Smith selected the area not because of its inherent danger but because of the thickness of its ice, and the environmental circumstances that create those conditions, mean that, by the middle of the century, this region of the archipelago is expected to be the only area of the Arctic where sea ice persists in summer. As a result, it will act as the last refuge for polar bears and other Arctic wildlife that relies on sea ice habitat.
The team has advantages that the likes of Franklin did not. “We know what scurvy is, for example,” said Horvat, “and we have space-age tents.” But those ill-fated expeditions did at least venture into the area with ice-strengthened ships. The “Enduring Ice” team will have kayaks.
“It’s very different from a cruise,” Horvat said. “We don’t affect the environment around us. We’re basically victimized by the conditions. We’ll be in it, really a part of the ice state and the ocean state. It will give us a really unique perspective. We’ll do some crossing of Kennedy Channel; it’s about 30 kilometers wide, so it’s a day’s worth of paddling through the sea ice. It’s a very intimidating type of journey, especially when you don’t know what the conditions are going to be like six hours from now.”
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And when the ice isn’t open enough to paddle the kayaks, they will have to haul them across floes and ridges.
Operating at a latitude far closer to the North Pole than to the northernmost part of Sweden, the five-member team will, by its own description, likely be the most isolated group of humans in the world. And once they are on the ice, they will be entirely self-sufficient.
“Everything’s coming with us,” explained Horvat. “It’s five people and three double kayaks. Each of the kayaks is very durable and has a lot of space – well, ‘lot of space’ is relative. We’re bringing one Kindle, for example, because we don’t have the space to carry more stuff. It’s very space restricted.”
Project member Diana Kushner, Horvat said, has been preparing dehydrated food for the journey. And, if there’s one nice thing about where they’ll be traveling, he said, it’s the plentiful supply of water. “You just have to melt sea ice.”
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In terms of science, Horvat will measure ice thickness, and the team hopes to document the collapse of an ice bridge — a dam of ice that builds up during winter and collapses in the summer, allowing sea ice to flood out of the Arctic Ocean.
But the principal purpose of the expedition is to create a movie that immerses viewers in the region and helps them understand how the Arctic is changing without hitting them over the head with lectures on carbon dioxide emissions.
“What are we talking about when we say that Arctic sea ice is in decline? What is Arctic sea ice?” asked Horvat. “We’ll show you there’s ice that’s three meters thick here. The whole Arctic Ocean used to be covered with ice like that. And it isn’t anymore. It’s gone.”
In years past, Horvat said, even massive ships could become stuck in the region’s ice, killing entire crews, as occurred with Franklin’s 19th-century expedition. But even yachts are traversing the Northwest Passage.
“It’s changing really dramatically,” Horvat said, “and the consequences for the climate are significant.”
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