Arctic Explorers Face an Unusual Challenge: A Lack of Ice at the North Pole

Credit: Chase Dekker / Getty Images

Following the warmest autumn on record in the contiguous U.S., some of our favorite ski resorts are finally starting to see snow. Unfortunately, the same is not true for the Arctic, where temperatures continue to rise. In November, the National Snow and Ice Data Center sounded the latest alarm, reporting “the North Pole is an insane 36 degrees warmer than normal.” Not surprisingly, the amount of sea ice, which covers most of the Arctic Ocean at the North Pole during winter, also hit a record low level. Climate scientists were quick to point out that Antarctica, too, saw record lows in sea ice extent in the month of November. Then, on December 6, the Russian Arctic reached 40°F — a whopping 60 degrees warmer than usual. Meteorologist Eric Holthaus’s tweet that day — “Wow”— perhaps said it best, although "holy shit" would also have been appropriate.

At this rate, winter 2016 is looking to be a repeat of the extremes that occurred in winter 2015, when temperatures at the North Pole soared 50 degrees higher than normal, up past 32°F, and conditions went from unusually warm to scary-warm (read: melting). The National Snow and Ice Data Center blames the freakishly high air temperature currently hanging over the Arctic on an unusual jet stream pattern (the same one causing extreme cold in northern Eurasia), that's literally blowing hot air in places it shouldn't. The warmer-than-normal ocean temperature is courtesy of the Gulf Stream circulating warm water from the Atlantic Ocean up to the Arctic. Or as Mark Serreze, who heads the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., puts it, a "double whammy."

Scientists and environmentalists aren’t the only ones concerned. Arctic explorers have been reporting increasing Arctic temperatures and decreasing sea ice for years, which renders their expeditions increasingly difficult, and eventually impossible.

In 2014, when Eric Larsen and Ryan Waters completed their 480-mile trek from Canada's Northern Ellesmere Island to the geographic North Pole, they dubbed it “Last North,” believing the sea ice had become so fractured, and contained so many pools of meltwater, that no one would be able to cross on foot ever again. Afterward, Borek Air, the sole service that resupplies (and rescues) explorers, scientists, and the government, discontinued their North Pole service for adventure expeditions.

Sebastian Copeland and expedition partner Mark George may very well be the only team left that is still considering another attempt. They’ve been training for two years, most recently in August, by completing a 404-mile trek across Australia’s Simpson Desert that attempted to mimic the grueling conditions of pulling supply sleds over fractured ice by towing wheeled carts across sand dunes.

As part of their preparation to cross the Arctic in 2017, Copeland has been monitoring the condition of the sea ice, and irregularly interfacing with the NSIDC (National Snow and Ice Data Center). “The poor conditions this time of year bodes poorly for the Arctic ice in general, and is worrisome considering my objectives, but is not unprecedented,” Copeland told us.

For now, the plan is all systems go — particularly considering how quickly conditions at the extreme ends of the earth can change. “A brisk turn of event can change conditions on a dime,” says Copeland. “Such is the unpredictability of the Arctic sea ice.” He’s not the only one hoping conditions change fast, in a hell-freezing-over kind of way.