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Britons to measure Arctic ice, one step at a time

A three-member team will tow sled-mounted radar from Alaska to the North Pole to gauge the effects of warming.

October 21, 2007|Raphael G. Satter | Associated Press

LONDON — A British explorer says he is planning the most accurate survey of the thickness of the Arctic ice to gauge the effects of global warming.

The Vanco Arctic Survey will entail a 1,240-mile trek to the North Pole next year. On the way, explorers will take millions of readings of the thickness and density of the ice and snow to try to provide the clearest picture of the polar ice cap and how long it will last.

Explorer Pen Hadow's three-member team will pull a sled-mounted, ground-penetrating radar from Point Barrow in Alaska to the North Pole between February and June. The radar will measure the depth of the ice every eight inches, producing about 10 million readings.

The Arctic ice cap shrank to a record low this summer, opening the Northwest Passage along Canada's fringe for the first time in recorded history. Scientists say the ice is melting so quickly that the Arctic Ocean may be ice-free in summer by 2050.

Scientists point to the accelerated melting of the Arctic ice cap as a signal of global warming, which is expected to change climate patterns worldwide. They warn that the disappearing Arctic sea ice, by altering the ecosystem, is endangering polar bears and probably other species.

Submarines and satellites have already taken measurements of the polar ice using upward-facing sonar and infrared lasers fired from space. But submarine visits to the pole have been irregular and satellites cannot easily distinguish between ice and snow, said Joao Rodrigues of Cambridge University's Polar Oceans Physics group.

Rodrigues said a ground-based survey remained the best way of gauging the exact thickness and density of the ice, which in turn could help scientists predict how the North Pole will look as global warming takes its toll.

The data gathered by Hadow will be fed into supercomputers at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., which will model the life span of the Arctic ice. NASA's ICEsat satellite will shadow the explorers at some point during their trip to see how its readings compare with theirs.

Hadow's survey follows in the footsteps of Arctic explorer Wally Herbert, whose expedition took frequent ice-core readings as it crossed the Arctic Ocean nearly four decades ago. Hadow said he hoped his new measurements could be compared with Herbert's to show how the region has changed.

The team will spend most of the time towing the sled across the ice on foot, and expects to take 100 to 120 days to reach the Pole. They will be resupplied by aircraft approximately every two weeks. They will also be equipped with special "LifeShirts," which will transmit their vital statistics back to base.

Sensors are woven into the shirts around the chest and stomach to measure heart rate, breathing and body temperature.

"The place I love and know the best is the Arctic Ocean and the North Pole ice cap, and it's in deep crisis," Hadow said.

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