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OTTAWA - Summer temperatures in the Arctic have risen at an incredible rate over the past three years and large patches of what should be ice are now open water, a British polar explorer said on Monday.
Ben Saunders, forced by the warm weather to abandon an attempt to ski solo from northern Russia across the North Pole to Canada, said he had been amazed at how much of the ice had melted.
“It’s obvious to me that things are changing a lot and changing very quickly,” a sunburned Saunders told Reuters less than two days after being rescued from the thinning ice sheet close to the North Pole.
“I do know it’s happening because that was my third time in the Arctic (in the last three years),” said Saunders, who explored the region in 2001 and 2003.
An international study last year said global warming would melt most of the Arctic icecap in summertime by the end of the century. Many scientists blame the rising temperatures on human emissions of greenhouse gases while others point to what they say are longer-term natural warming and cooling cycles.
“The temperatures were incredibly warm ... I had days when I could ski with no gloves and no hat at all, just in bare hands, because I was too hot,” said Saunders.
Logs from an expedition in 2001 showed the average Arctic temperature at this time of year was minus 15 to minus 20 degrees Celsius (plus 5 to minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit).
Saunders said the average temperature this time was just minus 5 to minus 7 degrees Celsius (23 to 19 degrees Fahrenheit).
“I saw open water every single day of the expedition, which is not what I was expecting,” said Saunders, who had to don a special thermal suit and drag his sled across open patches of water nine times during the 71 days he spent alone. He covered a total of 965 km (600 miles) before giving up.
“I think a ski crossing from land to land (Russia to Canada) if conditions stay the same—let alone get any worse—is impossible,” he said.
Saunders had planned to set off from Russia’s northernmost Arctic islands in March but instead of ice, he discovered a 70 km (34 mile) open stretch of water. He had to be flown to the closest pack ice.
“The ice was terrible, right from the word go; very smashed up, very few flat areas,” he said, adding that the usually impermeable multiyear ice was thinning.
“(It) is becoming less stable and it’s breaking up more easily. There are enormous pressure ridges, and enormous areas of what I’d describe as rubble.”
Saunders said he had also been struck by the almost complete absence of polar bears on the Russian side.
“That surprised me a lot ... that’s historically been a very concentrated area for bears,” he said.
“Whereas in 2001 we were attacked by a bear on day two (of the trek) and saw bear tracks nearly every day for the first three weeks, this year I saw four sets of tracks during the entire expedition.”
Polar bears hunt out on the ice during summer months and are forced to retreat back to land when the ice is too thin.
Saunders said the weather had been poor for much of the trip with much more cloud cover and fog than he had expected. The fresh snow he encountered was soft and bulky, unlike the typical hard, fine-grained snow found in the Arctic.
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