Lack of permanent Arctic ice surprises explorers

By David Ljunggren

May 28, 2010 Updated May 28, 2010 at 6:40 PM EDT

OTTAWA(Reuters) - The head of a British team
walking to the North Pole on a mission to gauge how fast Arctic
ice sheets are melting said on Friday he was surprised by how
little permanent ice he had found so far.

Pen Hadow and two other adventurers set off in early March
on a 1,000-km (620-mile) trek from Canada's Arctic to the North
Pole. The team was set down in an area where scientists had
been sure there would be permanent multiyear ice.

But so far, the average depth of the ice has been just
under 1.8 metres (6 feet), suggesting they are finding
predominantly new first-year ice that is likely to melt in
summer months.

"My surprise is guided by the scientific community's
expectations of what the ice should be here," Hadow told
Reuters via satellite phone from about 620 km from the North
Pole.

"In the opening section of the (journey), most would have
anticipated multiyear ice, ice certainly more than 2 metres and
really more than 3.5 metres thick."

The team said in a statement that the findings pointed to
an ever-smaller summer ice covering around the Pole this year.

One top polar expert said last month the Arctic is warming
so quickly that the summer sea ice cover could vanish as early
as 2013, decades earlier than some had predicted.

The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the
world and the sea ice cover shrank to a record low in 2007
before growing slightly in 2008.

Scientists link higher Arctic temperatures to the
greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming.

Hadow, saying he did not know what had caused the ice to be
so thin, said possible reasons included warmer air and ocean
temperatures as well as stronger winds that were blowing the
ice out of position.

He also found that the snow cover on top of the ice was
much thinner than the 35 cm (14 inches) he had expected.

"Thinner ice has less snow on it so the two measures
support each other. It's not as though we have some weird
anomaly going on," he said.

Summer ice tends to be concentrated around the North Pole
while much of the thicker multiyear ice is clumped around the
islands of Canada's Arctic archipelago.

Chip Cunliffe, the team's head of operations, declined in a
separate interview to say what he thought might have caused the
ice to be thinner than expected, saying he would let scientists
analyze the data.

The team spends four hours a day drilling into the ice to
take measurements. Hadow has a manual drill that can go down
5.2 metres and so far has hit ice that deep just four times.

"If we'd had more multiyear ice there it's more likely that
he would have got (that deep) on more than just four
occasions," Cunliffe said.

The team had planned to use an experimental portable radar
set to measure the ice more accurately but had to resort to the
drill after intense cold knocked out the radar's power supply.
Hadow said he was optimistic it could be repaired soon.

The three explorers, who have covered about 380 km so far,
are due to be picked up in late May.

The main sponsor for the 3 million pound ($5.4 million)
expedition is British insurer Catlin

($1=0.56 pounds)
(Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson)




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