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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 May 2007, 03:52 GMT 04:52 UK
Mission to Ice Island
By David Shukman
BBC science correspondent, Canadian Arctic

Our science correspondent David Shukman has been investigating a new geographical feature in the Far North - an island of ice, seen by many scientists as one of the most dramatic signs of warming in the Arctic. Follow his journey on this page.


We reach the Arctic staging-post of Resolute on the first stage of our journey home, all a bit stunned by a combination of adrenalin, exhaustion, sunburn and cold.

After landing on the Ice Island, we'd then had to work through the night editing our reports for the next day's broadcasts so now we all keep dozing off at every turn.

Duncan Stone, David Shukman, Mark Georgiou
Heading home: the BBC trio prepare to turn south

We visit Qarmartalik School here in Resolute, the hallway filled with snowboots, the corridors and schoolrooms brightly lit and decorated. The two scientists we're with, Derek Mueller and Luke Copland, give a presentation to a class of teenagers, mostly Inuit, to explain what we've been doing.

Up on a projector screen appear images of the Arctic - the retreat of the sea ice, the temperature graphs showing the extraordinary recent warming, the break-up of the Ayles Ice Shelf now adrift as an island. The students seem to be spellbound - this is their land that's changing.

They ask sharp questions. How long will it take for the Ice Island to melt? Answer - it could be years. Where will it go? Probably west to Alaska but it could break into chunks, one of which could even end up in the bay right here.

The principal, Brian Manning, tells me how he always encourages passing scientists and explorers to visit the school, to open the children's eyes to the world outside.

I ask one of the teachers to write out the words "Ice Island" in Inuktitut, the Inuit language. She asks, which kind of ice? Thin sea ice or glacial ice? Just as there are many ways to describe snow, so there are huge differences in types of ice. The island is actually made up of a mixture of glacial ice and old sea ice that's accumulated over many years. The teacher consults a few others and, for the record, she settles on "aujuittuq qikiqtaq".

As we get ready for the next series of flights, we wonder at the huge interest this story has provoked. Not all of it favourable. We've had some very challenging questions about how we justify so much flying.

Luke Copland argues that there's a limit to what satellite analysis can tell you - only by landing on the island was it possible to measure its depth and to position the tracking beacon. Derek Mueller agrees, and also says he has already calculated the exact mileage and offset the carbon cost with a green project in Canada.

For myself, I'll also offset the carbon cost. But more than that, I hope we've provided a service by reporting on the first scientific research mission into the largest ice break-up in the Arctic for 40 years.

Arctic wolf
An Arctic wolf is a magical sight
Meanwhile odd memories of the last extraordinary few days keep flashing to mind.

From the air, on our return from the island, a long thin winding trail across the icy white below had turned out to be the path of a polar bear on the hunt for seals.

At the Eureka weather station, our home for nearly a week, a short walk to stretch our legs had brought us to within a snowball's distance of a pack of Arctic wolves. First one came by, padding over the ice, sniffing our smell and moving on; then the others, the braver ones edging a bit closer, a magical sight, but never too close.

And then the Ice Island itself - so vast, so dazzling, visited briefly and noisily, and now sliding silently across the ocean, enormous enough to become a new feature on the Arctic map but ultimately destined to vanish.

Click here to see the Canadian Ice Service website tracking the beacon we planted on the Ayles Ice Island.


Ayles Ice Island (BBC)
There were places where the ice is cracked or piled high

After days of waiting and fretting over satellite pictures showing confusing swirls of clouds, we take the plunge and set off for our second attempt to land on the Ice Island.

This time the clear skies over our base here at Eureka continue over the mountains and fjords and - crucially - over the sea. I stand in the cockpit door and watch amazed as a sheet of white appears before us without a single cloud obscuring the view.

At first, it's hard to tell exactly where the Ice Island is - there's such a jumble of cracks and icebergs. But then, one vast area of ice appears far smoother than the rest and this is confirmed as the ice island itself.

Excitement mounts as we circle at ever lower altitudes. The pilot, Rodney Fishbrook, is searching for landing sites. He turns in his seat and signals that we will touch down. We buckle up very firmly - we've been warned about a bumpy landing.

When it comes, the moment is far more dramatic than I'd expected - a roar of the engines, a storm of ice around the windows, a series of violent lurches as the skis ride over the mounds of snow.

Suddenly we're silent, stunned. Producer Mark Georgiou is the first to remember his manners and leads us in a round of applause for Rodney.

We climb out into a world of brilliant sunshine and endless white. None of us can cope without sunglasses - the glare is so intense.

The island stretches for miles around us. The air is amazingly still -- which is lucky because when we first land the temperature is minus 18.

Recent satellite images show the island free of the coast

Some of the surface is firm to walk on, other parts are deep with snowdrifts. Jumbles of huge chunks of ice mark the areas where cracks have opened and reformed.

There are curious reminders of where the island came from. Luke digs down and extracts a tiny lump of algae - a lifeform that grew up on what was an ice shelf and which now finds itself a passenger on a drifting island.

Derek breaks off shards of ice from under the snow and reminds me that they're 3,000 years old.

I find one thought particularly evocative: that I'm visiting an incredibly beautiful and remote part of the world which will soon vanish. The ice that's floating beneath me will eventually melt. And another corner of the warming Arctic will be gone forever.


A day of endless white and endless waiting. A huge depression stretching from here to the North Pole is swirling its way over us and the weather maps position the word "Low" exactly over the current location of the Ice Island we're trying to land on. We cheer ourselves with talk of how it's bound to clear soon.

Eureka base
For Eureka scientists, the BOAC women were tantalisingly close
And with time on our hands we hear the tales of this lonely base, and we all enjoy this one: the tale about Eureka and stewardesses with BOAC, the forerunner of British Airways. It's a story of longing and glamour from a more innocent age.

It turns out that in the 1960s, the polar aviation routes took many passenger planes directly over Eureka. As the jets passed overhead, the aircrews were obliged to check in and report their positions.

Well, during the long dark winters, the weathermen down in the ice below, sheltering in the storm-battered buildings here, had a bright idea: to run a competition to find the "personality queen" among the stewardesses flying above them.

Letter from BOAC stewardess Sue Curtis
Sue Curtis' letter won the hearts of her "deep freeze darlings"
Each time the radios crackled into life, the weathermen would crowd around and try to strike up a conversation. It can't have been easy, with the flight crew and the entire base listening. But this remote dialogue through the icy air was clearly popular.

I have before me an adored album of cheery letters and photographs of pretty women in miniskirts sent by the BOAC stewardesses to the Eureka base.

Wendy Madley apologises for the fact that none of them chose to send pictures of themselves in swimming costumes. "Still," she writes, "that might prove too much for folk who are virtually womanless for such a long time!"

Margaret van der Linde asks if any of the weathermen enjoy her favourite song of the year - 1969 - which is "Sugar, Sugar", though she's not sure who it's by.

Ron Girardin and Sue Curtis below the Post Office Tower in London
Ron Girardin was sent to London to present Sue Curtis with an award
But the winning line comes from Sue Curtis, who eventually won the competition. She begins her letter with the greeting: "Hello my deep freeze darlings¿"

She also includes some rather coy "statistics" about her height and weight, which almost certainly weren't the figures the men in the Arctic were supposed to be interested in.

Anyway, Sue Curtis stole the hearts of the Eureka staff and one of them, a technician, Ron Girardin, then aged 25, made the long journey to London to hand over a trophy to her. An iconic black-and-white photograph shows them posing beneath the Post Office Tower.

The end of the story? The current Eureka manager, Rai LeCoty, would love to track down any of the women who wrote to their predecessors - especially Sue Curtis. He shows the cherished album to everyone who visits.

Has anything changed in the intervening decades? The jets still fly overhead, the landscape is still ice-bound but I can tell this tale by email. And for the record, Eureka's email address is: EurekaWxStn@ec.gc.ca.


The good news is that we've flown out over the Arctic Ocean and have actually seen the ice island. The bad news is that the cloud was too low for the pilot to attempt a landing on it.

Boarding the aircraft
The crew set off with high hopes of reaching the island
We took off from Eureka in glorious evening sunshine and crossed a spectacular landscape of frozen valleys and mountaintops poking out through blankets of mist.

A fjord was bristling with craggy icebergs, locked in place until the summer thaw in a couple of months' time.

But as we approached the coast, we saw the first clouds. And soon everything was obscured by a dense floor of fluffy white. It was a depressing moment.

Just before taking off we had consulted the latest satellite images. They had shown that the cloud was clearing to the east so in theory the island should have been clear too by the time we got there.

Instead we found ourselves descending through the cloud into a world of white, with the white ice of the sea blurring with the white of the sky.

It turns out that the weather system had not kept moving as predicted - it had stalled exactly where we didn't want it.

Summits of ice-capped mountains
A spectacular landscape was illuminated by the evening sun

And with no horizon as a guide, there would be no touchdown. Heavy hearts all round.

With visibility so bad, it took a while to find the island. We banked and turned and frantically checked the maps and satellite pictures.

And then an edge of it came into view, a ragged dark line separating the 3000-year-old ice of the island from the fresher ice of the frozen sea.

And then another telltale sign that we were in the right place: a line of boulders, big lumps of black, hitchhikers from the ice island's original position attached to the coast, now journeying who knows where.

We made another couple of passes, the pilot, Rodney Fishbrook, taking us down to 500ft (152m).

But with the light unchanging, he had no clear sense of the view ahead and we had no choice but to head back to Eureka, the scientists' drills untouched, the satellite tracking beacon still packed in its case, strapped to the floor of the plane.

View from aircraft
Poor visibility prevented a landing

Even the sandwiches readied for a long night on the ice were untouched.

The Arctic is never easy, the veterans keep telling us. No one here was too surprised that we hadn't made it first time.

Now the waiting begins again - and the obsessive scanning of the weather forecasts. Another weather front is approaching so there'll be no chance for the next 24 hours.

But the island is just over an hour's flying time away. The next break will see us trying again.


A Twin Otter took the team to the research station

Today's journey takes us across unremitting miles of snow, ice and mountain, from one remote spot to an even remoter one. We travel by that stalwart of polar aviation: the Twin Otter.

We had hoped to film what's billed as a spectacular landscape (the northern regions of Ellesmere Island), but cloud gets in the way and the throb of the engines soon sends me into the deep sleep that I didn't get last night. The eyeshades didn't do enough to shade the midnight sun, which blazed through the curtains.

I feel a bit guilty dozing over terrain that proper explorers tackled on foot. I've read the unnerving tales of dog teams vanishing in blizzards and ships getting crushed in the ice. But then we land at the Eureka High Arctic Weather Station and all I feel is relief.

This is the world's northernmost, permanently manned civilian outpost, perched on the last stretch of land before the North Pole - and it's an oasis of civilisation.

Outside it's about -10C (14F), and there's a thick drift of snow blocking our window. We're warned to watch out for roaming polar bears and wolves.

Creature comforts such as ice cream were on hand
But, inside, this community of weather forecasters, scientists and support staff is safe and well looked after. And so are we.

Our orientation tour includes a stop at a fridge entirely devoted to ice cream. The dinner I've heaped on my plate vanishes in an instant. I blame the cold.

Hardly a minute passes without us thinking of the key figure in our lives right now: a weather forecaster with the Canadian Ice Service.

Trudy Wohlleben is married to one of the scientists travelling with us, Luke Copland, and she e-mails us her assessments. We read them avidly.

It looks like the clouds will break over the ice island in the afternoon. Good. But that will be because the winds will accelerate. Not so good.

I watch Luke prepare the satellite tracking beacon he's planning to plant on the island. Suddenly we're very close to the big moment.


Duncan Stone (L), David Shukman (C), Mark Georgiou (R)
The "boys from BAS": Don't ask
It feels like we've reached the top of the world already.

Gusts of wind send snow flurries scattering across this lonely little town. A sign says that although we've made it more than 6,000 miles (9,600km) from London, we're still 1,000 miles (1,600km) from the North Pole. Even so, it's far enough North for the Sun never to set. It just seems to roam around the horizon and prompts people to check that we've brought the eyeshades essential to getting any sleep here.

Another source of questioning is why on Earth we have brought luggage emblazoned with the markings of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). Wrong end of the planet surely? Well, the answer is that at their Cambridge headquarters the BAS agreed to kit us out for our journey - so I'm sure we'll be warm enough but I know that explaining ourselves to everyone we meet will become a bore.

Two scientists travelling with us, Luke Copland of the University of Ottawa and Derek Mueller of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, know the score already.

Road (BBC)
We've come a long way north - but we've still got a long way to go
They've also agreed to our ban of another topic of conversation: the weather. Everything about this trip hinges on clear skies and we realised early on that we could talk ourselves deep into the snowdrifts speculating about whether a break will appear when we need it.

First, we have to fly from here to the Eureka station another few hundred miles north. And then from there we need a seemingly improbable combination of weather conditions to be able to reach our destination: the Ayles Ice Island, a monster iceberg 10 miles long and three miles across (16km by 5km), that tore away from the Arctic coastline in one of the most dramatic events of recent times, altering the very geography of this region.

Although the break-up happened in August 2005, news only emerged from scientific circles a few months ago and - until now - no scientists have had the chance to investigate this weird new structure, let alone any journalists.

David with Luke Copland and Derek Mueller
Luke Copland and Derek Mueller are with us to answer our questions

We're getting close. Only five hundred miles to go. But if there's heavy cloud we won't see the new island. If there's open water around the island there could be fog which could also block our view. If there's a strong wind, it could blow away the fog but will chill us to the core.

It's enough to make me reach for a drink. Except that I can't - Resolute is dry, not a drop to be had apparently. I'll just have to reach for the eyeshades instead.

Come back to this page regularly and you can follow the progress of myself and producer Mark Georgiou and cameraman Duncan Stone. We will be posting pictures and video on this page.

Ayles Ice Island (BBC)
The Ayles Ice Island calved off the Ayles Ice Shelf in August 2005
The calving event was the largest in at least the last 25 years
A total of 87.1 sq km (33.6 sq miles) of ice was lost in this event
The largest piece was 66.4 sq km (25.6 sq miles) in area
This made the slab a little larger than Manhattan
Ayles Ice Island has moved some 50km (30 miles) since calving

Research team arrives on Ice Island

Science team lands on Ice Island
22 May 07 |  Science/Nature
Answers from the Arctic
20 May 07 |  Have Your Say

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