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Climate scientists battle brutal Arctic

By Matt Vigil, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Arctic Circle is ground zero for climate change science
  • Science team looked at how effects of melting Arctic could be felt globally
  • They lived in tents on the ice flow rather than sleeping in vehicles
  • Dangers included negative 40 temperatures, melting ice and polar bears

(CNN) -- Accompanied by CNN, an elite group of scientists headed to one of the coldest places on Earth to carry out vital research on global warming.

The Arctic Circle that rings the North Pole is known as ground zero for climate change. It also has brutal weather that battered the team virtually every moment.

They dealt with subzero temperatures, severe storms and the threat of polar bears.

"Being able to live within the environment we are studying is an ideal situation for almost any science expedition," said Kristina Brown, a scientist at the Ice Base station as the team prepared to set out.

"[This expedition] requires that our temperate climate-acclimated bodies endure some of the more uncomfortable parts of early spring in the high Arctic."

The scientists are members of the Catlin Arctic Survey which is operating Ice Base camp off the western coast of Ellef Ringnes Island, Canada for the third year in a row. It is only 675 nautical miles from the geographic North Pole.

Unlike expeditions that use research vessels as a home base, this group is unique in that the scientists live in tents for almost two months on the very ice cap that is slowly melting beneath them.

"All the research and survey work is looking at how the Arctic Ocean is changing ... Overall, the research and data conducted during the ice camp will help us in understanding the local and global impacts of a warmer Arctic, from loss of habitat for iconic polar bears to changes in global climate," said Ice Base scientist Victoria Hill in advance of the mission.

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The team set out to collect samples and data in a mission to find out how melting ice is impacting ocean currents, marine life and the climate and weather conditions around the world.

Joining them for part of the journey was a three-person team from CNN, led by Special Correspondent and environmentalist Philippe Cousteau.

For everyone involved, two crucial factors had to be dealt with: how to prepare physically and mentally for extreme weather conditions and how to design an effective work flow in spite of the brutal climate.

Brown said: "This is a great opportunity to get out and do some research at a time of year that makes science in this region really difficult.

"There's always a bit of apprehension when beginning a field season in the high Arctic, heading for such an isolated place and living and working on floating sea ice at these temperatures as it is way beyond most people's everyday experience."

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One skidoo snowmobile, 1,000 eggs, 15 sleeping bags, outerbags and fleece liners and 3,200 liters of cooking and heating fuel are just a fraction of the cargo that have to be transported to Ice Base.

There's also 800 kilograms (1,760 pounds) of scientific equipment in around 50 boxes.

The brunt of this work was spearheaded by Geo Mission, which organized the multi-million-dollar endeavor.

Chip Cunliffe, head of operations, and Simon Garrod, Ice Base manager, were part of the advance party sent to the mission staging area in Resolute, one of Canada's northernmost communities.

Since late February they received the gear and made vital decisions such as where to locate Ice Base.

In early March, four scientists arrived in Resolute for rigorous polar ice training, including what to do in case of a polar bear encounter and how to sleep safely in a tent in frigid temperatures.

"You can't do the science if your fingers are cold, losing your fingers and hypothermic. So the biggest challenge for them is just this business of living in the environment really," says Garrod who has been working in the polar environment for nearly 20 years.

"It's fairly brutal sleeping in unheated tents at negative 40C (-40F). The biggest challenge or fear is sleeping because your exhaled breath freezes up and forms ice crystals inside the tent and on your face. It's a bit miserable to start with, but it does get easier," he said.

The latest satellite imagery of the polar cap is an important tool to ensure the safety of the entire team.

Cunliffe, Garrod and the pilot of their DC-3 transport plane poured over the data for several weeks in order to find a suitable landing spot.

Color shades of the ice on the sea allow them to distinguish between new and old ice. New or reformed ice is best because it is smooth to land on and proves to be more stable. They must also find a balance between a deep water location which is best for research and being closer to land which tends to be safer.

A flyover on March 8 helped them make their final decision on ice presumed to be 1.5 meters deep.

"Most of the pilots have got many seasons of flying experience up here and landing on the ice, and they are able to pick spots even if somebody is not on the ground drilling through to determine how thick the ice is," said Cunliffe.

The group of 10 people arrived at Ice Base on March 12, and stayed there until late April.

Ice Base scientist Helen Findlay made the journey for the second time. She said it was a pleasure to get outside, wrapped up and ready for the fresh air.

"I guess that's why I'm back here," she explained. "It just takes a minute to glance out the window to realize that we're somewhere really special."