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Sailing To North Pole, Explorers Find More Ice Than Expected

Two men pose aboard a small boat, filled with gear, with a blue sky behind them.

A team of explorers and scientists returned to Nome last week after attempting to be the first to sail to the North Pole. The three-week expedition, called Arctic Mission, was led by British explorer Pen Hadow, who had previously trekked solo to the North Pole from Canada, across the sea ice.

Hadow says on this trip, the international crew of 10, and their trusty dog, Fukimi, hoped to make a global statement about climate change:

“Reaching the North Pole, while interesting as a technical challenge, is actually going to have far more serious consequences as a global warning, or signal, that something very substantial is happening across a substantial surface area of the planet.”

That “something” is the melting of ice in the Arctic Ocean. The team’s two yachts, Bagheera and Snow Dragon II, spent much of their time harbored in Sitka. Both vessels are sturdily built of steel and aluminum, which allows them to navigate through ice channels not much wider than their hulls.

Frances Brann, skipper of Snow Dragon, says the ice can give a false sense of protection:

“That ice is very serene, very still, like being in a harbor — when it’s not windy. If it’s very windy, it would be a place that you wouldn’t want to be, because those huge sheets of ice wouldn’t just drift slowly around: They’d be moving faster, you’d have a potential to get crushed.”

It’s ultimately that wind which made them to decide to turn back, at around 80 degrees north latitude. According to the team, that was still as far north as almost anybody has made it by water. Tim Gordon, marine biologist and head scientist on the mission, also says:

“It was actually very relieving to see some ice. We’d spent two weeks sailing north in what is meant to be an area that is frozen solid all year round, sailing through open water. And to know that there is still some of it that is frozen year-round was actually quite heartening for me.”

They also took heart at the amount they were able to accomplish: The crew gathered data on marine ecosystems that have been long out of reach under the ice. Gordon says this will help scientists begin to understand how things like plastic pollution, ocean acidification and increased noise are affecting these organisms.

There was personal growth, too, says Heather Bauscher, a wildlife biologist. One research task took her away from the sailboats:

“Some fog rolled in, and there was a moment where I realized, ‘Oh man.’ It was such a sense of relief and accomplishment, too, to be able to say that we went out in this tiny little dinghy, and sat in the central Arctic Ocean, surrounded by fog, and were able to navigate our way back.”

The team hopes that missions and research like theirs will prompt more legal protections for the Arctic, citing those already in place in Antarctica. Brann, skipper of Snow Dragon, is optimistic:

“We can make change. And this is something I think those of us who have spent significant time in Alaska are aware of. There’s less people, more access to our government, and they’re more likely to be responsive. I hope those of us who’ve had political successes in the past can convince those who are newer to the game that it can be done, we can make a difference, don’t just give up.”

For now, as samples are sent to England for analysis and the boats sail home to Sitka, the team says they’re just happy to be back on dry land.

Image at top: Pen Hadow, leader of Arctic Mission, and Erik de Jong, co-skipper, aboard “Bagheera.” (Photo: Gabe Colombo, KNOM, 2017)

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