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The sun never sets, the air is twenty degrees below zero, and the ice is moving at four hundred yards an hour. Welcome to the North Pole. In 2003, environmental reporter Andrew Revkin joined a scientific expedition to one of the world's last uncharted frontiers, where he was the first New York Times reporter ever to file stories and photographs from the top of the world.
In his quest to understand the pole, Andrew leads readers through the mysterious history of arctic exploration; he follows oceanographers as they drill a hole through nine feet of ice to dive into waters below; peers into the mysteries of climate modeling and global warming; and ultimately shows how the fate of the pole will affect us all.
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Andrew Revkin has been reporting on the environment for The New York Times since 1995. His coverage of climate change won the inaugural National Academies Communication Award for print journalism.
He is also the author of The Burning Season and Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast. He lives in New York's Hudson River valley.
Where All Is South
For nearly two hours, I have been staring out a small window on a droning
propeller-driven airplane. The low, unsetting sun casts the plane's shadow off
to the side, where it slides over what looks like an endless crinkled white
landscape. But there is no land below us. There is only an ocean—a frozen
one. We are flying out across a cap of floating, drifting ice that's the size of
the United States. As far as the eye can see, colliding plates of ice raise
jumbled miles-long ridges, some as high as houses. Here and there, the ice
is split by cracks that expose the black depths of the Arctic Ocean
The plane is jammed with instruments and survival gear and scientists
heading to the top of the world to study climate changes at the pole. Nearly
five hundred miles ago, we left the most northern spot where people can live
year-round, a Canadian military base called Alert, and headed farther north—
as far north as you can go before you suddenly find yourself pointed south
Researchers have long been measuring a global warming trend, but it is in
the Arctic that temperatures have risen the most. This research team is
trying to understand why conditions are changing and what the changes may
mean for people and the environment.
Finally, the pilot says we are nearing our destination. The plane's shadow
grows as we descend. We are all overheated and sweating, stuffed into puffy
layers of clothing and huge insulated boots. But no one else seems quite as
nervous as I am about what is coming. In a few moments, the pilot is going to
set this fifteen-ton rubber-tired airplane down on a rough runway scraped
across the eight-foot-thick sea ice. The crew and scientists around me, who
have done this for several years in a row, are munching peanut butter
sandwiches and apples, reading books, chatting. I tighten my seatbelt. The
Arctic has claimed the lives of many of the people who have been brave
enough, or crazy enough, to press north. I wonder if the ice will hold, or if it
will crack open and swallow the plane.
We finally touch down. There is a quick series of thumps and bumps and the
rising roar of engines thrown into reverse. The propellers raise clouds of
sparkling whiteness called "diamond dust"—crystals of flash-frozen sea mist
far finer than snowflakes. A hatch opens and we climb down aluminum steps.
Quite suddenly, I am standing on top of the world, about sixty miles from the
spot around which the earth spins. The frigid air bites at my cheeks. The
bright sun forces me to squint. My boots scrunch on what feels like snow-
covered ground. It takes a few moments before I remember I am walking on
floating ice that is drifting about four hundred yards an hour over an ocean two
miles deep—deep enough that ten Empire State Buildings could be stacked
beneath us without breaking the surface. I am standing at the earth's last real
edge, the last place where people cannot get very comfortable for very long.
Unlike the planet's South Pole—where a continent is home to permanent
research stations and dozens of scientists, engineers, cooks, doctors, and
other staff—at the North Pole nothing is permanent except the seabed far
below. The ice that is here today will be somewhere else tomorrow. In a few
years, much of what I am walking on, what our airplane landed on, will break
up and slide out of the Arctic Ocean altogether through passages around
Greenland, replaced by newly formed ice. A visitor once left a message in a
container on the ice near this spot. It was found on a beach in Ireland a few
A couple of weeks ago, Russian workers flew here from Siberia to plow the
runway into ice that had frozen solid through the long Arctic night. Six weeks
after we leave, that same ice will pool with slushy meltwater and crack in
Welcome to life around the North Pole. The air is fifteen degrees below zero.
The sun is circling in low, twenty-four-hour loops. If you define a day as the
stretch between sunrise and sunset, today began on March 21 and will end
on September 21. We are at one of the two places on the earth's surface
where time loses all meaning. The only reason anyone here has any idea
whether we should be asleep or eating lunch or breakfast is because the
Russian crew running operations on the ice have set their watches to
Moscow time. The only food I will eat in the next eight hours is a shared half-
frozen salmon sandwich. And I am in love with this place.
This is a strange feeling for me. I never liked the cold much. When I was a
kid, I was drawn to sun-baked regions, either real or imagined, preferring The
Swiss Family Robinson to White Fang. I loved nothing more than pulling on a
diving mask and snorkel in summertime to swim in warm bays and sneak up
on fish and hermit crabs. I once spent more than a year on a sailboat
journeying from the sunny South Pacific across the Indian Ocean and up the
Now I am at sea again, but this time I am standing on top of it. The sun is
blinding, but the air is painfully cold. I feel like a mummy, stiffly stuffed into
four layers of clothing. (I will end up smelling a bit like a mummy, too,
because we will not be able to wash for three days.) My toes tingle from the
cold despite the giant insulated "bunny boots" I am wearing, but I am totally
uninterested in fleeing to the small red tents nearby—the only hints of color
in this blindingly bright ice world. I have somehow been captured by the
magnetic pull of the Arctic, a tug that I have read about but never
For thousands of years, philosophers and navigators puzzled over what might
be found at the world's northernmost spot. On one expedition after another,
explorers died trying to reach this place. And now we have flown here in two
hours from Canada.
Each year between mid-March and the end of April, after the single Arctic
day has dawned and before the ice gets too soggy, dozens of people come
here—and not just scientists. There are tourists popping champagne corks,
skydivers from Moscow, and ski trekkers from South Korea. There are
extreme athletes from Manchester, England, who trained for their treks here
by jogging around their neighborhoods dragging heavy truck tires from ropes
tied around their waists. There are even marathon runners, including one man
from Rhode Island who prepared for the first North Pole marathon, run here in
2003, by jogging in place in a dairy's walk-in ice cream freezer. Technology
has invaded as well, and it helps make life here possible. We know our
position within a few feet thanks to cell phone–size GPS navigational
devices. From the ice, I call my ninety-eight-year-old grandmother on a
satellite telephone. She tells me she hopes I am wearing a hat.
Most visitors stay in a Russian-run base camp called Borneo, which is a
strange mix of comforts and rugged simplicity. It has heated tents,
electricity, a DVD player and TV, and four microwave ovens. But the toilet for
men is nothing more than a waist-high igloo-style wall of ice blocks.
The scientists and I are using Camp Borneo only as a stepping-stone. Our
final destination is an unnamed group of tents thirty miles closer to the pole—
tents with no heaters, no DVDs, no champagne. The scientists are part of a
small international army of dedicated researchers undertaking a host of
inventive, and sometimes dangerous, projects aimed at understanding the
changing face of the North Pole.
As I'm marveling at this frozen floating icescape, I am struck by the idea that
later in this century the Arctic Ocean could well be uncloaked in the summer,
no longer crusted in ice but instead mainly open water, as wave-tossed and
blue as the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
The global warming trend that raised the earth's average temperature one
degree Fahrenheit in the twentieth century has had a stronger effect here.
Average temperatures in some parts of the Arctic have risen as much as
eight degrees since the 1970s. The sea-ice cover, which always shrinks a bit
in summer, has for decades been pulling back more and more, exposing
great stretches of open water. Computer simulations show that it may
disappear altogether late in this century.
Most scientists have concluded that people are probably causing most of the
recent global warming trend and some of the changes in the Arctic climate
and ice by adding to the atmosphere long-lived gases that trap the sun's
heat, somewhat as a greenhouse roof does. But, as always in science,
questions follow answers. No one can be sure exactly how much of the
recent warming is human-caused and how much is the result of natural
fluctuations in the climate system. Indeed, there is little information on how
temperatures in the high Arctic varied in centuries past. Until recently, the
forbidding nature of the vast icy seascape has prevented all but a few bold
explorers from traveling here.
The planet has for millions of years seen great cycles of ice ages and warm
periods. The changes under way around the North Pole could at least partly
reflect natural flickers in climate, which is full of ups and downs.
But each year brings more signs that recent environmental shifts around the
Arctic are extraordinary. Dragonflies are showing up for the first time in
memory in Eskimo villages, causing children to run to their parents, startled
by these unfamiliar insects. Robins are pecking at th...
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