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Extreme science in the Arctic Circle

From Philippe Cousteau, special to CNN
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Cousteau talks Arctic adventure
  • Arctic Circle is ground zero for climate change science
  • Science team is look at how effects of melting Arctic could be felt globally
  • They are living in tents on the ice flow rather than using vehicles to sleep in
  • Dangers include negative 40 temperatures melting ice and polar bears

In March 2011, an elite group of scientists headed to one of the coldest places on Earth to carry out vital research on global warming. Joining them for part of the journey was a three-person team from CNN, led by special correspondent and environmentalist Philippe Cousteau. Cousteau documented their journey in his blog, below. Learn more about the journey here.

(CNN) -- Catlin Ice Base: Mission critical

I woke up this morning to snow falling on my head caused by the accumulation of my breath freezing on the inside of the tent all night long. Wiping sleep from my eyes, I wrestled with my gear as I slipped out of my sleeping bag into the -35 degree centigrade air.

Getting up in the morning can be a struggle in the best of times but in these conditions it is downright brutal. Discussions during breakfast were full of good energy as we had a long day of science ahead of us. As I spend more time with the scientists I continue to be astounded at the sometimes fundamental nature of their work.

As one scientist explained, global climate models have always assumed that the Arctic does not transfer carbon through the sea ice but no one has ever tried to find out if that is true or not. The answer to this question could have huge consequences for our understanding of climate modeling. In 2011 we still know next to nothing about the most important ocean on the planet -- a shocking and irresponsible oversight.

In the U.S. the federal budget for space exploration is about 1,000 times larger than the budget for ocean exploration. While there is no question that exploring the universe is worthwhile and helps us to understand many things about this world, knowing if there is life on Mars is not critical to life on this planet, healthy oceans are. As Arthur C. Clark once wrote, "How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean."

As we bicker and argue about the status of the world's environment and what should be done about it, we fail to take the kind of action that should be universally embrace -- to explore the world around us with urgency and determination and to act in the best interests of future generations by employing the precautionary principle at every turn.

According to a report by the World Wildlife Fund we use 1.5 times the amount of resources that the planet can replenish each year. You might say we are like farmers eating our seeds. There is urgency in understanding the world around us if not for us than for our children. My grandfather Jacques Cousteau often shared with me a simple dream; that every child born has the right to walk on clean grass under a blue sky, breath fresh air and drink pure water.

Arrival at Ice Base
Is Arctic linked to climate change?
Gallery: Journey to the Arctic Circle

And so, like the science being conducted here at Catlin Ice Base, this is just the beginning of our journey to document this story. Over the weeks and months you can continue to follow this incredible Arctic adventure on-air and online as we work to uncover the mysteries of this beautiful and awe-inspiring place at the top of the world.

Walking on the ocean

Since arriving at Catlin Ice Base, we've been walking on the ocean -- the only thing separating us from the roughly 1,000 feet of freezing Arctic Ocean below is five feet of ice.

At these temperatures, a human being would survive about 5 minutes in the water; so it seemed rather counterintuitive that we spent the better part of 8 hours today drilling and chipping through the ice to reach the frigid water below.

In 2005, the US Arctic Research Commission wrote: "The Arctic Ocean is the least well known ocean on the planet. We know more about the topography of the planets Venus and Mars than we do about the bathymetry of the Arctic Ocean." As I stared down at the 3-foot wide ice hole it struck me that such a small window into such a vast place could provide so much new knowledge.

As the temperature dropped to -25 degrees, we continued to hammer away at the ice. And I asked mission scientist Dr. Helen Findlay to explain why.

There are three main types of research being conducted at Catlin Ice Base. The first experiments are testing the salinity levels of the water; a seemingly simple and benign task but one that holds great consequences for every human on the planet. Like a giant conveyor belt, ocean currents like the Gulf Stream move heat from warmer equatorial latitudes to the north where they are cooled and then return south.

The complex interplay of these currents is largely driven by the salinity and temperature of the Arctic Oceans. Cold, dense water from the Arctic mixes with salty, warm water from the Atlantic, increasing its density until the water sinks down, and like a conveyor belt flows back south through the deep ocean only to continue the cycle once more. Changes in the salinity of the Arctic Ocean (through the influx of fresh water from melting glaciers and sea ice) may ultimately alter this global conveyor belt circulation thus having dramatic effects on climate around the world.

Helen went on to discuss the second type of science: ocean acidification, an issue which is one of the least understood but most frightening threats to our planet.

As CO2 levels increase in the atmosphere, the oceans absorbs carbon. As that happens, the acidity of the oceans increases, reducing carbonate -- the mineral used to form the shells and skeletons of many shellfish and corals. Often times referred to as osteoporosis of the oceans, higher acidity slows the growth of shell making organisms and makes shells weaker.

If acidity levels get too high there is even the possibility that shells will literally dissolve. Imagine a world without clams, krill, coral, shrimp, and every other ocean creature that makes a shell. Entire ocean food chains would collapse with catastrophic impacts on the world's food supply and global stability.

Before people started burning coal and oil, ocean pH (which represents acidity levels) had been relatively stable for the previous 20 million years. But researchers predict that if carbon emissions continue at their current rate, ocean acidity will more than double by 2100.

And finally, as we were about to break through the ice, Helen elaborated on the third type of science being conducted: melting sea ice. It was ironic that earlier in the day we had been sent a report by the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado stating that 2011 saw the lowest winter sea ice cover since recordings began in 1979. In fact, 463, 000 square-miles smaller than the average between 1979 and 2000. That difference is about the size of South Africa. According to scientists, the 7 lowest measurements of winter sea ice have occurred in the last 7 years.

Why do these things matter? Well, if the Arctic is the air conditioning unit of the world, largely responsible for regulating our global climate system, anyone that depends on a stable climate to provide water for drinking, sunlight for agricultural crops and all the other life giving functions that it provides -- essentially every human being on the planet -- faces a much more uncertain and volatile future.

As the sun sets over the Arctic tundra several of us gathered outside. As I looked around at this team of dedicated individuals I felt immense gratitude that there are such amazing people willing to risk their lives to peel back the layers of darkness that shroud this mysterious place.

While debates continue to exist about the status of the world's climate, no reasonable human can argue against the virtue of knowledge.

Day 7: Warm smiles at Ice Base

It's not your typical day at the office.

Flying 300 miles north of the second most northern outpost in the Canadian Arctic is not something that happens every day. But finally, it happened to us. After a week of waiting, the weather cleared long enough for us to get out of Resolute Bay.

We spent the morning doing a final run through of the gear because you don't get a second shot if you leave something behind. By 9:30 a.m. we were loading it into the trucks and soon we were off to the airport. Wings up at 11 a.m. and within two hours the faint outline of a dozen orange tents was visible in the distance. A few minutes later we touched down on the ice with a solid thud -- we had arrived at Catlin Ice Base.

A dozen smiling faces greeted us. After weeks on the ice the entire base was eager to see new faces and get fresh supplies.

Within minutes, it was clear the camaraderie that had developed amongst the Catlin Ice Base team. Living in such extreme conditions, in such close quarters, in such an isolated place creates a sense of brotherhood between the hardy scientists and explorers who brave it each year for weeks and months on end.

As I stepped onto the ice I was reminded of the stark and austere beauty of the place; the white desert that stretches out as far as the eye can see; the deep thick silence that blankets everything.

My last trip to the Arctic was two years earlier on a research vessel in Svalbard north of Norway. Each night we had a warm cabin to sleep in and a hot shower in the morning.

This expedition will be a different story all together: from working, eating, sleeping, and the other, well, facts of life, living on the ice is an extreme adventure that we are all privileged to be a part of and I have no doubt that the next week will be full of surprises.

Days 5-6: Bird's-eye view

It's been a weekend of waiting.

The scenery has changed little over the past few days we have been stuck here in Resolute. Most of the time when we look outside it is hard to distinguish where the earth ends and the sky begins as a thick blanket of white seems to cover everything. With little exception there is no contrast, just white, and as the days get longer we continue to wait.

In fact, it is this very lack of contrast that prevents the plane from being able to take us the final few hundred miles of our journey.

Life and work at Ice Base
How to survive a polar bear encounter
Gallery: Extreme science in the Arctic Circle
Arctic Circle

To break the monotony, we decided to hike the nearest and tallest mountain to get a bird's-eye view of Resolute Bay and the surrounding area.

Watch: Climbing the peak Video

It was a spectacular scene and reminded us of the austere beauty of this place. Our hope is that tomorrow we can head north to the Catlin Ice Base to continue our mission.

Day 4: Staying grounded as frustration mounts

Disappointment turned to frustration as soon as we got the news that we would be delayed another day. The weather continues to hammer the northern Canadian Arctic with a low pressure system hundreds of miles wide that is causing zero visibility conditions at Ice Base.

Weather forecast for region

After our guide John Huston shared the bad news, we decided to head to the airplane hangar and try to determine if there was any additional information we could glean from the pilots or airport personnel.

We learned that a weather station called Eureka is in the same weather system as Ice Base, and while they normally experience 350 days of clear weather a year, the last two weeks has been zero visibility. Things are not looking good.

Disheartened, we turned to look at our plane, a DC-3 sitting patiently on the runway. First designed in the 1930s, the DC-3 is a hardy workhorse and one of the most successful aircraft types ever built. Designed at the request of American Airlines, the DC-3 revolutionized commercial aviation and is largely responsible for the popularity of transcontinental flights in the U.S. (which took 15-17 hours) and soon became the preferred method of transport over trains.

Built just 32 years after the Wright Brothers first took flight at Kitty Hawk, the DC-3 was such an effective design it went on to dominate air travel around the world for decades. It is still one of the only planes that can land on gravel, dirt, snow and ice.

In spite of this traditional hardiness, along with the special Arctic modifications -- including skis attached to the bottom of this particular airplane -- 200 feet of visibility is still required to land her on the ice. Even with highly trained pilots and the latest navigational equipment, zero visibility means she is grounded.

Watch: Arctic conditions too extreme for plane Video

With little to show for our trip to the hangar, we spent the rest of the day practicing safety and emergency protocols and preparing for the unlikely but possible event of a major injury.

There is a whole list of things one must do in an emergency and it is critical to follow the rules.

From diagnosing injury to stabilizing the patient, calling Ice Base or headquarters in London with the satellite phone, relaying GPS coordinates etc., missing any one of these steps can exacerbate the situation considerably.

In the Arctic the name of the game is preparedness, something to keep in mind as we pack our gear and await the airplane transfer to Ice Base.

When flying one should be dressed for the elements, have supplies of water and food and be prepared in an emergency to spend several hours outdoors and be able to care for injured team members in the unlikely event of an emergency or crash landing.

That said, we all feel as prepared as we could hope for and all we can keep doing is wait... and wait... and wait until hopefully tomorrow the weather turns in our favor.

Day 3: Disappointment

The alarm rang as the early morning sun was trickling through the blinds on my window. As the fog of sleep quickly evaporated, I realized that today was the day we head to Ice Base. Finally, after weeks of preparation it was time to head north. Or so I thought.

Mother Nature had a different plan. High winds meant that our early departure was delayed until at least 1:30 p.m. We spent the morning training on the tundra outside of town and by lunch the word came down that we would be delayed until tomorrow, with no guarantee the weather would improve by then.

The disappointment was palpable. Nevertheless, our guide John Huston had us suited up and outside to making the best of the situation. The temperature was holding steady at -20 degrees Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit). After a few hours we realized that another day of training with a warm lodge within walking distance was not a bad thing.

There are a lot of variables when trying to film in these conditions. From the hardships the cameraman must endure trying to handle a large, heavy, and complex piece of equipment in such frigid temperatures to the difficulty of organizing the team and delivering simple dialogue to camera, the challenges of making a documentary are multiplied one hundred fold.

Imagine standing with a bare face (so the audience can see who you are) in the wind as your nose and cheeks begin to literally freeze, wearing no goggles so that your eyes start to seal shut each time you blink and an almost unbearable ice cream headache caused by the cold wind whistling around your head all whilst having a casual conversation and speaking calmly and clearly to the camera.

The main exercise was to practice putting up a tent, no mean feat in 54 kilometer-per-hour winds (32 mph). "The key," said John our guide, "is to take your time, go slowly and do it right the first time."

In the cold, everything takes longer and everything is more fragile, metal can shatter and cloth is brittle. What might be considered an inconvenience in warmer climes, puncturing a hole in the tent or breaking the metal rods that keep it aloft, can be potentially disastrous in the Arctic.

By sunset, we had all taken turns setting up and breaking down the tent, practicing what to do in case of a polar bear encounter and learning how to use the various emergency equipment; beacons, satellite phones, GPS etc.

Now all we can do is cross our fingers that tomorrow we'll be able to continue the expedition.

Day 2: The 8 rules of Ice Base

Today was our last full day at Resolute Bay before heading to Ice Base (weather permitting) and we spent it getting the gear ready, trying it on, and venturing outside for an extended hike outside of town. Everything went smoothly but we were all a little shocked by the cold at first and grateful for the training that we had received, which can be summed in the 8 rules of Ice Base:

1: Do not act macho when you are on ice base

This is not a competition about who is tougher or who is smarter, this is a team effort in a VERY dangerous environment and not telling someone you are tired or cold or hungry or thirsty can lead to a life-threatening situation, not only for yourself, but for the other members of the team.

2: DO NOT act macho when you are on ice base

See above

3: Stay warm at all times

What Cousteau's packing for Arctic trip
The Arctic, in essence, is the air conditioning unit of the planet and fulfills this function in two primary ways
--Philippe Cousteau

As our guide John explained to us, if you see a teammate getting cold, "feed 'em and beat 'em." In other words; if you are cold or see someone else getting cold two easy solutions are to feed them food like chocolate that can be burned by the body to create heat and aggressively engage in some sort of exercise, like jumping jacks. There is no need for the cold to get out of hand. As our guide John said," frostbite is a self-inflicted injury." The key is to not let a small problem get out of control and to communicate early how you are feeling.

4: Stay hydrated and well fed

This may seem obvious but many studies have shown a link between hydration and frostbite. The air is very dry and one has to drink a great deal more water in such a cold, dry climate. One also burns up to twice the amount of calories in this cold as one does under normal conditions.

5: Always keep your eyes on your teammates

This is key, sometimes people won't even realize that they are acting differently, or their nose is starting to turn white. Being observant is critical to staying safe.

6: Never venture out alone

This seems obvious but it happens often with inexperienced people. Storms can descend and grow in intensity quickly in the Arctic and visibility can become so bad that you cannot see from one tent to the other. There is safety and strength in numbers and it is critical to make sure that your team knows where you are at all times.

7: Respect the polar bear

Respect and understanding, not fear, has allowed northern peoples to co-exist peacefully with the polar bear for thousands of years. While polar bears have been known to attack and kill people it is a rare occurrence especially if you act appropriately and confidently. Bears can outrun us easily so running is never the answer. If the bear is calm, back away slowly keeping your eyes on the bear. If they are aggressive, make yourself look big; shout sternly (don't scream) and if you follow rule # six, group together. If the bear does attack then use whatever deterrents are at hand and remember... don't run.

8: If this is your first time on Ice Base do not confuse your urine bottle for your water bottle

Self-evident, yes. Does it happen? Apparently, yes. At -40 degrees, getting in and out of the tent and the sleeping bags at night is not easy. Everyone keeps a urine bottle in order to go to the bathroom in the tent at night. The challenge is that one has to keep both one's urine bottle and one's water bottle in the sleeping bag with you or they will freeze, so in the dead of night it is easier to mistake the two than you might think.

Day 1: Resolute Bay

There is always a sense of anxious anticipation in the weeks leading up to an expedition; a combination of nervous energy and excitement, but as the lights of Resolute Bay began to peer through the dusk there was a sense of relief.

We had finally made it after days of travel to this remote outpost in the northern Canadian Arctic. This was not the final destination of our journey but would serve as a way station for a day's worth of training before continuing on to Ice Base another 400 miles to the northwest. Finally, the expedition had begun.

Our small crew had gathered in Ottawa only the day before: Darren Bull, an Australian cameraman now living in London; CNN producer Matt Vigil based out of Atlanta; our arctic guide John Huston from Chicago; and myself from Washington DC.

Our destination is the Catlin Arctic Survey Ice Base to join scientists in their third year of spending seven weeks each spring living and working on the ice conducting critical research to monitor and understand the changing face of this inhospitable environment.

Sleeping in unheated tents on the ice and working in temperatures that are regularly -40 degrees Centigrade (-40 Fahrenheit) -- this is truly extreme science.

Each spring the scientists come to explore the changing balance of the Arctic ecosystem because while the Arctic Ocean is the smallest and shallowest of the world's five major oceanic divisions it is arguably the most important.

While the word Arctic often brings images of highly visible iconic animals such as the polar bear to mind (Arctic comes from the ancient Greek word arktikos, meaning country of the great bear), it is the largely invisible systems at work both above and beneath the ice that should matter to every human being on earth.

The Arctic, in essence, is the air conditioning unit of the planet and fulfills this function in two primary ways. Due to the high reflectivity of the snow and ice along with long periods of little or no sunlight, the Arctic causes a net loss of heat into space.

In addition, the Arctic plays a vital role in regulating the circulation of the Earth's atmosphere and oceans by distributing heat from the tropics to the poles, making the Earth overall a much more habitable place. As sea ice melts, causing less reflectivity and disrupting oceanic currents, this crucial function may change with potentially dire global consequences.

As earth's population passes the 7 billion mark and rapidly heads towards 9 billion by the middle of the century, dwindling natural resources are of increasing concern; thus any volatility in the world's climate is of global significance.

Over the next two weeks our team will join the adventure to document the extreme science being conducted by the Catlin Arctic Survey. In the words of the famous Arctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, "Men go out into the void spaces of the world for various reasons. Some are actuated by love of adventure, some have the keen thirst for scientific knowledge, and others again are drawn away from the trodden path by the lure of little voices, the mysterious fascination of the unknown."

This expedition is a little bit of all three, adventure, science and mystery colliding together in an effort to explore a world about which very little is known but which is crucial to the survival of life as we know it.