Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Extreme science in the Arctic Circle

Extreme science in the Arctic Circle

Refuelling at Arctic Bay. Photo: Darren Bull/CNN

An elite group of scientists is heading to one of the coldest places on Earth to carry out vital research on global warming. Joining them for part of the journey is a three-person team from CNN, led by special correspondent and environmentalist Philippe Cousteau. Check for updates and images from the trip right here over the next two weeks. Learn more about the journey here.

(CNN) -- 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 7 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.