Climate

‘Enduring Ice’ Expedition Will Kayak Through the Harshest of Arctic Environments

The five-member team will collect sea ice measurements and film their journey to educate viewers on the dramatic changes underway in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

Members of the Enduring Ice expedition will be paddling double kayaks through watery passages among ice floes in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. | Steve Smith
Members of the Enduring Ice expedition will be paddling double kayaks through watery passages among ice floes in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. | Steve Smith

“One hundred years ago, he’d have been famous, like Shackleton or Scott,” he said of Stephen Smith, a Canadian who has traversed the northern polar regions and directed several documentaries about the environment and indigenous people of the North. “He is the preeminent Arctic explorer of our generation, I would say.”

Smith wanted to discuss plans for his passion project: a feature documentary about the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, possibly the harshest and most formidable area of sea ice in the Arctic. Smith thought a film about the region would provide a way of exposing people to the nature and importance of the Arctic.

“He came up to me, wanted to ask my scientific advice, and the first thing I said to him was that I wanted to come,” recalled Horvat. “I said, ‘If there’s any way you can get me up there, please do it.’”

And so at the end of this month, Smith and Horvat, along with three others, will head to the archipelago, kayaking and sledding over the course of five weeks and several hundred miles, measuring sea ice, maintaining a regular blog, and compiling material for a documentary that Smith has dubbed “Enduring Ice.”

The terrain in the region is far from the smooth, flat vista of ice that is frequently imagined. When there is not enough open water for paddling, the team will drag kayaks across twisted landscapes of icebergs and floes. | Stephen Smith

The primary purpose of the venture, said Horvat, is to introduce people to a world of which most have little if any comprehension.

“It’s very hard for people to conceive of what the Arctic actually is,” he said. “The reason for that is that, even if you look at a map of the globe, you don’t actually see sea ice there. But sea ice is one of the most important aspects of the climate system. The really rapid decline of Arctic sea ice has had profound consequences for mid-latitudes and the stuff around us, our weather, our climate and will have profound consequences for future climate. So, we’re trying to ground people in the reality of what the Arctic Ocean is.”

Even when sea ice is illustrated or pictured, it is often as a relatively flat expanse of interlinking floes. And while that may be true in some areas, in others it is not. Wind and currents pile floes on top of one another and embed icebergs in their midst, creating a formidable environment that has resisted explorers for centuries.

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The area on which Horvat, Smith, and their team will be focused is the Kennedy Channel, a narrow section of the Nares Strait, which divides northeastern Canada from Greenland. It was given its name in the mid-1800s by Elisha Kane, an American explorer who was undergoing his second expedition in search of the Franklin Expedition.

That expedition, led by Sir John Franklin on board the ships Erebus and Terror, was searching for the Northwest Passage, a navigable seaway through the ice of the Canadian Archipelago, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The ships and crew were last seen by Europeans in July 1845. We now know that the vessels were crushed by ice, and those on board perished from scurvy, starvation, hypothermia, and lead poisoning — after, in some instances, apparently yielding to cannibalizing those already deceased.

When not sledging or paddling, the team will camp ashore in high-tech tents. | Stephen Smith

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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