Global warming makes expedition to ice-locked North Pole possible

Arctic Mission’s crew hails from Britain, the Netherlands, and the United States. From left to right: Jaap van Rijckevorsel, Tim Gordon, Pen Hadow, Nick Carter, Frances Brann, Heather Bauscher, Erik de Jong, Krystina Scheller, Fukimi, Tegid Cartwright and Conor McDonnell. (Photo by Conor McDonnell)

Two specially-equipped sailboats are attempting a voyage that’s never been done before – a trip to the North Pole. Led by a British explorer, the international crew has moved the boats from their home in Sitka up to Nome, where they’re hoping to launch for their journey to the Pole this weekend. Melting sea ice in the Arctic could make their voyage possible for the first time in history.

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The North Pole has long been locked in ice. But climate change is breaking the Arctic apart, turning a polar landscape into something far more friendly for boats.

Like the Snow Dragon II.

With its big white sail, the yacht looks like a pleasure craft but is sturdy enough to collide with sea ice at full speed without breaking apart. Explorer Pen Hadow is actually taking two boats on the trip: the Snow Dragon with its aluminum hull and the Bagheera, which is made of steel. He hopes their journey will send a powerful message to world leaders that something isn’t right at the top of the world.

“We are not going to be able to carry on mindlessly taking whatever we want from the environment and I think a lot of people are looking to this as a symbol for a new debate,” Hadow said.

The Bagheera and Snow Dragon II are polar yachts attempting to sail to the North Pole. They are currently tied up in the Port of Nome. (Photo by Conor McDonnell)

If two sailboats can get there, a whole universe of economic activity opens up – including shipping and fishing. Both Russia and Denmark have filed a claim for the seafloor of the North Pole and other countries want to expand northward too. Unlike the South Pole, the North Pole has no legal protections. Hadow wants to shine a spotlight on the vulnerability of this region, by being the first to get there.

“It is a strange challenge and ambition indeed working very hard to put together a project that you don’t want to succeed,” Hadow said.

Because success means the ice is going or gone. Hadow calls the project Arctic Mission. His crew of ten includes lead scientist Tim Gordon, who will collect data from creatures both well-known and mysterious.

“When the ice melts polar bears struggle to hunt seals, but there’s a lot going on beneath the waves that we know much less about.”

Like bacteria, plankton, and other species living in frigid temperatures and total darkness. In studying them, Gordon wants to create a snapshot of how human action is changing the world.

“Now that the ice is melting, they are all of a sudden going to be exposed to commercial fishing, to commercial shipping, to a whole wave of new competitor animals that will come in.”

In other words, Gordon says, the whole food chain could be altered without ice to protect the region. There’s broad scientific consensus that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet.