install what's called an ice mass balance buoy right here near camp. But early one morning, I discovered that the crack in the runway has splintered and spread about a mile.

Oh my God. The place where the scientists put their buoy, the crack, goes right through it - right where it is.

(Soundbite of bubbling water)

Unidentified Man #1: (French spoken)

ARNOLD: About a mile away at the other end of the crack, there is similar frustration, where French scientists have been scuba diving under the ice to gather data. Their equipment has failed. Spare parts are out of the question. And worse, they're now told they must pack up and leave tomorrow because the runway is cracking up.

But the frustration of the scientists pales in comparison with the alarm expressed by polar explorers, those in constant search of adventure and hardship — people with only sleds and skis who spend months, sometimes alone, out on the ice, far from the comforts of Borneo.

Today, when the weather briefly breaks, the Russians take the helicopter to assist those who are out there this season. It's a who's who list of legendary explorers.

(Soundbite of helicopter taking off)

ARNOLD: We re-supplied Belgians Dixie Dansercoer and Alain Hubert, who spent the last two months alone on skis from Siberia. With one sled a piece, they carefully weigh each bar of food that will hold them for the next two months. They reached the pole last night and are now headed to the coast of Greenland, some 2,700 miles total. Both of them have been to the pole many times, but Hubert says this was different.

Mr. ALAIN HUBERT (Polar Explorer): We just thought it's going to be a nice march to the pole, a sunny day, cool, 20 kilometers, but it was just - we just had headwinds, strong winds, lots of water everywhere, like we never had before during the polar expedition. So we fought for 13 hours and just - then we reached the pole and we didn't stop.

ARNOLD: A few miles but an ocean of ice away, we pick up another team which has also just reached the pole after walking 50 days from Ward Hunt Island, the northernmost tip of Canada's Ellesmere Island.

In a warm tent, savoring a cup of hot tea, Canadian guide Richard Weber reflects on the expedition and shakes his head.

Mr. RICHARD WEBER (Canadian Polar Guide): I first went to the North Pole 21 years ago in 1986. And I remember this blue line would appear from the horizon rising up, you know, and meet us. And there would be these huge pressure ridges with, you know, ice blocks the size of cars and houses. And I was just shocked the ice is completely different. It is so much thinner than it was 20 years ago. The character of the ice has changed. There's no longer - there were no big pans. It's completely different.

ARNOLD: The Russians have one last flight to make this season. They'll drop Norwegian Borge Ousland and his partner, with skis and kayaks, right at the pole. Ousland's feats are superhuman. He's the first to reach the pole totally alone and unsupported. He's since done it in winter, in total darkness. This is a man who seems to have fear nothing — except, he says, the warming of the arctic.

Mr. BORGE OUSLAND (Polar Explorer): I've seen it myself. I am an eyewitness in that respect. And I'm really worried about climate changing and the melting of the ice cap, and that North Pole might be free of ice in the summer. It's strange. It's strange. So that's strange. That scares me.

Unidentified man #2: (Russian spoken)

ARNOLD: Back in the mess tent, Victor Boryarsky stoically receives the news of the latest crisis. His only tractor has plunged through the ice in an attempt to clear a new runway. Camp is breaking up beneath him.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Arnold.

SIEGEL: You can see a map showing the effects of climate change in the Arctic and elsewhere. You can go to npr.org/climateconnections, or look in the October issue of National Geographic magazine.

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