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31 August 2017

Pen Hadow’s Arctic Mission Highlights Sea Ice Decline & Plight of Local Ecosystems

A few weeks back on the 14th of August, renowned British explorer Pen Hadow led two 15-metre-long yachts, the Bagheera and Snow Dragon II, out of the port of Nome, Alaska, marking the beginning of the Arctic Mission.

The Arctic Mission is the name given to a scientific expedition led by Hadow which aims to demonstrate the severity of sea ice decline in the Arctic Circle and the resulting threat to local wildlife and ecosystems. It has been described by some as “one of the most significant voyages of the 21st century” due to its ecological ambitions.

The team set out to achieve this goal by sailing as far north in the international waters of the Arctic as the retreating sea ice would allow, their final location serving as evidence of the true scope of the problem. Along the way they documented the local wildlife, incorporating everything from iconic Arctic animals such as Orcas, Beluga Whales, Polar Bears, and Narwhals, right through to plant life and even bacterial life forms.

The expedition recently arrived at its farthest north location, mooring the yachts to an ice floe located 590 nautical miles (678.5 statute miles) from the North Pole on the 29th of August at the local Alaskan time of 22:04:12. This marks the farthest north any vessel has ever reached without the support of an icebreaker ship.

The mooring was initially made in order to conduct a 24-hour marine science survey while continuing to drift along with the ice, but following a meeting of the four skippers (two are assigned to each yacht), the decision was made to head south as continuing to push northward would considerably increase the risks to the expedition while providing very limited scientific reward. As such, the team opted to retreat back to an area in the vicinity of 79 degrees 30 minutes north, where the sea ice is far less concentrated.

Throughout the expedition, the Arctic Mission team has as previously stated endeavoured to conduct an extensive oceanographic, wildlife and ecosystem research programme. This was headed up by Tim Gordon of the University of Exeter, and included work on acoustic ecology, copepod distributions and physiology, microplastic pollution surveying, inorganic carbon chemistry, seabird range expansion and microbial DNA sequencing. His scientific findings will be released following comprehensive data analysis and formal publication in peer-reviewed journals in 2018/19.

While we must wait for the full results of the aforementioned research programme, the expedition has already demonstrated one of its primary points of focus: that commercial fishing and shipping vessels can now access and exploit a new, unexplored and vulnerable ocean region on the planet, the Central Arctic Ocean, due to the melting of its sea-ice cover.

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for the written word. Currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor, his time at many UK festivals has taught him the importance of keeping warm.