Polar props

"Conveniently" located 500km (270nm) northwest of a support airport, Ellef Ringnes in the high Arctic, or more precisely a patch of frozen sea ice in nearby Deer Bay, is the favoured destination for scientists looking for early indicators of climate change.

London-based environmental sponsorship agency Geo Mission offers the equivalent of a one-stop shopping service to get small groups of hand-picked scientists in situ on Deer Bay, to keep them alive once they get there for the two-month frigid Arctic spring, and to get them and everything else that's man-made off the ice when the work is done.

The BT-67, which uses wheel skis, needs 900mm ice thickness but is able to haul 4,000kg. Picture: Geo Mission 
Geo Mission has completed two missions to Ellef over the past two Arctic springs (March and April) and is planning a third for 2011, all courtesy of funding from insurance giant Catlin as part of its Catlin Arctic Survey.

Such a mission would not be possible without vast expedition know-how and three aviation assets: experienced polar pilots, the BT-67 (DC-3 turboprop conversion) and the de Havilland Twin Otter, all of which are subcontracted from Calgary-based operator Kenn Borek Air. Geo Mission provides the logistics for the missions, in part through its operations chief Chip Cunliffe, who in earlier jobs had orchestrated scientific missions into the jungles. "I met Pen, our director, and the business came out of that," says Cunliffe.

Pen is Pen Hadow, officially recorded as the only person to make the solo unsupported trek from Canada to the geographic North Pole, a 768km (415nm) distance he navigated in 64 days in 2003. The next year, he joined up with Simon Murray for a two-month, 1,200km trek to the South Pole. He was chosen as one of Time's Heroes of the Environment in 2009 for the first Catlin Arctic Survey orchestrated by Geo Mission.

"Increasingly, he became concerned that the Arctic was changing, and not for the good," explains Rod Macrae, head of communications for Geo Mission. "We set off with the idea of doing one expedition to measure ice thickness two and half years ago. The scientists we were working with wanted desperately to get out there to do the science, but couldn't do it because there was no support structure. Pen said, 'Let's set up a company that specialises in finding the finance that allows scientists to get up there'."

Despite the need to come up with about $3 million for a mission, Geo Mission has secured buy-in from Catlin for three years running. "We go to businesses, we get sponsorship, we stage the ice base and we work with the scientists to shape the programme and do the logistics," says Macrae. "The motivation is the concern for understanding the Arctic better."

A Twin Otter delivers supplies to the camp, which sees temperatures of -40C and below. Picture: Geo Mission
Based on the preferred environmental focus of the sponsor, Geo Mission's science manager finds the world's top experts and puts out a call for proposals in publications such as Nature. The final selection might include as many as 10 scientists for a campaign. Once the science topic is settled, a location is selected, logistics begin and air support called in. "We identify the location as being safe for the planes to get in and land," says Macrae. "It has to be an area where the ice isn't expected to break." That is done with Radarsat II satellite imagery from MDA Corporation for the initial work and a sharp eye of a seasoned Kenn Borek pilot when the advance parties are sent out.

The Twin Otter, which uses wheel skis and can haul a payload of 952kg (2,100lb) for 1,125km at 114kt (210km/h) airspeed, requires 700mm (28in) ice thickness. The BT-67, which also uses wheel skis, needs 900mm ice thickness but hauls a significantly larger load at 4,000kg. The BT-67 can fly at 130kt speed for 1,650km distance, landing or taking of on an ice field 1,000m long by 30m wide. The Twin Otter needs only 300m by 30m to land or take off. Deer Bay will again be the target base area for 2011. "It's a very interesting area, scientifically," says Macrae. "That part of the Arctic ocean could well prove to be where the last year-round ice is located if science predictions are correct and the ice melts in the summer."

This year, scientists were studying whether increased absorption of carbon dioxide in the Arctic ocean could lead to ocean acidification and possibly have ripple-down effects in the global food chain.

Once a smooth location is found on Radarsat II imagery, usually on "first-year" ice, Kenn Borek pilots will fly over the target area in late February to do visual inspections. Next, a construction crew will come in and builds what Macrae jokingly calls an "arctic bed and breakfast" - a mess tent, a science tent, a communication tent, sleeping quarters and a 1km runway delineated by black rubbish bags. "We'll drop the science team off at the very beginning of March and they'll come out on 30 April," says Macrae.

It's not just the temperatures of -40˚C and wind chill that the "guests" must be protected from - it's also polar bears. "There are a number of people who are trained to use guns, but the main priority is not to shoot a bear, but to allow it to move on," says Cunliffe.

"You'd only shoot in self-defence. We're on a scientific project and it wouldn't endear us to anyone." The first lines of defence against polar bears is a Husky-cross dog that can bark at the big predator and a new trip-wire fence that will sound an alarm. "The expectation is that we would see one, but we haven't so far, which is good news," says Cunliffe.

Last year, Geo Mission needed 10 flights to set up, support and take down its base in Deer Bay, says Cunliffe. Staging takes place at the airport in Resolute, Canada, 500km to the south. BT-67s were used for eight of the 10 flights, including resupply flights, and Twin Otters were used to set up and take down the ice camp. There was also an explorer team to support, requiring one BT-67 flight to cache fuel north of Ellesmere Island and four Twin Otter flights to get the team dropped off, resupplied and returned at the end.

"They try to fly in good weather. That's the preference," says Cunliffe. "We use satellite images from Environment Canada and other sources. If there are no safety concerns, then it's down to Geo Mission to determine whether we fly or not. If a plane takes off and the fog comes in or there is blowing snow, it has to come all the way back and we have to pay for it. It would be 1,000km round trip for no reason."

The plan for next year is to again set up an ice base at Deer Bay for scientists to work, but support is also required for two long expeditions by a team of four, including a Russian scientist and a film-maker.

The first is a 50km two-week transect over the Arctic sea that will end at the ice base, followed by a plane ride back to Resolute. Later they will launch out on a six-to-seven-week trek from the North Pole toward Greenland, an expedition that will require interesting logistics in terms of fuel caches and impromptu landing strips for support aircraft.

The scientific value could be worth the effort. "With permafrost thawing, increased precipitation because of the ice cap over Greenland melting, glaciers melting and more water run-off, the arctic ocean is becoming less saline," says Macrae.

By drilling holes in the ice and sampling water, and measuring currents 300m below the surface, the expedition will get a snapshot of the water make-up and currents that take it around Greenland and the ice base and on to the arctic ocean.

"We'll see the implications to the big conveyor system of currents, which affects climate all over the world," he says. "It's remote and brutally hard to work there," says Macrae, "but there really is very little if no data on a lot of these currents."