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Letters: April 25, 2007

Dear Polar Discovery,
I have enjoyed following "Expedition 1" on the Polar Discovery website. Two questions for the "Polar Mail" site:

1. How often are polar bears encountered at the North Pole Environmental Observatory (NPEO)? If polar bears are a legitimate concern, what kind of protection or security measures do the researchers take at NPEO?

2. When doing research at NPEO, is much work done at or near the sea ice edge where patches or leads of open water are exposed? What kinds of dangers does this pose and what precautions are taken? I have read that walrus can be lurking stealthily below the surface and lunge for prey at the sea ice edge in the Arctic and wondered if this was a concern for researchers as well!

—John M., Colorado

1. Polar bears have never been encountered at NPEO. However, the Russian camp operators do carry firearms in the unlikely event that a bear is sighted.

Andy Heiberg

2. At NPEO, areas of open water are rare—generally the researchers need to drill holes in the ice to get to the seawater below. That said, cracks (called "leads") do open up because of winds—a perfect example is the lead that destroyed the runway at this year's camp!

Walruses are indeed dangerous creatures—they can weigh up to 4,000 pounds and have been known to attack seals and polar bears. However, they primarily feed by grazing the ocean bottom for clams. They are found in concentrations along the ice edge (the boundary between the pack ice and open water), where they can rest on ice floes in between feedings. Both the high concentration of ice at NPEO and the water depth (roughly 2 miles deep) ensure that researchers will never see a walrus at the ice camp.

Chris Linder

Dear scientists,
First of all, I would like to say that I'm impressed that you stuck through with this trip even though the runways are bad at the North Pole. My question is, would you postpone your trip to the North Pole or would it be extended to a different date? My science class, Mrs. Benoint's period 4 science class, at Duxbury Middle School, is tracking your North Pole adventure daily. We're are still tracking you, but I still hope you get up to the North Pole and have a safe journey.

Your inspired student,
Alexandra L., Duxbury, MA

Thanks for writing. Unfortunately half of the research team (and your intrepid writer and photographer) will not make it to the North Pole this season. You might think - why not just extend the ice camp into May? The reason that the camp operators will not do this is because in May, the temperatures start rising and more cracks are likely to form in the ice. Also, the increase in heat causes more fog to form there, which makes it extremely difficult to land or take off. In the interest of safety (no one wants to be stuck at the North Pole as the ice breaks up!), the camp is always taken down at the end of April.

Chris Linder

Dear research scientists,

At my school we are following your research through your website. We read that the landing runway had cracked because of the weather. I was wondering if the weather that caused the crack was an effect of global warming, or just strange weather? What affects are global warming having on your expedition?

Emily S., Massachusetts

Hi Emily,
This is a tough question to answer. The difference between weather and climate is a subtle one. Weather is what happens from day to day, and climate is what happens over the long term—years, decades, centuries. For this reason, scientists that we have talked to are quick to point out that this event (the ice crack wrecking the runway) could have happened at any time. Cracks do form in the ice all over the Arctic—the ice cap is not a single piece but a collection of floes bumping together.

However, if you consider that climate models are forecasting a completely ice-free Arctic (that includes the North Pole) in about 50 years time, that tells you that the likelihood of encountering thin, melting, or unstable ice is going to increase every year.

Chris Linder