What I Saw At the North Pole 20 Years Ago Today

, senior climate scientist | September 7, 2011, 9:44 am EDT
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History in the making: September 7, 1991
Twenty years ago on this date, I had the rare opportunity to collect samples of the Arctic Ocean at the North Pole. As I lay in my bunk, trying unsuccessfully to sleep while I heard the screeching sound of ice being broken by the Swedish Icebreaker Oden, I suddenly heard shouts in the hallway.

Picture taken aboard the Swedish icebreaker Oden on September 7th, 1991 with the longitude indicating the ship is nearly over the North Pole. Photo: Brenda Ekwurzel.

I rushed out and saw the crew member with a substantial beard dressed in a huge red Santa outfit urging us to rise early to run up onto the bridge and watch the GPS monitor slowly signal the momentous arrival of the first diesel powered ship at the North Pole. Nuclear powered submarines, ships, and airplanes had been here before, but we felt excited to be a part of navigation history. The German Icebreaker Polarstern was just behind us following in our icebreaking wake. After over a month at sea, we were excited to finally meet the scientists and crew of Polarstern for a celebration on the ice before we set to work collecting ocean, ice, atmosphere and biology measurements.

First non-nuclear icebreaker on the Geographical North Pole latitude 90 degrees North, the 7th of September 1991. Picture taken soon after the Swedish Icebreaker Oden and the German Icebreaker Polarstern arrived at the North Pole. Crew and Scientists conducting research from Oden are shown. Photo: Douglas Nilsson.

Science at the North Pole
I was collecting samples of ocean water to measure isotopes of carbon, oxygen, and helium to shed light on processes that influenced the amount of sea ice meltwater or growth, river runoff, ocean water flowing in from the Atlantic versus ocean water flowing in from the Pacific through Bering Strait. Back then I thought the sea ice could readily “bounce back” from the incredible shrinking and loss that occurred each summer. I did not realize to what extent the summer Arctic Sea Ice was experiencing a long-term decline that started in the 1950s in large part from climate change. Today I am at IMF-GEOMAR University of Kiel, Germany at a symposium that examines changes that have occurred in the Arctic Ocean region over the past 20 years. Each September the Arctic sea ice reaches its minimum extent before the region starts to freeze the ocean water and begin forming new sea-ice. It is sobering to think how this August the fabled Northwest Passage is nearly free of sea ice. What a difference 20 years can make.

Can you guess what Arctic phenomenon I was most surprised to see during the final weeks of the expedition as we were heading south toward the ice edge in early October?

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