BBC TwoNewsnight
Page last updated at 16:09 GMT, Thursday, 21 August 2008 17:09 UK
Newsnight's Arctic Adventure

Longyearbyen, Svalbard

Susan Watts, Science Correspondent
Susan Watts
BBC Newsnight, science editor

Susan Watts has travelled to the Arctic outpost of Ny Alesund to join up with a team of climate scientists on board the specialist expedition vessel the James Clark Ross.

Monday September 2, 2008 - Final Arctic blog

So, editing over, the film of our Arctic Adventure looks set to run on this evening's programme - hurricanes, housing and Republican huffs permitting. The timing's good too. We're two weeks away from this summer's seasonal minimum in the Arctic sea ice, and all eyes are on what happens this year.

The last couple of weeks have seen a dramatic decline in the ice around the North Pole. Last year saw a record low, but THIS year it could get even worse. Already, the Northwest passage - the famous sea route linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans - is free of ice, and passable to ordinary ships. The European Space Agency has a useful animation of what's been happening this summer.

And since then, in the last two weeks, the ice melt has speeded up.

'Ice expert' for the Scottish Association for Marine Science, Jeremy Wilkinson, told us we're edging ever closer to last year's low: "We're finding a similar thing happening this year, in 2008. At present we're not quite at the 2007 minimum, but we've still got another couple of weeks of melting, and it's quite possible that we may exceed the 2007 minimum."

In fact he told me it's all happening so fast, that predictions for the future of the ice are constantly being revised.

The principal scientist for the Newsnight trip, Ray Leakey of the Scottish Association for Marine Science, told us that bumping into the ice unexpectedly close to Svalbard turned out to be a bonus this year - and one that may not come again.

"It's something of a race against time, this particular part of the Arctic this year has been cold and icy but the Arctic is getting warmer, the rest of the Arctic this year has been fairly warm, so we only have a fairly small window of opportunity to study true Arctic ecosystems before the big changes start taking effect."

Fingers-crossed that our film gets on air tonight, and thanks to the Captain and crew of the British Antarctic Survey's James Clark Ross for putting up with us - and to the Scottish, Norwegian, French and Greek team of scientists who were so patient with our daily demands for just one more shot...(apologies if I've missed anyone out?)

Next stop … Physics' Greatest Experiment (you know the one - the Large Hadron Collider)

Wednesday August 27 2008 - Back in London

As the James Clark Ross completed the final leg of the "Ice Chaser" mission, and closed in on Longyearbyen, 3rd engineer, James "Mango" Ditchfield, agreed to an early morning tour of the part of the ship most people never get to see - below decks in the engine room.

Ming, the Newsnight producer on this project, wasn't so keen on the early start - he'd been up partying until 3 o'clock in the morning.

For us nerdy types, it's fascinating to learn how the ships' "ice heeling" system works. It's basically two giant air pumps that push water from side to side inside the ship's hull, so it rocks. This way the JCR can "wiggle" its way out of ice, with help from its thrusters as they physically crush the ice in its path.

Susan takes a view below decks to see how the ship gets through ice using its thrusters and rock and rollin' "ice heeling" system.

Our tour is made easy as Mango turns out to be a natural TV presenter. He shows us the engine control room - with its green, 1950s style it resembles the heart of a nuclear power station. Lovingly, he points out the ship's refrigeration set up, how the sewage system works, and the main engines.

It becomes clearer why this ship - essentially a floating power station - needs so much fuel. The crew reckon the JCR took on just over 650,000 pounds worth of diesel for the Ice Chaser mission and the trip that followed it.

On Friday morning, as the scientists stretch their legs for the first time in weeks, we head to the local university to meet oceanographer Frank Nilsen, to find out why the ice has been so far south this year. Professor Nilsen is from UNIS - the University Centre in Svalbard. You guessed it - the world's northernmost higher education institution.

Immediately inside the door of the university, now familiar signs remind us to follow local tradition and take off our shoes. The architect wanted the inside to look like the tunnels of a coal mine - an echo from Longyearbyen's more industrial past. But this is the trendiest coal mine of all time lined, floor to ceiling, with polished wood.

Helped by the latest satellite data, professor Nilsen tells us about the state of this year's Arctic sea ice. On the Canadian side, the ice has shrunk to a patch well inside the circle marked out as the normal for each day from 1979 to 2000. In fact, pretty much everywhere in the Arctic the ice is well inside this line - except for the region just North of Svalbard - exactly where our Ice Chaser JCR mission went. Here the ice cover is greater than normal...

How to relax after a hard days science in the Arctic. Part of Susan Watts's coverage of a climate change study in the Arctic.

This is exactly what scientists expect in a warming Arctic, professor Nilsen explains. It's simple really - the less ice there is - and the thinner it is - the easier it becomes for the prevailing wind to push the cap around, from side to side. This year, Northerly winds pushed the ice south - to Svalbard. Next year, the picture might look different - with ice cover low in one part of the ocean - and high on the opposite side. The predictions suggest greater regional variability, year-by-year, as the Arctic warms.

The journey back to London was long, with two changes - though landing at Tromso allowed me a glimpse of the amazing mountains that circle the city. Back in the office, all's much the same, though I've just had an excited email from one of the JCR team, Peter Lamont, now back at the Scottish Association for Marine Science in Oban. He's sent images of some of the strange organisms he found in the sediment up in Rijpfjorden - the fjord on the far North of Svalbard from which the JCR was lucky to emerge - it's now completely covered in ice...

An organism from the expedition
Peter's deep-sea mystery lifeform
One of Peter's favourites is a Foraminifera-like life form. It looks like a perforated tube, is about a centimetre long and he describes it as a "deep-sea mystery". Sadly it may have to stay that way until someone has time to investigate, and perhaps describe and name it.

Now we set about viewing and editing our hours and hours of tapes, to craft them into a coherent Newsnight film - coming to a screen near you soon...

Thursday August 21 2008

Close encounter with a glacier – three storeys high, honest
Close encounter with a glacier – three storeys high, honest
Yesterday morning was the highlight of the trip for me - we took two of the ship's rigid inflatables out across the bay at Ny Alesund to the edge of a glacier as it slid into the water. The colour of the ice was stunning - bright blues and turquoises. We passed exquisite natural ice sculptures as we crossed a calm pond of water away from the JCR, past small chunks known as "brash" and larger, inflatable-threatening icebergs known called "growlers". It was almost impossible to judge how far we had to travel, or how high the glacier cliff face itself extended. The air was so clear that you couldn't tell if the glacier was a metre high or ten metres high for most of the journey. As we got closer, thundering noises came from high up above us in the hills as the glaciers prowled down the mountainside.

Filming over, we sped back to the JCR. Seems we were a tad late, which Captain Graham Chapman took in good spirits - once we'd apologised - and carried on without us - edging the ship into the jetty at the research base. They got us on board by winching up our entire boat - with us still in it. Slightly unnerving, but over in minutes.

Map of expedition

Arrival back at Ny Alesund means the expedition is pretty much over. The ship unloaded, and the scientists wandered off to the shop. Chatting to Nick Cox, in charge of the British part of the base, I begin to understand just how young the science of the Arctic really is. It was only in the early 1970s that it all began here at Ny Alesund, with British geological expeditions, funded by the oil companies. At around the same time, came the development of microscopes powerful enough to SEE bacteria, and filters fine enough to pick out viruses. That's when researchers realised that all our oceans are teeming with microbial life, playing a vital part in ocean food webs - the theme of the Newsnight expedition.

So as climate scientists took over from the explorers, whalers and the military in military in the Arctic, our understanding of the ecosystem of the Arctic only really started to take shape just a few decades ago. Out on the cold, rainy deck of the JCR, the trip’s principal scientific officer, Ray Leakey, told me it’s been hugely valuable, scientifically that what they found north of Svalbard this year was a “typical” Arctic summer - with ice, unexpectedly, stretching so far south that it scraped right up against the northern most coast of Svalbard.

It's important to point, though, that the normal summer the JCR encountered is something of a regional blip. Elsewhere in the Arctic, particularly on the Canadian side, 2008 has been another unusually warm year, and the ice there has shrunk significantly this year. The climate alarm bells ring as loudly for the scientists on the JCR as ever. But experiencing - and sampling - a "normal" Arctic has been key to getting the data they need to create a "baseline" picture of the region.

This will prove invaluable to feed into the models that they and other scientists are creating of the polar seas. After all, predictions about the future effects of a warmer climate on the food chain up here will be more reliable if the data you put in to start with is accurate. And without long-term records, models of the Arctic ecosystem are still in a catch-up phase.

World's most northerly disco
World's most northerly disco
Wednesday night is last night on ship for most of those on board so it's party night. They rig the most northerly disco in the world, a laptop showing swirly psychedelic patterns rigged up to a projector. Next thing we know it's announced over the ship's tannoy that all the women on board are invited to the "Crew Bar". I won't go into detail about what happened in there - all very innocent though.

On Thursday morning there was just time for a quick tour of the ship's engine rooms before everybody disembarked at 78 degrees North - back at Longyearbyen. It was a beautiful calm, sunny morning and we left the crew of the JCR to prepare for the next science mission. Science never sleeps, and the next team is due on the ship as soon as JR 210 "Ice Chaser" mission team is off. The next team on board will be looking at the hydrate vents - giant undersea chimneys beneath the Arctic ice.

Click here to see the current state of the sea-ice in the Arctic.

Tuesday, 19 August, Ny Alesund

At last, the mist lifts in Longyearbyen. A 20-minute flight later, and we're gliding over the giant satellite dish we've seen on the post cards for Ny Alesund.

This is a unique community of scientists. Eleven or so nations, each represented by a coloured wooden building - arranged in a circle on the Arctic coast, like a consular version of wagons circled against attack. And there is something a little defensive about the place.

Ny Alesund

Nick Cox, the man from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) tells me there was coal mining here once too - just like in Longyearbyen. But where the mining there was genuine, the mining in Ny Alesund was more about staking a territorial claim than getting coal out of the ground.

The James Clark Ross (JCR) sits serenely in the middle of the bay, waiting for us. The scientists on board are "calibrating the echo sounders" - a 12 hour job that's vital to understanding much of the data collected during the voyage. This involves dangling silver balls on wires over the side of the ship.

Turns out - talking to Nick - that it's the airport that's restricted to scientists - tourist ships ARE allowed to stop at Ny Alesund - but they're free only to wander to the gift shop. At the world's northern-most Post Office we play at stamping our own passports. That's when we spot our first Arctic Fox - playing with what looks like somebody's science experiment staked out on the tundra.

Arctic Fox

Enough wildlife. Minutes later it's into the dreaded life-saving immersion suits, and suddenly we're zooming over the flat water in a semi-rigid inflatable to join the crew. It's great to see George - the cameraman who's been on board for the full four weeks - filming as I clamber up the ladder and over the side of the ship. And then Ray Leakey and the team turn up - all still smiling.

George gives Ming and I glimpse of the footage he's shot - part science, part wildlife documentary - beautiful pictures of polar bears swimming. The ship's chief officer, Robert Paterson, tells us he's never seen so many. The latest count is up to 20 or 30¿perhaps it's because the ice is so much lower down this year than anyone expected - nudging right up against the coast of Svalbard .

And there are interviews with the researchers - out on the ice floes with their armed guards in case a friendly-looking bear turns nasty. There's endless dipping and sampling and winching, sloshing ice and water in and out of jars, tubes and bottles.

It's clearly been a productive cruise - and they've had some fun too. George tells us about the lucky few days' window the ship had in Ripfjorden¿the fjord furthest north on the trip. The ice closed in so fast that if they'd left it a day later to leave they wouldn't have managed it. The ship would have been stuck until the wind changed and the ice freed up. The ship had to "box" its way back out through the ice as it was¿lurching and grinding, metre by metre.

And yes, in spite of the safety briefing warning us against fires and burning food in the duty mess, we - ok I, managed to burn the toast on our first morning. I'm sure the chief officer had better things to do than ring the bridge and warn them to ignore the alarm: "We're clear of smoke down here now Simon¿yes, the BBC..."

Monday August 18 - midday - Nybyen

It must be the first time I've been in a plane full of adults, craning to see out of the windows. But then landing in Svalbard is thrilling. This is the Kingdom of the Polar Bear, in both fact and fiction.
Stuffed Polar Bear
Svalbard sights: the stuffed polar bear guarding the luggage carousel at Longyearbyen airport.

We landed last night at Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago. It was a quarter to midnight - and full daylight.

The first thing that strikes you is the barren, brown mountains. Much like Scotland, but with steep sides that look as if they could have been cut and sliced by ice only yesterday. The stuffed Polar Bear sitting on top of the baggage carrier was a bit of a surprise - maybe that'll be the closest we get? That wouldn't compare too well with the close encounters of the crew on the James Clark Ross (JCR) we've come to visit.

On cue, Ming - the Newsnight producer travelling with me - picked up a message from George - the cameraman on board the JCR. They still hope to pick us up on Monday afternoon, but they're struggling through thick ice. In fact, the ship has seen plenty of ice on its Arctic trip. So the ice expert we interviewed earlier this Summer, Jeremy Wilkinson, was right in his bet that serious sea-ice retreat would NOT happen this year, but is more likely to start around 2012 to 2015.

A quick taxi hop took us to the new town of Nybyen - built for the coal mining community after the Second World War. Our accommodation for the night is the old miners' dormitories. We're in House number 1 - which was built for the foremen - so is apparently more luxurious than the rest. It's student residence-style and feels very much like being back at college.

Outside, it's cold enough to wear a hat, but not freezing, at 2 to 4 degrees. Ming wants to stay up until the Sun goes down. He can't quite get his head round the fact that it's past one o'clock in the morning - . And we both have to keep reminding ourselves to talk in the hushed tones of night, as others try to sleep, in the sunshine.

The plan for tomorrow is a walk to the glacier we can see from the guesthouse door. Its icy tongue is nestled in the mountains now. But the taxi driver remembers that 20 years ago it stretched down into the valley and nudged up against the miners' buildings.

On Monday morning it's brighter than last night - sunny and clear. Breakfast in the old miners' hall includes cheese, herrings and eggs. At one end of the room is the "iron cow" - a large silver cauldron-like contraption which was once used to provide milk for the whole colony - by churning powdered milk, water and butter together, according to the poster in the bedrooms.

All around, the walls are decorated with black and white photographs of the mining days, before the tourists took over. This afternoon we fly further north, maybe on the titchy turboprop plane we saw at the airport, to Ny Alesund. This is an international scientific research base, and home to the world's Northern-most post office and northern-most railway (no longer functioning). Ny Alesund is beyond the reach of the tourists - you need an invitation from a scientific organisation before you can visit. We have the good will of the UK's NERC - the Natural Environment Research Council. All electronic devices have to be switched off there, in case they disrupt delicate scientific instruments. The "town" is at the end of a fjord along which the JCR will travel to pick us up - all being well.

Dr Raymond Leakey - Chief Scientist
23 Jul 08 |  Newsnight
Dr Henrik Stahl
23 Jul 08 |  Newsnight

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