Polar Trek Shows Ice Loss

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April 22, 2009—Braving long walks across frigid Arctic terrain, a group of British explorers is gathering vital ground-based data about the extent of sea ice shrinkage. Video.

© 2009 National Geographic (AP)

Unedited Transcript

A British team of polar explorers is in the midst of a three-month journey across more than 600 miles of the frozen Arctic Ocean.

SOUNDBITE (English) Pen Hadow, Arctic Explorer: "I'm Pen Hadow, I'm the leader of the Catlin Arctic Survey, and we've just been put down on the Arctic Ocean at the start point of the survey.

The 3-person team is measuring the thickness and density of rapidly disappearing sea ice.

Already, measurements show a lack of multiyear ice, which is ice that has survived at least one summer melt. Studies done by NASA have shown that multiyear Arctic ice has been decreasing consistently since 2002by some 40 percent.

Most experts are generally agreed that summertime ice cover may disappear completely in the next decade, and increased melting would release more freshwater into the ocean, affecting currents.

The climatic consequences of this are uncertain and some fear it could be extreme.

Scientific research using information collected from the survey is being undertaken by a number of institutions. Scientists at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, will work with the Catlin Arctic Survey to model the group's data and find out more about how fast the ice is melting.

In the past, thickness data has been gathered from satellites, but up to 90% of ice is under the surface and cannot be seen from above.

The Catlin expedition is providing researchers with newer, and presumably more accurate measurements.

SOUNDBITE (English) Wieslaw Maslowski, Professor of Oceanography Naval Postgraduate School: "By having a model of the sea ice we can actually understand and study the thickness and the volume variability and one of our findings indicates that the thickness as simulated in our model changes, decreases, maybe much faster than the observed aerial satellite changes."

The Arctic is a source of oceanic circulation patterns, in which warm water at the equator travels northward to the.

The water then cools, drops to the bottom of the ocean and is carried by the currents back toward the equator.

According to Maslowski, if too much fresh water is released, this pattern could be disrupted, potentially causing long-term climate variations.

The Arctic team is walking an average of more than 4 miles a day and despite the severe cold are constantly reminded that the ice is moving, which you can hear, even as Pen Hadow speaks.

SOUNDBITE (English) Pen Hadow, Arctic Explorer: "You won't see images like this very often. This is in the night, on the Arctic Ocean, at 81 nearly 82 degrees north, 130 degrees west. We've travelled in front of a southerly wind. It's moved the ice about 10 miles in about 24 hours, which is very fast. And the result is that a lot of the pans of ice, ice floes, ice pans, are moving around and banging into each other. And so we've got this pressure ridging activity, which is quite dramatic to see and even more to experience, seeing as it's only about 40 meters from our tent."

The ice surveyors will continue their expedition into the month of May.

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