Where All Is South
For nearly two hours, I have been staring out a small window on a droning propeller-driven airplane. The low, unsetting sun casts the plane's shadow off to the side, where it slides over what looks like an endless crinkled white landscape. But there is no land below us. There is only an ocean—a frozen one. We are flying out across a cap of floating, drifting ice that's the size of the United States. As far as the eye can see, colliding plates of ice raise jumbled miles-long ridges, some as high as houses. Here and there, the ice is split by cracks that expose the black depths of the Arctic Ocean underneath.
The plane is jammed with instruments and survival gear and scientists heading to the top of the world to study climate changes at the pole. Nearly five hundred miles ago, we left the most northern spot where people can live year-round, a Canadian military base called Alert, and headed farther north—
as far north as you can go before you suddenly find yourself pointed south again.
Researchers have long been measuring a global warming trend, but it is in the Arctic that temperatures have risen the most. This research team is trying to understand why conditions are changing and what the changes may mean for people and the environment.
Finally, the pilot says we are nearing our destination. The plane's shadow grows as we descend. We are all overheated and sweating, stuffed into puffy layers of clothing and huge insulated boots. But no one else seems quite as nervous as I am about what is coming. In a few moments, the pilot is going to set this fifteen-ton rubber-tired airplane down on a rough runway scraped across the eight-foot-thick sea ice. The crew and scientists around me, who have done this for several years in a row, are munching peanut butter sandwiches and apples, reading books, chatting. I tighten my seatbelt. The
Arctic has claimed the lives of many of the people who have been brave enough, or crazy enough, to press north. I wonder if the ice will hold, or if it will crack open and swallow the plane.
We finally touch down. There is a quick series of thumps and bumps and the rising roar of engines thrown into reverse. The propellers raise clouds of sparkling whiteness called "diamond dust"—crystals of flash-frozen sea mist far finer than snowflakes. A hatch opens and we climb down aluminum steps.
Quite suddenly, I am standing on top of the world, about sixty miles from the spot around which the earth spins. The frigid air bites at my cheeks. The bright sun forces me to squint. My boots scrunch on what feels like snow-
covered ground. It takes a few moments before I remember I am walking on floating ice that is drifting about four hundred yards an hour over an ocean two miles deep—deep enough that ten Empire State Buildings could be stacked beneath us without breaking the surface. I am standing at the earth's last real edge, the last place where people cannot get very comfortable for very long.
Unlike the planet's South Pole—where a continent is home to permanent research stations and dozens of scientists, engineers, cooks, doctors, and other staff—at the North Pole nothing is permanent except the seabed far below. The ice that is here today will be somewhere else tomorrow. In a few years, much of what I am walking on, what our airplane landed on, will break up and slide out of the Arctic Ocean altogether through passages around
Greenland, replaced by newly formed ice. A visitor once left a message in a container on the ice near this spot. It was found on a beach in Ireland a few years later.
A couple of weeks ago, Russian workers flew here from Siberia to plow the runway into ice that had frozen solid through the long Arctic night. Six weeks after we leave, that same ice will pool with slushy meltwater and crack in pieces.
Welcome to life around the North Pole. The air is fifteen degrees below zero.
The sun is circling in low, twenty-four-hour loops. If you define a day as the stretch between sunrise and sunset, today began on March 21 and will end on September 21. We are at one of the two places on the earth's surface where time loses all meaning. The only reason anyone here has any idea whether we should be asleep or eating lunch or breakfast is because the
Russian crew running operations on the ice have set their watches to
Moscow time. The only food I will eat in the next eight hours is a shared half-
frozen salmon sandwich. And I am in love with this place.
This is a strange feeling for me. I never liked the cold much. When I was a kid, I was drawn to sun-baked regions, either real or imagined, preferring The
Swiss Family Robinson to White Fang. I loved nothing more than pulling on a diving mask and snorkel in summertime to swim in warm bays and sneak up on fish and hermit crabs. I once spent more than a year on a sailboat journeying from the sunny South Pacific across the Indian Ocean and up the
Now I am at sea again, but this time I am standing on top of it. The sun is blinding, but the air is painfully cold. I feel like a mummy, stiffly stuffed into four layers of clothing. (I will end up smelling a bit like a mummy, too,
because we will not be able to wash for three days.) My toes tingle from the cold despite the giant insulated "bunny boots" I am wearing, but I am totally uninterested in fleeing to the small red tents nearby—the only hints of color in this blindingly bright ice world. I have somehow been captured by the magnetic pull of the Arctic, a tug that I have read about but never experienced.
For thousands of years, philosophers and navigators puzzled over what might be found at the world's northernmost spot. On one expedition after another,
explorers died trying to reach this place. And now we have flown here in two hours from Canada.
Each year between mid-March and the end of April, after the single Arctic day has dawned and before the ice gets too soggy, dozens of people come here—and not just scientists. There are tourists popping champagne corks,
skydivers from Moscow, and ski trekkers from South Korea. There are extreme athletes from Manchester, England, who trained for their treks here by jogging around their neighborhoods dragging heavy truck tires from ropes tied around their waists. There are even marathon runners, including one man from Rhode Island who prepared for the first North Pole marathon, run here in
2003, by jogging in place in a dairy's walk-in ice cream freezer. Technology has invaded as well, and it helps make life here possible. We know our position within a few feet thanks to cell phone–size GPS navigational devices. From the ice, I call my ninety-eight-year-old grandmother on a satellite telephone. She tells me she hopes I am wearing a hat.
Most visitors stay in a Russian-run base camp called Borneo, which is a strange mix of comforts and rugged simplicity. It has heated tents,
electricity, a DVD player and TV, and four microwave ovens. But the toilet for men is nothing more than a waist-high igloo-style wall of ice blocks.
The scientists and I are using Camp Borneo only as a stepping-stone. Our final destination is an unnamed group of tents thirty miles closer to the pole—
tents with no heaters, no DVDs, no champagne. The scientists are part of a small international army of dedicated researchers undertaking a host of inventive, and sometimes dangerous, projects aimed at understanding the changing face of the North Pole.
As I'm marveling at this frozen floating icescape, I am struck by the idea that later in this century the Arctic Ocean could well be uncloaked in the summer,
no longer crusted in ice but instead mainly open water, as wave-tossed and blue as the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
The global warming trend that raised the earth's average temperature one degree Fahrenheit in the twentieth century has had a stronger effect here.
Average temperatures in some parts of the Arctic have risen as much as eight degrees since the 1970s. The sea-ice cover, which always shrinks a bit in summer, has for decades been pulling back more and more, exposing great stretches of open water. Computer simulations show that it may disappear altogether late in this century.
Most scientists have concluded that people are probably causing most of the recent global warming trend and some of the changes in the Arctic climate and ice by adding to the atmosphere long-lived gases that trap the sun's heat, somewhat as a greenhouse roof does. But, as always in science,
questions follow answers. No one can be sure exactly how much of the recent warming is human-caused and how much is the result of natural fluctuations in the climate system. Indeed, there is little information on how temperatures in the high Arctic varied in centuries past. Until recently, the forbidding nature of the vast icy seascape has prevented all but a few bold explorers from traveling here.
The planet has for millions of years seen great cycles of ice ages and warm periods. The changes under way around the North Pole could at least partly reflect natural flickers in climate, which is full of ups and downs.
But each year brings more signs that recent environmental shifts around the
Arctic are extraordinary. Dragonflies are showing up for the first time in memory in Eskimo villages, causing children to run to their parents, startled by these unfamiliar insects. Robins are pecking at the tundra. The Arctic's native peoples have no name for this bird.
In a few decades, if the warming continues, it may also be harder to find a safe site to set up camp here. Perhaps there will come a time when the new
North Pole will be a place that is easier to sail to than stand on.
In the meantime, though, the best option for studying the pole is to camp on the ice. Much science these days is done in laboratories, on computers, or using long-distance probes like orbiting satellites. But some science still must be done up close and personal. On this floating, shifting, melting ice,
there is no place to stick a thermometer or other device and expect to find it again. So the team must come here, study the atmosphere, ice, and sea below, and return year after year to create a picture of what is going on.
They call their project the North Pole Environmental Observatory, but that name gives the impression that it's some exotic domed facility. The reality is clear to me soon enough. After a quick ride in a Russian helicopter with black soot stains on its orange sides and a fabric strap holding the cargo doors shut, we arrive at the science camp. It consists of two tentlike huts,
each about the size of a garden shed, and a scattering of buoys, tools, and boxes. At this spot, instruments recording sea currents and temperature were dropped to the sea floor one year ago on a two-mile-long line. Now they have to be retrieved from beneath that shifting ice. The procedure will require several of the researchers to get into diving suits and drop through a small opening melted through ice. And I thought that I was being adventurous.
To celebrate getting here, one scientist who arrived a couple of days before us, Jim Johnson, erected a red-and-white-striped barber pole and a sign that said north pole is here.
But after a day or so, Johnson changed the wording, so that the sign now reads north pole was here.
The past tense is meant as a joke. The drift of the ice guarantees that anyone who is at the North Pole at one moment is not there a few minutes later.
But the sign also reflects the broader and much more profound idea that confronts everyone up here: that the unreachable, unchanging North Pole of our imagination, history, maps, and lore no longer exists.
How to Get to the North Pole
July 2003: My trip to the North Pole started with a car ride from my home in
New York State to Newark, New Jersey. From Newark International Airport, I
took a short evening flight to Ottawa, Canada, and then the fun began. On each leg of my trip, the planes and airports got smaller and the temperature colder. The runways switched from asphalt to packed snow.
A Boeing 737 carried me north to Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, Canada's newest territory. With some scientists and a reporter from the Dallas Morning
News, Alexandra Witze, I boarded a twin-engine Beechcraft, which is the local equivalent of a Greyhound bus, stopping at ever-smaller outposts on the long route north until it reached the end of the line, Resolute.
Resolute lies on a winding passage through a maze of islands about nine hundred miles south of the pole, right near the place where the nineteenth-
century British explorer Lord Franklin and his crew lost their way, went insane, and—dragging themselves over the frozen landscape—died.
After a night at the metal-roofed Narwhal Inn, it was time for the four-hour flight to the pole, including one last stop—at Alert, a Canadian military outpost and the northernmost place permanently occupied by people—to top off the fuel tanks.
Finally, four days and 2,900 miles from New York, the fifteen-ton plane lurched heavily as it landed on a runway carved by a Russian bulldozer on the drifting ice sixty miles from the pole.
Reporting from the North Pole
The North Pole, June 5, 2003: Notebook computers, digital cameras, and satellite telephones are enabling journalists to do what seemed impossible just a few years ago: transmit stories and images from the world's last untamed edges. But technology still has limits, and they may be most obvious on the floating ice near the North Pole. During my stay there, I
learned the art of practicing journalism at fifteen degrees below zero.
First, the basics: Bring pencils, not pens. Ink freezes. Bring lots of pocket warmers, little yellow packets that heat up for hours when exposed to air.
These are not just for fending off frostbite, but also for keeping your batteries warm.
And of course bring tape, every kind—electrical, duct, and the like—to fix the things that break (they will break) and to attach those pocket warmers to the back of a camera, the side of a microphone, the bottom of a laptop computer.
Satellite telephones have significant limitations. The signals travel in a straight line, so getting the antenna right is essential. There are sometimes painful gaps in conversations while the transmission jumps from one satellite to the next. Things can get tense if you are in the habit of watching the rise and fall of the little glowing bars on your laptop screen that show the data flow when you e-mail a big file. Halfway through the thirty- or forty-minute process of sending a picture, it is not uncommon to see the bars disappear altogether.
Despite the limitations, I am still amazed at the ability to link the last frontiers on a fast-shrinking planet.