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Icebreakers To Sail for North Pole in Ambitious Scientific Expedition

June 9, 1991

BOSTON (AP) _ Three icebreakers will set off in August to crunch their way through 10- foot thick ice all the way to the North Pole in the most ambitious scientific expedition ever to explore the top of the world.

If all goes as planned, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Polar Star, the German Polarstern and the Swedish Oden will carry about 100 scientists, six helicopters and tons of scientific gear on a 70-day mission.

The journey will be the first ever to the North Pole by Western ships. However, nuclear-powered Soviet icebreakers have made such trips almost routine. Last summer, one even carried a load of tourists to the pole.

″It will be good science, but it’s both science and an adventure, and that makes it even better,″ said Leonard Johnson, director of geophysical science at the U.S. Office of Naval Research.

Johnson and Susumu Honjo of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution will be chief scientists of the project, called the International Arctic Ocean Expedition.

Among other things, the scientists will explore global warming, continental drift and the flow of river water from Siberia to the North Atlantic.

Compared to Antarctica, which supports year-round scientific colonies, the Far North is poorly understood. It is covered by water and ice, not land, which makes permanent settlements impossible. Until now, the most extensive research has been carried out on temporary camps that float on sheets of ice.

″The polar seas have not been explored,″ said Neal Thayer, chief of the science branch at the Coast Guard’s ice operations division in Washington. ″They are essentially voids in terms of scientific knowledge.″

The three ships will leave from Tromso, Norway, in early August. Their course will take them past the Greenland side of the North Pole. Then they will circle back, hit the pole dead on and finally zigzag back to Norway in October.

Aboard will be scientists from Canada, Germany, Japan, Norway, Sweden and the United States. They will skirt waters of the Soviet Union, which has refused permission for the scientists to perform experiments.

On the way, they will drop off 14 buoys that will measure the temperature of the air, ice and water, the amount of carbon dioxide and plankton in the water, its depth, the flow of currents, and many other conditions.

Among these are two especially sophisticated barrel-shaped floating labs, six feet across, that each contain 232 sensors, including 60 thermometers to measure the 50-degree difference in temperature between the air and the water.

The buoys will be placed around the North Pole in a triangular-shaped pattern the size of Oklahoma and Kansas. They will send back their data by bouncing signals off satellites.

Organizers caution that if the ice becomes jammed by wind and currents, the ships may not be able to break their way through. ″We don’t know what Mother Nature will throw at us,″ said Johnson. ″The ice could be very tight and thick. That could very well stop us.″

Among the most important scientific missions will be looking for evidence of global warming. Some experts believe that if the Earth truly is getting hotter, the rising temperature should be obvious first at the poles.

Among other scientific goals:

-Scientists hope to map the flow of fresh water ice across the Arctic. Frozen river water from Siberia slowly drifts across the top of the globe and is thought to be an important source of nutrients for fish in the North Atlantic.

-Rocks and core samples from the bottom should help fill in scientists’ knowledge about how continents drift across the surface of the planet.

The Polar Star will arrive in Boston on June 19 to load equipment from U.S. and Japanese scientists. Then it will sail to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to pick up Canadian gear before heading to Norway.

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