Posts Tagged ‘climate change’

Nick Smith’s article on visiting the North Pole as appearing in current edition of E&T magazine

December 8, 2009

Breaking the ice at the North Pole

You don’t have to be an Arctic explorer to visit the Geographic North Pole these days. E&T sent intrepid reporter Nick Smith to Murmansk’s Atomflot, where he joined the nuclear icebreaker 50 Years of Victory on a trip to the top of the world…

I’m standing on the bridge of the world’s largest and most powerful nuclear icebreaker. It’s been days since we’ve seen land and even longer since we’ve seen anything approaching darkness. Here in the high latitudes in summer it never gets dark, and in the eerie silent fog, the Arctic seems like the loneliest place on earth. My GPS says we’re at 89° 59 999’N, which means we’re about as close as we can get to the North Pole without actually being there. In fact, given the size of the 50 Years of Victory – 159.6 metres long, with a breadth of 30metres – it’s perfectly possible that part it is already at the Pole.

Of course, it doesn’t matter what my GPS says – not because of any possible margin of error – but because the only navigational reading that counts is the one on the bridge. We’re only technically at the Pole when Captain Dmitry Lobusov of the ‘50 лет Победы’ says we are. Positioning a 23,439 tonne ship on such a precise point as 90 degrees North, while simultaneously smashing through a pan of multiyear ice several metres thick, is a tricky job. Captain Lobusov has until now operated an ‘open bridge’, but we’ve been temporarily invited to leave to allow his crew some breathing space, to concentrate on this moment of pinpoint navigation. I leave reluctantly because the tension is mounting and it’s obvious that the precision of the final phase of the navigation is a matter of extreme seriousness. This is the world’s largest nuclear icebreaker and we’re going to stop it on a sixpence.

And the Victory truly is huge. For all the facts and figures (see side panel ‘Specification Sheet’), nothing can really prepare you for the experience of simply being aboard this huge work of engineering art. Of course, compared with some of the commercial ocean going cruise liners such as the Independence of the Seas (which is twice as long) the Victory is a big minnow. But the idea of being aboard a ship powered by two nuclear reactors that’s going to blast its way through the ice to the Pole is simply awe-inspiring. To think that even in the heaviest of icebreaking conditions the Victory consumes only 200g of nuclear fuel per day – about the weight of an apple – borders on science fiction.

It’s getting on for midnight on 15th July 2009 and after several attempts to ram a pan of multiyear ice out of our way, the icebreaker finally moves into position. ‘Ladies and Gentleman’ says an excited voice on the ship’s PA system, ‘we have achieved our expedition’s objective.’ The ship’s GPS reads 90° 00 000’ N (and for the record 172° 51 811’ E, although that hardly matters) and so it’s official – we’ve finally arrived at the Geographic North Pole. Most of the ship’s 124 passengers gather on the bow deck to celebrate, while the crew sets about the business of parking the ship (‘park’ is the technical term for mooring an icebreaker). Preparations are made for a party out on the ice at a ceremonial pole the following day. As the engines stop and the relentless vibration subsides it’s a great feeling to think we’ll be walking on the ice tomorrow.

It’s hard to imagine what the great explorers of the past would have made of all this. Technology has advanced so far in the pat century that a feat of navigation that was once only the dream of visionaries and madmen is now a reality for adventure tourists. In 1909 no one had set foot at the North Pole for certain – Commander Robert Peary of the US Navy claimed to have arrived there with a team of dogs that year – and it was to be another 60 years before British Explorer Wally Herbert could claim to be the first human to have beyond all doubt arrived at the Pole on foot. The challenges for these pioneering explorers were enormous: apart from the constant battle with 5-metre high pressure ridges and ‘leads’ (rivers of open water), there was the gnawing sub-zero temperatures, ravenous polar bears and the intellectual rigours of navigation with compasses, wristwatches and the stars (on the rare occasions when the sky was clear or dark enough). It was a mind-bogglingly tough existence that these men chose, and one that’s hard for the passengers of the Victory to understand.

A new day doesn’t dawn, but the clock tells us that it’s another day, and so on 16th July the ceremonies begin and I celebrate being the 22,500th person to set foot on the ice at the North Pole. This figure was calculated for me by onboard polar historian Robert Keith Headland, formerly archivist of the Scott Polar Research Institute, who has kept meticulous records of every arrival – and even disputed arrival – since Peary claimed to have attained ninety degrees north.

As you stand with your feet on what T.S.Eliot called the ‘still point of the turning world’ the significance of this place slowly sinks in. Look directly upwards along the earth’s rotational axis you’ll come to Polaris, the North Star, the so-called celestial pole. Look down and beneath your feet after a couple of metres of sea ice, there are 4,000 metres of sea. Then, after 14,000km of planet, you’ll reach sea level at the South Pole, after which there are then another few hundred metres of rock, followed by 2,835 metres of ice. If you’ve maintained a straight line down through the globe you will end up almost in the middle of the geodesic dome of the Amundsen-Scott science research base at the South Pole.

To date the only nuclear-powered icebreakers to have been built are Russian. The reason for this, according to Captain Lobusov of the 50 Years of Victory, is simply that Russia is the only country that needs them. Of those countries with extensive Arctic Ocean shorelines, only Russia relies on the commercial transportation of goods through the sea ice. ‘We have very vast country from west to east and there is a need to carry cargo by sea and so we need an ice fleet.’

Captain Lobusov explained how the development of nuclear technology has led to icebreakers of increasing power and range, with the ability to remain at sea for long periods without refueling. In the Arctic summer, when the atomic fleet is less in demand for keeping open commercial seaways, icebreakers such as the Victory and her sister ship Yamal become available to adventure tourism companies such as Quark Expeditions, who commission these ships in order to make the armchair explorer’s dream of going to the North Pole a reality.

Ten nuclear powered surface ships have been built in Russia, nine of which are icebreakers, with the tenth a container ship with icebreaking capabilities.  And although the specifications differ from one to another, those in the Arktika class – of which the Victory is the newest member –are fundamentally the same, becoming more efficient, powerful or faster as evolving technology allows for higher performance.

Power for the Victory is supplied by two pressurised water KLT-40 nuclear reactors, each containing 245 enriched uranium fuel rods. Each reactor weighs 160 tonnes and is enclosed in a reinforced compartment. Fifty kilos of uranium isotopes are contained in each reactor when fully fuelled, with a daily consumption of approximately 200g a day of heavy isotopes when breaking thick ice. This means that the Victory can remain operational for four years between changes of the reactor rods, Used cores are extracted and new ones installed in Murmansk, where spent fuel is reprocessed and waste is disposed of at a nuclear waste plant. A total of 86 sensors distributed throughout the vessel monitor ambient radiation. While on my way to the North Pole I was taken around the engine and control rooms, shown the nuclear reactors and I spoke to several of the officers in charge of keeping the Victory moving. Of course, you’re not allowed to photograph everything, but the Russians are far more open about showing you the technology of this ship that perhaps might be expected.

After spending a day at the Pole it’s time to turn around and sail back to the Victory’s base at Atomflot in Murmansk on Russia’s northern coastline. While the voyage north had often been a bone-jarring experience as we smashed our way through the ice, the homeward leg was a much more sedate affair. The wake of broken pack ice that we’d left behind was now at times a mile wide and the process of sailing ‘downhill’ the way we came was a positively sedate affair by comparison. From time to time we slowed down to watch polar bears out on the ice, or the occasional ringed seal and we even saw a pod of walrus as we approached Franz Josef Land.

But for anyone thinking that we were on a pleasure cruise there were several reminders that we were on a working nuclear surface vessel, including being buzzed by Norwegian military aircraft and being warned from passing too close to the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, where rocket testing made this route ‘dangerous to shipping’. We’d also been told by Moscow that we weren’t allowed to arrive at the Pole before 15th July, which seemed a bit odd as the Geographic North Pole – frozen wasteland or not frozen wasteland – is in international waters. I mentioned this to one of the Russian officers who corrected me very politely, informing me that we were on a Russian ship and if Moscow tells us not to go somewhere, for whatever reason, like it or not, we’re not going there.

The original Russian nuclear icebreaker: whatever happened to Lenin?

If 50 Years of Victory is the most recent, state-of-the-art nuclear icebreaker, then it owes much to the very first of all, the NS Lenin. Launched in 1957 Lenin was both the world’s first nuclear powered surface ship and the first nuclear powered civilian vessel. According to Soviet-born features editor of Engineering & Technology magazine, Vitali Vitaliev, it was: ‘the greatest ship in the world – a masterpiece of Russian engineering. As children we had pictures of it on our bedroom walls.’ It also featured on Russian postage stamps.

Lenin was decommissioned in 1989 because she was literally worn out. Years of crashing through the Arctic pack ice had worn the hull thin, and as a result she was laid up at Atomflot in Murmansk, where she was converted into a museum ship that opened in 2005. Lenin is held in such affection in Russia that when I visited in July earlier this year there were several wedding parties queuing up to have their official nuptial photographs taken in front of this imposing vessel.

On board, the technology looks very similar at first glance to that on 50 Years of Victory. And while there are obviously fewer computers and more mechanical dials and levers on view, the real difference is in the officers’ quarters, the mess rooms and the wardrooms. These are all exquisitely decked out with Art-Deco style interiors. While 50 Years of Victory is all about form and function, with its utilitarian magnolia paint and rudimentary furnishings, Lenin is simply opulent. With wooden paneling and brass everywhere, it resembles a floating palace more than a working icebreaker. The Party obviously knew how to look after itself.

But Lenin had a chequered operational history and was involved in two nuclear accidents.  And while these happened in the mid-1960s, they did not become widely known until after the fall of the Soviet Union.

In February 1965, after shutting down for refueling, fuel elements melted inside No2 reactor as a result of the coolant being prematurely removed. More than half of the fuel assemblies fused on to the reactor core, resulting in the need to remove of the fuel unit for disposal. The entire assembly was taken away, quarantined in a special cask and stored for two years before being dumped in Tsivolki Bay (near the Novaya Zemlya archipelago) in 1967.

Later that year a cooling system leak happened shortly after refueling. In order to locate the leak engineers needed to smash through the reactor’s concrete casing. They did this manually with old-fashioned sledgehammers and in doing so caused irreparable damage to the casing. As a result all three OK-150 reactors were rendered unserviceable and were subsequently replaced with two OK-900 reactors in an operation completed in early 1970. These two reactors provided steam for four turbines that in turn powered Lenin’s three sets of electric motors.

Specification sheet: How big? 50 Years of Victory in facts

50 Years of Victory is one of six Arktika class icebreakers operated by the Rosatomflot (Russian Atomic Fleet) of Murmansk on behalf of the Russian Government (the others are Arktica, Sibir, Rossiya, Sovietskiy Soyuz, and Yamal.) The ship’s name commemorates the defeat of the Nazi forces invading Russia on the Eastern Front during the Second World War. The keel was laid on 4th October 1989 in St Petersburg and the Victory was launched on 29th December 1993. After a prolonged fitting out – delayed by financial restrictions in Russia following the fall of Communism – the icebreaker finally came into service on 23rd March 2007. Engineering & Technology magazine joined the Victory for only its second commercial passenger voyage to the Geographic North Pole.

  • Length overall 159.6m – at waterline 136m. Breadth overall 30m – at waterline 28m. Draft 11.08m. Height keel-to-masthead 45m. There are 12 decks (4 below waterline)
  • The bow is ‘spoon-shaped’ – a new design for icebreakers – and has a 480mm thick cast steel prow, with an ‘ice tooth’ 20m aft
  • Displacement 25,840 tonnes overall (22,335 light ship). Registered tonnage 23, 439
  • The hull is double with water ballast in between them. Ribs are deployed at 50cm centres
  • The outer hull is 46mm thick, argon welded, armour steel overlaid with a 5-7mm plating of stainless steel (high molybdenum content) where ice is met (the ice skirt), and 25mm armour steel elsewhere
  • Nine bulkheads allow the icebreaker to be divided into 10 watertight compartments
  • The hull is also divided into two main longitudinal bulkheads – important areas are in independent watertight compartments
  • For fire protection the hull and superstructure are divided into 4 vertical zones by three bulkheads
  • Ice breaking is assisted by an air bubbling system delivering jets from 9m below the surface, specialised hull design, friction reducing alloy ice skirt, and capability for rapid moving water ballast
  • Ice may be broken while moving ahead or astern
  • A helicopter is carried for observing ice conditions up to 40km ahead of the vessel
  • The icebreaker is equipped to undertake close-coupled tow operations when assisting other vessels through the ice
  • Search lights and other high intensity illuminations allow work to be carried out in winter darkness
  • Complement 108: 51 officers and 57 other ranks. The infirmary has 2 medical staff

Nick Smith travelled to the North Pole on board the 50 Years of Victory with the assistance of Quark Expeditions. To find out more about Quark’s scheduled voyages into the Polar Regions visit

Nick Smith’s interview with Pen Hadow in E&T magazine (Catlin Arctic survey – pre-departure)

May 19, 2009

Techno explorers take to the ice

This month a team of explorers lead by Pen Hadow will set off on foot for the North Pole. Man-hauling ice-penetrating radar instrumentation for more than 1,000km, the expedition will relay back to the scientific community crucial data about how climate change is affecting ice thickness in the Arctic. By Nick Smith

Sitting in his expedition headquarters in Leadenhall Street in London’s financial district, Arctic explorer Pen Hadow is at the centre of operations of his latest mission. His Catlin Arctic Survey is about to head off to the Arctic – hauling their own bodyweight of monitoring equipment across the ice – to do something satellites and submarines can’t.

“Circumstances are changing up in the Arctic Ocean so quickly that it’s just not possible to get the technology into space on time,” says Hadow

Satellites could easily carry ice-penetrating radar and, orbiting overhead, complete a survey in a fraction of the time that it will take Hadow and his team to cross the late-winter ice that surrounds the North Pole. But the difference lies in the phrase “on time”. It takes years to assemble and launch a satellite. The bleakest plausible prediction that says there will be no seasonal ice left to measure in just five years. “The shrinkage and thinning is happening at a pace that’s outstripping our ability to get new technology onto satellites.”

Getting up close and personal to the Arctic ice is worthwhile, Hadow explains. “There isn’t, and never has been, an accurate enough method of determining by satellite what’s going on with the ice.”

Existing satellite technology is able to measure the thickness of the ‘freeboard’ – the combined depth of ice and snow above sea level. The presence of snow is not relevant in the prediction of ice meltdown, but it does have a nasty habit of contaminating remote telemetry measurements. This is because radar cannot differentiate between the two, and so we can’t tell how much snow is depressing the ice cover. As the end reading is an extrapolation based on the assumption that the freeboard represents only one-ninth of the total ice thickness, any errors caused by snow become magnified to produce wildly inaccurate results. Submarine-based surveys are better at estimating the ice thickness, because their onboard technology measures the much larger draft of the ice. But even extrapolations based on these readings aren’t accurate enough. And, besides there’s hardly any submarine data available. So, it’s back to people hauling instruments on sleds in scenes that have not changed much since the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, when the likes of Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott were gunning for the South Pole.

Hadow’s business card says director and head of surveying, and it’s been his full-time job since he drew a line under his high-profile 2003 expedition, when he became the best-known polar explorer of his generation. That year, he became the first person to walk solo and unsupported to the North Pole, then regarded by the polar community as the last of the classic uncompleted challenges. A shadow was cast over his success at the pole by a media controversy that inaccurately depicted Hadow’s delayed scheduled airlift from the pole as a ‘rescue’.

For Hadow, the 2003 expedition was an eye-opener. In all his years exploring the north polar icecap, never before had the explorer seen so much thin ice and open water in the Arctic. “To travel my route in a straight line to the pole – 478 miles as the crow flies – I found myself needing an amphibious option.” Hadow equipped himself with an immersion suit and, in order to keep the route as short and straight as possible, when he encountered water he simply swam across it.

During the course of his research for his book Solo, his account of the 2003 trip to the pole, Hadow “started to better understand the process that was bringing about this increased open water and sea ice: global warming”. He also discovered that there was one critical data set that scientists did not have if they wanted to predict when the ice cover on the Arctic Ocean would disappear more accurately.

For Hadow, the solution was simple. He would check the existing data by dragging an ice-penetrating radar, its associated instrumentation, computers and communications technology across the Arctic. “Many of my previous expeditions have been about achieving something for me, seeing what I could do. Now I think that what we’re doing with the Catlin Arctic Survey is real exploring, going out into the field and gathering data that could be vital to our understanding of climate change. This data could provide our science partners with what they need to convince those in government that something needs to be done about how to manage fragile environments sustainably.”

Although going solo is something Hadow is used to, there is simply too much work to be done on this trip to go it alone. To assist him he has enlisted the help of two fellow explorers, Ann Daniels and Martin Hartley. Daniels is in charge of field operations – handling navigation and other logistics – while Hartley is the expedition photographer and filmmaker. Hadow will pull the sledge containing the radar equipment and computers. Apart from the ice-thickness readings, the on-ice team will conduct 50 different sets of measurements and samples, from the water column, the ice sheet and the atmosphere. Some devices will record the data continuously; other measurements will be taken hourly, daily or weekly. Getting across the ice is hard enough without having to do the science as well. “It’s going to be hard work,” says Hadow.

Much of the scientific and communications equipment the explorers will be using has been developed specially for the survey, with more data – including audio, video and biotelemetry – being transmitted than on any other polar expedition before. Taking up the most room and perhaps most important to the expedition is ‘Sprite’. The name is short for “surface penetrating radar for ice thickness establishment”, but Hadow says the name also doffs its cap to the Scott Polar Research Institute, one of the science partners that has played an influential role in the survey.

Not surprisingly, Sprite is robust. The team will drag it across fields of rubble and send it tumbling down pressure ridges over a total distance of more than 1000km. The impulse radar unit is a mere 4kg – 25 times lighter than equivalent radar systems used in aircraft surveys. It is mounted behind the survey’s sledge boat, effectively converting the sledge into a survey vessel, called the Lady Herbert, after the wife of one of the greatest polar surveyors ever, Sir Wally Herbert.

Built by Cambridge-based scientist Michael Gorman, Sprite will take a high-resolution cross-profile of the snow and ice every 10cm along the route. Sprite’s own computer will then process the raw data before transferring it to the central data unit, otherwise known as the ‘onboard sledge computer’. Here the data is compressed and sent using the Iridium network of orbiting communications satellites back to the survey HQ. There it will be reformatted and distributed to the Survey’s science partners.

Iridium is the only satellite network available in the Arctic and but explorers do not much like it. It’s narrow bandwidth channels result in a low data-transmission rate. The sledge computer, developed by Andrew Jackson, has to use a custom-built multi-modem data uplink system that can receive, format, store, compress and transmit the data back to the UK on a live, ‘delayed live’ or overnight basis.

While out on the ice, the team will be communicating with each other, and the UK HQ, using a three-way person-to-person communications system developed by IET member and independent engineering consultant Perran Newman. Designed especially for the survey, the rig consists of an ear-mounted, jawbone-sensing headset and separate throat microphone, connected through a wiring harness built into the sledging suit, to a belt-mounted control box. Team members’ control boxes are networked via radio links to allow three-way voice communications. The boxes are also linked to a radio-transceiver mounted on the Lady Herbert, containing the uplink facility to the Iridium array. Toggling between control box functions is by push-button, meaning that the explorers won’t have to risk frostbite by uncovering their hands to operate the system. Other features include voice-activation, and a ‘live commentary’ link that will allow armchair explorers to follow the expedition on the survey’s website.

The explorers will also be wearing a chest-belt with integrated biosensors that will measure and record physiological data such as heart rate, respiration rate, skin temperature and body orientation. Developed by Hildago, the Equivital system has been adapted from telehealth applications aimed at first responders and paramedics. Its use on the Catlin Arctic survey will provide an opportunity to assess how the body responds in the polar environment. Team members will also be taking ‘tablets’ that contain miniature temperature sensors, batteries and radio transmitters that will transmit information about their core temperature, as the pill negotiates its way through the stomach and the intestines.

By linking reportage-style web-cam footage and live audio commentaries to data generated from body-worn bio-monitors it will be possible to not just follow the team’s progress but to experience it too. Anyone passing the survey’s HQ in Leadenhall Street should watch out for the huge screens Hadow is planning to put in the windows of the offices donated to him by his main sponsor. Those in the City worrying about the economic climate will over their lunchtime lattes also have the opportunity to worry about the real climate.

Unlike so many modern adventures into the Polar Regions, the Catlin Arctic Survey has a real scientific mission as its main objective, and has more in common with the polar exploration of the Heroic age than any other recent expedition. This small team of explorers is going out onto the ice at great personal risk to themselves because there is no other way of getting the data. If they succeed, everyone on the planet stands to benefit. “There are times when I feel quite overburdened by the significance of the survey, and there are others when I just want to get on with it”, says Hadow.

All three members of the Catlin Arctic Survey – Pen Hadow, Ann Daniels and Martin Hartley – have been to the North Pole before, so there will be no need for personal ‘milestone bagging’ on this tour. Hadow says the team will focus entirely on securing the relevant scientific data and if that means they don’t get to the pole, then they don’t get to the pole: “we just want to ensure that we get the longest possible transect of meaningful data before we come home.”

But there is a very strong sense in which the real work won’t really start until they return. As Hadow says: “Were just the foot soldiers getting out into the field collecting the information that the scientists need to do their work.” And with the Arctic Ocean and surrounding High Arctic environment more responsive to climate change than most, the urgency for the Catlin Arctic Survey to get out there and do just that is greater than ever.


Chilling forecasts for ice meltdown date

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) thinks that seasonal disappearance of the Arctic Ocean’s sea ice will occur between 2050-2100. This is based on the best figures for the rate of the shrinking surface area and the IPCC’s long-range global climate forecasts. As if this weren’t scary enough, a super-computer model developed by the US Navy’s Department of Oceanography puts the meltdown date at within five years. Their calculations are based on the ice thickness estimates (as compared with surface area).

As Hadow says though, the accuracy of the models are merely a function of the quality of the data relied on. The data returned by the Catlin Arctic Survey will “allow for the re-evaluation of satellite and submarine digitised observations.

Climate Change modelers will be able to use the findings emerging from the survey to assist in validating or modifying projections made by the IPCC’s Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis report. The survey data can be factored into related areas of scientific work that until now had been based on satellite and submarine data, but unverified by a ground-truth survey.

Evidence for an earlier meltdown date than the IPCC’s – the most frequently cited and widely accepted – would mean that the environment lobby could apply more pressure on governments to take sustainable and responsible management of the environment more seriously. When it comes to Global Warming international agreements are the only route to success. But agreements can only be made if scientists can provide policy makers with higher-resolution forecasts than they already possess.


Global impacts of climate change

The complete meltdown of the North Pole ice cap as a perennial global feature is a major marker in the progress of climate change. Here are some of the impacts anticipated from climate change in general for different regions of the planet:

* Scientists have major concerns about 15 cities across the globe, 13 of which lie in coastal plains. If current warming trends continue London, Bangkok, Alexandria and New York will end up below sea level, displacing tens of millions and causing worldwide economic damage if adequate flood protection measures are not put in place.

* Large numbers of people living along the coast in South and East Asia (as well as in West Africa and the Caribbean) are at risk of losing their homes and their livelihood.

* Sea levels are rising in the Bay of Bengal affecting villages in Orissa’s coastal Kendrapara district in western India.

* Between 15 and 20 per cent of Bangladesh lies within one metre of sea level. Predicted rises in sea level will affect between 13 and 30 million people, potentially reducing rice production by 50 per cent.

* Pacific islands such as Tuvalu are already being evacuated as people leave to escape the rising waters. Tuvalu’s highest elevation is 4.6m, but most of it is no more than a metre above the sea

* Concerns are mounting in Shanghai, China’s economic capital, as the northern Pacific Ocean could rise by 7000mm before 2050. This impact will be exaggerated by the fact that Shanghai is sinking due to exploitation of groundwater needed to supply the population of 18million.

* About 80 per cent of the Maldives’ 1,200 islands are no more that 1m above sea level – the archipelago’s 360,000 citizens could be forced to leave in the next 50 years or so

* A rise of between 8-30cms in sea level could lead to the loss of 2,000 of Indonesia’s 17,508 islands

* Global warming could cost the Brazilian rain forest up to 30 per cent of its biodiversity and turn large areas into savannah

* Maize production levels could plummet by as much as 25-50 per cent in the next 50 years in countries such as Brazil, Nigeria, Mexico, South Africa and Tanzania due to rising temperatures and shifting rainfall pattern.


For more on the Catlin Arctic Survey visit

For more details about Pen Hadow visit

For more details about Ann Daniels visit

To see more of Martin Hartley’s polar photography visit