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The Catlin Arctic Survey: daring, yes, but is the science any good?

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Richard Cable | 12:25 UK time, Thursday, 14 May 2009

The Catlin Arctic Survey, a 'gruelling 10-week expedition to measure the thickness of sea ice' has just come to a premature end after the team of Pen Hadow, Ann Daniels and Martin Hartley were plucked from the ice on Wednesday.

No one could doubt the derring-do of attempting to walk and swim sophisticated ice-measuring equipment to the North Pole at this time of year, but it will be interesting to see what the scientific value of the expedition turns out to be.

We already know that the expedition recorded an average ice thickness of 1.774m, calculated from 1,500 measurements. But crucially these measurements were taken manually by using an ice-augur to drill down to water - roughly one reading every 300m of the 432km the team travelled.

The original ambition was to take 'millions' of measurements using a radar sled called Sprite, which failed completely within the first couple of weeks. A second device called SeaCat, designed to take the temperature and salinity of the water under the ice, also gave up the ghost very early on.

This begs the question: are we learning anything from these measurements that we couldn't gain, perhaps more accurately, from satellite data? There's also the important issue of a potential 'reporting bias' due to the fact that the team's journey over the ice was dictated by what it was possible to cross, rather than by the most direct route to the North Pole.

And then there was the scathing criticism of Steve Penikett, of the Calgary-based company that rescued the survey team. He said: 'I wish it hadn't taken place at this time of the year ... No one should expect to be picked up from there later than 30 April ... Going to the Pole this time of the year is a bit stupid and you put a lot of people's lives at risk.'

If nothing else, Hadow et al's reports of hardship in minus 70°C temperatures confirm that the Arctic is still a formidable and unpredictable wilderness. And the latest data from the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre suggests the Catlin team really lucked in. The report states that this year the sea ice 'decline rate for the month of April was the third slowest on record'.


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