Reaching 80N: interesting questions answered
What is the significance of reaching 80North?
From an environmental perspective, reaching 80North indicates Arctic Mission did not just reach the CAO southern boundary, but penetrated 375 statute miles northwards into its newly-accessible ice-free waters.
As the North Geographic Pole lies off-centre of the CAO, and on the opposite side of the CAO given the meridian we were following (roughly 150W), reaching 80N is significant because it simply had not been possible until recently to reach as far north, due to the year-round presence of sea ice.
The ice-free area within the CAO this summer is likely to be approximately one million sq km (ie. one third of the CAO’s total area). We have demonstrated the degree of access now possible to commercial fishing and commercial shipping by sailing two small (ice-strengthened) yachts this far north.
From an exploration perspective, Arctic Mission has done its best to contribute to informing interested people about:
- the existence of the CAO as a specific region within the Arctic Ocean;
- the CAO being an exclusively international waters area (ie the resource and responsibility of all nations);
- the nature of marine wildlife and ecosystem of the CAO;
- the challenges (current and imminent) faced by this marine ecosystem;
- and the need for scientific research (see below) in the CAO, still categorised by the United Nations as ‘unexplored’. NB. Any international agreement to protect the CAO will be based on scientific evidence, of which there is very little at present.
From a maritime history perspective, no sail-boat (and possibly no surface vessel of any kind without icebreaker support) is thought to have previously entered the North Pole’s international waters (aka Central Arctic Ocean).
What were our expectations of reaching 90North?
Last summer (2016), we reviewed a range of satellite-generated images of the Arctic Ocean’s sea-ice cover, and believed there was a reasonable possibility of reaching 88N.
We monitored the satellite-observed sea-ice cover from November 2016 through to March 2017, which indicated less sea ice had formed in each month since records began in 1979. We concluded it may prove possible to reach 90N in the late summer of 2017.
If someone’s exclusive objective had been to go as far north as possible, undertaking no science and with a higher tolerance of risk regarding entrapment, they may have reached closer to 86N this season.
The day we reached 80N, strong NW winds to our north could have opened up the existing ice-free channels to beyond 85N. But within 24 hours the opposite happened, contrary to opinion onboard and ashore, and it was deemed prudent to head south and continue our scientific work in the CAO away from the highly concentrated ice.
It’s worth noting that detailed forecasts of sea-ice movements and ice-types are not available, and ice concentrations vary can dramatically day-to-day (notably due to surface winds and currents), so knowing which year is going to be the year to reach 90N is more by practical trial than infinite analysis. We believe 90N will likely be reached by sail-boat sooner than later.
In our next post, we’ll look at the significance of Arctic Mission’s science.
Photograph: Conor McDonnell