The Icy Arctic Treadmill

15 April 2013

This week, the phenomenal team here has been learning first hand what I’ve been discovering more and more since first coming here 12 years ago: that the frozen North is an unpredictable, uncontrollable, unforgiving place.

Blogpost by Eric Phillips, Polar Guide for Team Aurora – April 13, 2013

The North Pole is a mathematical construct, an imaginary convergence of lines of longitude. But the North Pole — a stationary point — happens to be in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, and its shifting pack ice is subject to the forces of wind, current and tide. This ice movement is known as drift.

We have been living on this frozen ocean for the last week, and like any other team that comes here, we are trying to play mastermind with the drift, moving across an ever-shifting surface to reach the top of the world. Each day we’ve pushed north only to find ourselves back where we started the following morning.

Our journey began 30 km from the North Pole with the ice drifting northeast; a direction that was of benefit to us. But on the second day, a shift in the wind sent the ice southeast and we began to battle the drift, much like an icy treadmill.

Such is the unpredictable beauty of the Arctic ocean that now, after nearly a week of skiing, the southeasterly drift — which amounted to 10 km per day — was enough to stymie our forward progress, the irony being that despite having skied more than 30 km across the ice, we were still 25 km short of the North Pole. Given the current and the wind, I advised the team that we would not be able to make it from where we were with the supplies and time we have. So we contacted Barneo base and they had a helicopter going to the north pole Friday afternoon. They were able to stop on the way and pick us up, and drop us at a better spot that put us within striking distance of the pole to make sure we could fulfill our promise. Hitchhiking at the top of the world — who knew?

I’m reminded in this situation of the advice I gave these young, brave explorers before we left: “Know and respect the power of the Arctic environment. The sooner you know your place in the Arctic order, the sooner your arrival at polar enlightenment.” They’re certainly coming to understand what oil companies must: there is no predicting or controlling this wild and magical place.

Nobody comes away from their time on the Arctic Ocean without discovering a little about themselves and a lot about the top of our planet. And now here we are, on the last leg of our journey to lower a time capsule containing nearly 3 million names to the seabed 4.3 kilometres below the North Pole. Everyone on this team keeps surprising me and impressing me with their commitment, their awareness of the millions backing their quest, their responsibility to those following from afar.

It’s been a fantastic trip. All around us is this austere white icescape of frozen rubble, flat pans of ice, now and again open water — all of which we’ve had to traverse on our journey. So far this team from Greenpeace has been phenomenal.

I’ve been coming here now for 12 years to this very point, to the North Pole, and it’s quite extraordinary. And over those 12 years I’ve seen it slowly disintegrate. There’s a lot more thin ice now; in the previous summer there were large expanses of open water where there should be ice, and where there should be multi-year ice, the grandfather of sea ice. This year we’ve seen a lot of first year ice. And leads of open water. And this thin ice is the big sign that things are changing here in the Arctic.

So here we are, in the heart of this beautiful place that we must protect, about to make our final preparations to drill a small hole in the ice for posterity, not for exploitation, and plant this time capsule with the wishes of millions on the seabed to see it protected for all life on earth.

It’s a message to the future — did we act in time to save the arctic from decimation from over fishing and oil drilling? It will be a magnificent moment when we finally leave this capsule there on the seabed, for humanity, a message for the future.

Eric Philips is the president of the International Polar Guides Association and one of the world’s leading polar guides. As well as traversing Greenland, Spitsbergen and Ellesmere Island, Eric has skied from Russia to the North Pole and from the North Pole to Canada. Eric has journeyed to the South Pole five times, traversing Antarctica from the coast to the south pole three times. Eric has worked as a polar guide on Greenpeace’s Climate Impacts expedition to Greenland, and lives in Hobart, Australia where he operates his North and South Pole guiding company, Icetrek Expeditions.