May 8

Traveling to the North Pole, Part 3: We reach the pole

Category: Arctic,Travel,Work

A few days ago, I finally reached the pole. 

The switchyard project has defined ten locations on an imaginary line stretching from Alert to the pole.  Each year, the same locations are sampled; over time, the properties of the water at these locations are compared to each other and to other measurements in order to contribute to understanding of climate behavior.

The distance from Alert to the pole is about 450 Nautical miles, or 520 “normal” miles.  Regardless of our particular destination, our standard  proceedure is to pack up the aircraft early in the morning, fly a short distance west along the shoreline, and then head north. We carry a lot of stuff – the instruments to perform the water sampling, a winch, generator, ice auger, fuel for everything (including, sometimes, the aircraft), survival gear, and a lot of odds and ends.  We have headsets so that we can talk with everyone on board – typically, 4 or 5 people including the pilots.  Everyone pitches in to get the work done; when on the ground, the pilots help us set up the gear for our operations.

In the pictures below you can see the sea ice in the forground – this is what the surface of the ocean looks like from high above.  The ice is not one unbroken sheet, but is composed of plates which smash together and form pressure ridges. In the background are the mountains of north Ellesmere island.  


The wind pushes the ice around, causing cracks (called “leads”) to open up.  The leads can last for days or just hours.

When we reach the vicinity of the day’s sampling location, we’ll try to find a reasonably flat-looking area to land on, and  drop to a lower altitude to examine the candidates.

When we find a good one, the pilot will pull some “energetic” maneuvers, turning repeatedly to go back and forth and an altitude of only a few feet, eventually doing a touch-and-go to drag the skis along the ice without actually landing in order to gauge the roughness of the surface.  In the picture below, you can see by the horizon line that we are pulling a tight left turn at low altitude.

The landing is usually pretty bumpy, with occasional rafting into the air because of an ice hummock.  The pilots and our expedition leader are experienced at choosing good sites to land; the trick is to find a spot where the ice is “thin” – but not too thin to support the plane.  In this area of the Arctic, the sea ice can be 20 feet thick, but the ideal thickness for us is 4 feet or so.  Any less than 2 feet will not support the plane; any more than 12 feet and we can’t drill through it with the equipment we’re carrying.  just a few years ago, an aircraft fell through the ice; nobody was injured, but the plane sank and was lost.  Fortunately there was a helicopter in the area and all on board were rescued within 12 hours.  This year there is no helicopter; if we became stranded, we’d have to rely on another aircraft, which would land as close as possible and wait for us to walk to it.  This would be a challenge, because walking long distances on the ice is not simple.  Leads are usually too broad to jump across; false surfaces conceal thin ice; pressure ridges are more rugged up close than you would think.  Falling in the water without warm shelter nearby would likely be a death sentence – assuming you could even get out of the water.

Eventually, we land, unload the plane, and set up a tent on the side of the plane where we do our work.  What we do in that tent will be covered in a future post.


In order to reach the pole, we flew to a fuel cache previously set up on the ice.  Here’s what it looks like from ther air:


Once at the cache, we refuel from 55-gallon drums using a small pump.

Two hours later, we were at the north pole!  There is nothing to visually distinguish it from any other spot on the Arctic icecap, but it was pretty cool to see map on the GPS display.  While orbiting the site to look for a good landing spot, we circumnavigated the earth several times.  Here’s out victory shot.  From left ot right, that’s co-pilot Mike, Pilot Troy (both of Kenn Borek Air), Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory expedition leader Dale, and myself (of JHUAPL).  It was pretty warm out (5F) and there was no wind, so we’re not over-dressed.

Here’s some images of the beautifully wind-sculpted ice:

In the next image you can see the startling blue color of sea ice when it’s not covered by frost and snow.  At the bottom of the lead in this image, you can also just see the green lnie of algae that grows on the bottom of the ice (you may have to click to enlarge the image).


3 Comments so far

  1. Janice May 8th, 2012 2:23 PM

    Beautiful, thank you for posting these amazing photos, Dan. What an adventure.

  2. Gaelyn May 8th, 2012 9:51 PM

    This is amazing. The wind sculpted ice could be white sand. May the ice be just right.

  3. Christina May 13th, 2012 5:56 PM

    um, wow, the very idea of getting stranded or falling through the ice is scary. You guys are brave.

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