The Arctic we don’t know: The truth about the icy world revealed

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NEW YORK, BRONX (ORDO News) — The Arctic is an icy world located about 5 thousand kilometers from Japan. How do you imagine this polar region? “Incredibly far away”, “a region covered with ice all year round”, “a habitat for polar bears”?

The Arctic is not a very familiar zone for us, but some people work there. These are scientists from the Arctic Environmental Change Research Center of the Japan Marine Science and Technology Agency.

Sometimes they spend more than two months observing a world in which the entire surface is covered with ice and surrounded by sea, exploring it, and sometimes they spend one or two nights on the ice, after which they return!

We spoke with Takashi Kikuchi, director of the Arctic Research Center, who noted: “If we understand the Arctic, we may be able to understand the future of the global environment.” The expert spoke about the realities of polar research, about which we know nothing, about global warming and Arctic ice. We also asked him the tough question of what would happen to Japan if the ice melted. In addition, in this article we will talk about the real world of Arctic exploration and how to get to the North Pole in general.

Departure to the Arctic… Sometimes you have to stay in place for two days and one night!

Shukan Gendai: The Arctic and Antarctic are thought of as the ends of the world that adventurers and explorers aspire to. You have visited the Arctic several times for work purposes, but isn’t it a challenge just to be there?

Takashi Kikuchi: Not really. Anyone can go there if they have money. Compared to the South Pole, the North Pole is closer to Japan and other human habitats, so getting there yourself is not that difficult. In summer, icebreaking excursion ships go there. Japan is separated from the central part of the Arctic Ocean by approximately 5 thousand kilometers, and from the North Pole by about 6 thousand. The distance to Antarctica is about 14 thousand kilometers.

In addition, Russia is establishing an ice camp in the North Pole area for tourism purposes in April. Small planes fly there from the Norwegian archipelago of Spitsbergen, located at approximately 80° north latitude. From the ice camp, a helicopter can take you to the North Pole.

From 2002 to 2013 we used this camp for research and observation. Some tourists organized ice marathons there, and some even held weddings. You can spend the night in the camp, so a lot is possible there. By the way, I once went to observe the sea ice near the North Pole and stayed there for one night and two days. The whole journey from Japan and back took me about ten days.

— Did you spend two days and one night in the Arctic? A total of ten days, including travel, this is not much different from a business trip.

– Yes, this looks exactly like a small business trip. At that time my job was to install automatic surveillance equipment on the ice. From a forward base in a Canadian city, we set out on the sea ice in a small plane. Having arrived on site, we quickly installed the equipment.

We spent the night at the ice camp. Our mission is complete if the equipment transmits data and if the automatic surveillance is confirmed to be functioning correctly. Later, one of the new arrivals told me: “If you want to go home, you can return on this plane.” I was very happy about this, because in the ice camp you can’t even take a shower. We ended up spending two days and one night there.

However, to be clear, not all observations proceed this way. Sometimes we go into the Arctic Ocean on observation vessels or icebreakers to collect data. Sometimes we stay in the waters for more than two months. But long voyages on ships are comfortable, for example, on the oceanographic research vessel Mirai there is good food, a shower and, of course, a hairdresser, although you have to cut your own hair.

Tents and planes on ice! Doesn’t the ice crack?

— Antarctica is a continent, and the Arctic is ice floating in the waters, which is formed when sea water freezes, right? Is it dangerous to pitch tents there or fly there by plane?

— Of course, there are risks, but sea ice is quite strong. Even in northern Japan, people sometimes walk on frozen lakes, don’t they? For a simple walk, ice 30 centimeters thick is enough. In the Arctic, everything freezes to a depth of one and a half to two meters in one winter. In some places, the thickness of the ice, which has survived several winters, reaches four or five meters. In certain areas it can exceed 20 meters.

Meanwhile, when setting up a tent, you need to find a flat area, the thickness of which is at least two meters. The ice in the Arctic is often lumpy, so finding a relatively large and flat place is difficult. In particular, ice used as a runway for aircraft must be approximately a thousand meters long.

— Ice in the sea vibrates and moves. Does it make it difficult to take off and land?

“In winter it doesn’t shake as much because it freezes a lot.” The drift speed of ice floes usually does not exceed ten centimeters per second. It’s slower than walking, so there’s no problem. However, in strong winds, drift can reach one or two knots (one knot is 1.852 kilometers per hour, or 50 centimeters per second). On such days it is too windy to fly and outdoor work is not possible. We have to sit in tents. Then we pray that the ice doesn’t crack.

– So this can still happen?

“Fortunately, I didn’t encounter anything like this during my stay in the Arctic, but the sea ice under the tent can crack. If this happens, disaster will ensue. The worst thing is that you risk falling into the water. We have to move to another place before this happens.

I myself had to cancel plans for a trip to an ice camp I was going to because the ice on the runway cracked. I had already arrived at the Canadian village of Resolute to prepare observation buoys for installation at the North Pole, but the runway was shorter than planned, so only small planes could take off and land. Although anyone can go to the Arctic, the trip can be compared to mountaineering in the sense that there is a risk of encountering various events caused by natural conditions.

— If you compare it to climbing a mountain, the top is the North Pole. However, unlike Yuzhny, it is difficult to detect due to drifting ice.

“The Antarctic ice sheet also moves, but only slightly, only a few millimeters per year, so it appears as if it is standing still. In turn, Arctic sea ice drifts under the influence of wind and currents. When you arrive in the Arctic and see a GPS reading of 90.0, that means you are at the North Pole. You can even take a photo with the flag, but while you are doing this, time will pass and it will no longer be the North Pole. So, one foreign explorer wrote on his flag “The North Pole was here” in the past tense (laughs).

– This is interesting. How is free and research time distributed there?

“Whether it’s an ice camp or a voyage on an observation vessel or icebreaker, in the field, scientists use all opportunities to conduct research. We collect data and samples in the field that can only be obtained there, as far as conditions allow, and then we analyze them and document everything. During breaks between work, we come up with some entertainment.

We make figures out of ice and snow and play football. But there are things that can only be seen in the Arctic Ocean, and at a specific time of year and in a certain place, so we carefully monitor the environment.

From everything we heard, we learned that the Arctic is much closer than we imagined. But it also hides certain risks: for example, those associated with setting up tents, as well as taking off and landing aircraft. Thanks to communication with an expert, we learned a little more about the Arctic, which was unfamiliar to us.


News agencies contributed to this report, edited and published by ORDO News editors.

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