Working in the world's most northerly science lab

Lawrence McGinty

Former Science and Medical Editor

ITV News science editor Lawrence McGinty feels the Arctic cold. Credit: ITV News

It was probably the most uncomfortable ride I’d ever had. My fellow passengers in the antiquated Russian helicopter were seven scientists and my cameraman, Luke Collinson.

We sat where we could among about a ton of scientific equipment, heaters, generators and ice drills. No-one bothered much with seat-belts or safety talks.

Suddenly we were in the air, the quiet of the Arctic sky, perpetually daylit, split by the engines.

Uncomfortable, yes. But the most exciting flight of my life. We were heading for what the American scientists, led by Jamie Morison, call the North Pole Environmental Observatory. It’s a mile from the North Pole and the helicopter would get us there in about 40 minutes.

We left from Barneo, the tented camp set up every spring by the Russian Geographical Society. Barneo sits on floating sea-ice. Indeed the Arctic isn’t land at all – just floating sea-ice.

The scientists we are flying with are there to take the pulse of this floating continent. When the helicopter touches down, the pilots skilfully selecting a suitable ice floe, everyone springs into action. The temperature is around -28 degrees Celsius, so everyone wants to do something physical to get warm.

The first thing they do is drill – either a smallish hole about 4 inches across with a hand-operated giant bit and brace, or a bigger hole, about 9 inches across with a power drill.

The Russian 'Camp Barneo' base. Credit: ITV News

The technology is reassuringly old-fashioned. A tape measure comes out and they drop it down the hole to measure the thickness of the ice – 1.6 metres, sings out Antonio Lourenco. The others confirm it.

That is bad news. The ice is thin – it was formed last autumn and winter: it is what they call 'first-year ice'. Some 75% of the Arctic right now is covered with first-year ice. It is brittle and breaks up easily. Come the summer, most of it will be gone.

Jamie Morison tells me when he first came here a decade ago, it was multi-year ice – thicker and bashed about, thrown up into ridges. They had difficulty finding places to land. Now it is easy.

But the present first-year ice is a symptom of warming in the Arctic. It is changing two or three times faster than the rest of the hemisphere. And some scientists believe that affects the Jet Stream, and that brings us in Britain extremes of weather like the icy winter and spring we have just experienced.

Stepping out of the helicopter near the North Pole Credit: ITV News

Not everyone agrees, but when I get back to Svalbard, 600 miles further south and the most northerly civilisation anywhere, I Skype one of Britain’s most senior climate scientists – Julia Slingo, the Met Office’s Chief Scientist.

She tells me she is not sure about the theory. But she is concerned that what happens in the Arctic is beginning to influence our weather. She says scientists have “got to get a grip” on the possibility.

But on the ice, the scientists are still working – trying to deploy instruments into the Arctic Ocean beneath the ice to monitor as much as they can – water temperature, density and pressure (which measures sea-level).

Camp Barnoe - the world's most northerly research base Credit: ITV News

Jamie is talking to a robot he deployed onto the sea-bed over 4 km down. His computer sends out a sound signal that the robot picks up and interprets as a command to send back all the readings it has made since last spring. It sounds like whales talking to each other.

A Japanese team fail to successfully deploy their device. They get it into the water, but it isn't responding.

After months of planning and construction, it must be a terrible blow. At least they had previously deployed a similar instrument. I suppose one out of two isn't too terrible.

Exhausted, we fly back to Barneo (the Russians jokily call it that because it’s not like Borneo). Heated tents, hot food. Luxury.

Oh, and if you’re wondering whether I’m not disappointed to come so close to the North Pole without going there, don’t worry. We flew there the day before, with a Russian expedition of dog-sledders who intend to mush their huskies from the Pole to the southern tip of Greenland.

But that’s a different story.

  • ITV News Science Editor Lawrence McGinty will be filing reports on the changing Arctic for the rest of this week. Follow the latest updates from Camp Barneo here.

  • Watch the first of Lawrence's reports on ITV News at 1.30pm today