Sunday, March 27, 2011

Extreme science in the Arctic Circle

An elite group of scientists is heading to one of the coldest places on Earth to carry out vital research on global warming. Joining them for part of the journey is a three-person team from CNN, led by special correspondent and environmentalist Philippe Cousteau. Check for updates and images from the trip right here over the next two weeks. Learn more about the journey here.
(CNN) -- Day 4: Staying grounded as frustration mountsDisappointment turned to frustration as soon as we got the news that we would be delayed another day. The weather continues to hammer the northern Canadian Arctic with a low pressure system hundreds of miles wide that is causing zero visibility conditions at Ice Base.
Weather forecast for region

After our guide John Huston shared the bad news, we decided to head to the airplane hangar and try to determine if there was any additional information we could glean from the pilots or airport personnel.

We learned that a weather station called Eureka is in the same weather system as Ice Base, and while they normally experience 350 days of clear weather a year, the last two weeks has been zero visibility. Things are not looking good.
Disheartened, we turned to look at our plane, a DC-3 sitting patiently on the runway. First designed in the 1930s, the DC-3 is a hardy workhorse and one of the most successful aircraft types ever built. Designed at the request of American Airlines, the DC-3 revolutionized commercial aviation and is largely responsible for the popularity of transcontinental flights in the U.S. (which took 15-17 hours) and soon became the preferred method of transport over trains.
Built just 32 years after the Wright Brothers first took flight at Kitty Hawk, the DC-3 was such an effective design it went on to dominate air travel around the world for decades. It is still one of the only planes that can land on gravel, dirt, snow and ice.
How to survive a polar bear encounter
Gallery: Extreme science in the Arctic Circle
Arctic Circle
In spite of this traditional hardiness, along with the special Arctic modifications -- including skis attached to the bottom of this particular airplane -- 200 feet of visibility is still required to land her on the ice. Even with highly trained pilots and the latest navigational equipment, zero visibility means she is grounded.
With little to show for our trip to the hangar, we spent the rest of the day practicing safety and emergency protocols and preparing for the unlikely but possible event of a major injury.

There is a whole list of things one must do in an emergency and it is critical to follow the rules.

From diagnosing injury to stabilizing the patient, calling Ice Base or headquarters in London with the satellite phone, relaying GPS coordinates etc., missing any one of these steps can exacerbate the situation considerably.

In the Arctic the name of the game is preparedness, something to keep in mind as we pack our gear and await the airplane transfer to Ice Base.

When flying one should be dressed for the elements, have supplies of water and food and be prepared in an emergency to spend several hours outdoors and be able to care for injured team members in the unlikely event of an emergency or crash landing.
That said, we all feel as prepared as we could hope for and all we can keep doing is wait... and wait... and wait until hopefully tomorrow the weather turns in our favor.

Day 3: Disappointment
The alarm rang as the early morning sun was trickling through the blinds on my window. As the fog of sleep quickly evaporated, I realized that today was the day we head to Ice Base. Finally, after weeks of preparation it was time to head north. Or so I thought.
Mother Nature had a different plan. High winds meant that our early departure was delayed until at least 1:30 p.m. We spent the morning training on the tundra outside of town and by lunch the word came down that we would be delayed until tomorrow, with no guarantee the weather would improve by then.
The disappointment was palpable. Nevertheless, our guide John Huston had us suited up and outside to making the best of the situation. The temperature was holding steady at -20 degrees Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit). After a few hours we realized that another day of training with a warm lodge within walking distance was not a bad thing.
There are a lot of variables when trying to film in these conditions. From the hardships the cameraman must endure trying to handle a large, heavy, and complex piece of equipment in such frigid temperatures to the difficulty of organizing the team and delivering simple dialogue to camera, the challenges of making a documentary are multiplied one hundred fold.
Imagine standing with a bare face (so the audience can see who you are) in the wind as your nose and cheeks begin to literally freeze, wearing no goggles so that your eyes start to seal shut each time you blink and an almost unbearable ice cream headache caused by the cold wind whistling around your head all whilst having a casual conversation and speaking calmly and clearly to the camera.
The main exercise was to practice putting up a tent, no mean feat in 54 kilometer-per-hour winds (32 mph). "The key," said John our guide, "is to take your time, go slowly and do it right the first time."

In the cold, everything takes longer and everything is more fragile, metal can shatter and cloth is brittle. What might be considered an inconvenience in warmer climes, puncturing a hole in the tent or breaking the metal rods that keep it aloft, can be potentially disastrous in the Arctic.
By sunset, we had all taken turns setting up and breaking down the tent, practicing what to do in case of a polar bear encounter and learning how to use the various emergency equipment; beacons, satellite phones, GPS etc.
Now all we can do is cross our fingers that tomorrow we'll be able to continue the expedition.

Day 2: The 8 rules of Ice BaseToday was our last full day at Resolute Bay before heading to Ice Base (weather permitting) and we spent it getting the gear ready, trying it on, and venturing outside for an extended hike outside of town. Everything went smoothly but we were all a little shocked by the cold at first and grateful for the training that we had received, which can be summed in the 8 rules of Ice Base:

1: Do not act macho when you are on ice base
This is not a competition about who is tougher or who is smarter, this is a team effort in a VERY dangerous environment and not telling someone you are tired or cold or hungry or thirsty can lead to a life-threatening situation, not only for yourself, but for the other members of the team.
2: DO NOT act macho when you are on ice base
See above
3: Stay warm at all times
What Cousteau's packing for Arctic trip
The Arctic, in essence, is the air conditioning unit of the planet and fulfills this function in two primary ways
--Philippe Cousteau
As our guide John explained to us, if you see a teammate getting cold, "feed 'em and beat 'em." In other words; if you are cold or see someone else getting cold two easy solutions are to feed them food like chocolate that can be burned by the body to create heat and aggressively engage in some sort of exercise, like jumping jacks. There is no need for the cold to get out of hand. As our guide John said," frostbite is a self-inflicted injury." The key is to not let a small problem get out of control and to communicate early how you are feeling.
4: Stay hydrated and well fed
This may seem obvious but many studies have shown a link between hydration and frostbite. The air is very dry and one has to drink a great deal more water in such a cold, dry climate. One also burns up to twice the amount of calories in this cold as one does under normal conditions.
5: Always keep your eyes on your teammates
This is key, sometimes people won't even realize that they are acting differently, or their nose is starting to turn white. Being observant is critical to staying safe.
6: Never venture out alone

This seems obvious but it happens often with inexperienced people. Storms can descend and grow in intensity quickly in the Arctic and visibility can become so bad that you cannot see from one tent to the other. There is safety and strength in numbers and it is critical to make sure that your team knows where you are at all times.
7: Respect the polar bear
Respect and understanding, not fear, has allowed northern peoples to co-exist peacefully with the polar bear for thousands of years. While polar bears have been known to attack and kill people it is a rare occurrence especially if you act appropriately and confidently. Bears can outrun us easily so running is never the answer. If the bear is calm, back away slowly keeping your eyes on the bear. If they are aggressive, make yourself look big; shout sternly (don't scream) and if you follow rule # six, group together. If the bear does attack then use whatever deterrents are at hand and remember... don't run.
8: If this is your first time on Ice Base do not confuse your urine bottle for your water bottle
Self-evident, yes. Does it happen? Apparently, yes. At -40 degrees, getting in and out of the tent and the sleeping bags at night is not easy. Everyone keeps a urine bottle in order to go to the bathroom in the tent at night. The challenge is that one has to keep both one's urine bottle and one's water bottle in the sleeping bag with you or they will freeze, so in the dead of night it is easier to mistake the two than you might think.

Day 1: Resolute Bay
There is always a sense of anxious anticipation in the weeks leading up to an expedition; a combination of nervous energy and excitement, but as the lights of Resolute Bay began to peer through the dusk there was a sense of relief.
We had finally made it after days of travel to this remote outpost in the northern Canadian Arctic. This was not the final destination of our journey but would serve as a way station for a day's worth of training before continuing on to Ice Base another 400 miles to the northwest. Finally, the expedition had begun.
Our small crew had gathered in Ottawa only the day before: Darren Bull, an Australian cameraman now living in London; CNN producer Matt Vigil based out of Atlanta; our arctic guide John Huston from Chicago; and myself from Washington DC.
Our destination is the Catlin Arctic Survey Ice Base to join scientists in their third year of spending seven weeks each spring living and working on the ice conducting critical research to monitor and understand the changing face of this inhospitable environment.
Sleeping in unheated tents on the ice and working in temperatures that are regularly -40 degrees Centigrade (-40 Fahrenheit) -- this is truly extreme science.
Each spring the scientists come to explore the changing balance of the Arctic ecosystem because while the Arctic Ocean is the smallest and shallowest of the world's five major oceanic divisions it is arguably the most important.
While the word Arctic often brings images of highly visible iconic animals such as the polar bear to mind (Arctic comes from the ancient Greek word arktikos, meaning country of the great bear), it is the largely invisible systems at work both above and beneath the ice that should matter to every human being on earth.
The Arctic, in essence, is the air conditioning unit of the planet and fulfills this function in two primary ways. Due to the high reflectivity of the snow and ice along with long periods of little or no sunlight, the Arctic causes a net loss of heat into space.
In addition, the Arctic plays a vital role in regulating the circulation of the Earth's atmosphere and oceans by distributing heat from the tropics to the poles, making the Earth overall a much more habitable place. As sea ice melts, causing less reflectivity and disrupting oceanic currents, this crucial function may change with potentially dire global consequences.
As earth's population passes the 7 billion mark and rapidly heads towards 9 billion by the middle of the century, dwindling natural resources are of increasing concern; thus any volatility in the world's climate is of global significance.
Over the next two weeks our team will join the adventure to document the extreme science being conducted by the Catlin Arctic Survey. In the words of the famous Arctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, "Men go out into the void spaces of the world for various reasons. Some are actuated by love of adventure, some have the keen thirst for scientific knowledge, and others again are drawn away from the trodden path by the lure of little voices, the mysterious fascination of the unknown."
This expedition is a little bit of all three, adventure, science and mystery colliding together in an effort to explore a world about which very little is known but which is crucial to the survival of life as we know it.

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