Page last updated at 23:21 GMT, Friday, 11 July 2008 00:21 UK

Russian ice camp in rapid shrink

By David Shukman
BBC science and environment correspondent

Arctic ice (BBC)

Twenty Russian scientists are to be evacuated from their camp on a drifting ice-floe in the Arctic after it started disintegrating sooner than expected.

The Russians had set up research station "North Pole 35" on the floe last September when it measured a safe five kilometres long and three kilometres wide, and their original plan was to stay on it until this September.

But after enduring the permanent night of the Arctic winter and surviving the threat of polar bears, the scientists now find that their temporary home has shrunk to just 600m by 300m and faces complete break-up as it drifts towards a current known to contain relatively warm waters.

These camps have been operated since the 1930s
An icebreaker and another vessel are on their way to the scene, about 30-40km from the Spitsbergen islands, to begin the evacuation in the next few days and return the scientists to the Russian Arctic port of Murmansk.

The expedition's organisers, Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute based in St Petersburg, told the BBC that the scientists were safe and well, and that they had completed their studies.

This evacuation comes as Canadian researchers report that the melting of the Arctic ice this year started at least four weeks ahead of the long-term average.

Separate teams of scientists in Canada and the US have forecast that this year's seasonal melt of Arctic sea-ice may well reach or exceed last year's record thaw in which the ice retreated to an extent not predicted for several decades.

The stations allow for a range of Arctic studies
Russian researchers have a long history of setting up camps on drifting ice-floes, the first being undertaken in 1937. When this latest expedition was launched last year at the time of the record melt, it took the team three weeks to find a suitable piece of ice on which to establish a base.

According to Professor Peter Wadhams of Cambridge University, a veteran of Arctic research, the Russians usually prefer to set up their camps on ice at least three metres thick but the thaw was so extensive that they had to settle for a floe that was only around 1.5m thick.

He said that given the floe's thin ice and the fact that it is approaching the East Spitsbergen Current, which is known to be warmer than surrounding waters, the Russians "have got to get off pretty fast - that current would be very dangerous for them".

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