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Earth Reporters: Burning Questions in the Freezing Cold

Updated Friday, 3rd June 2011

Episode four: Dr Victoria Hill invites us to join in on her expedition to a special research base on the Arctic ice

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Dr Victoria Hill looking through science equipment Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: tve (Photographer: Martin Hartley) In this episode there is one question that is explored - Are melting ice sheets and glaciers disrupting global oceanic circulation? This is also known as the 'thermohaline' effect. If the answer is 'yes', the weather patterns in many countries could change. A team of scientists sets out to the Arctic to try and gather vital data with a plethora of theories to test. Among them, Dr Victoria Hill is going to gather evidence for the first time in seven years thanks to a novel way of doing science - a team of polar explorers who have set up a special research base on the Arctic ice.


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Narrator: This is the Arctic - a beautiful and barren wilderness under siege.

With the threat of total summer ice melt predicted to occur this century, scientists are urgently trying to understand what the global implications of this will be. It’s one of the most challenging environments in the world to work in – and expeditions are rare.

This woman has waited seven years to undertake this mission – her work a missing piece in the puzzle of why Arctic ice is melting faster than predicted.

Victoria Hill: The data that we're getting here has not been collected before so it's well worth all the pain and extra effort that goes into actually deploying instruments and collecting samples

Narrator: In this episode, Dr Victoria Hill is our Earth Reporter and this is her story.


Inside this building, a group of scientists are undergoing intensive polar training in preparation for a unique expedition to the Arctic. Each scientist will undertake their own individual research projects but work together as a team.

Victoria Hill: We are getting ready to leave in a few days and behind us is all the food, here. This is all the science equipment where we’re starting to open our packages, make sure everything is working. This afternoon we were talking about what life at the camp was going to be like, where the tents are going to be, how we’re going to get in and out of the tents and especially important how we’re going to pee at night if we get really desperate.

What we’re doing right now is we’re getting all our sleeping kit out so we can practice for when we’re out on the ice. We have a 4 layer sleeping system for our bags. This is our vapour liner which stops our sweat from going into the down bag and freezing. This is my fleecy liner and then we have a sleeping bag and then the outer bag with a lovely pile lining. Wow this really hot, I feel like I’m going to boil in my bag. I think it’s going to feel really nice to get into a nice warm cosy sleeping bag and hopefully it will warm up pretty quickly. I’ve got my hot water bottle so I’m going to put that in here too.

Narrator: This two week training is critical preparation for the challenging conditions the scientists will face for the next six weeks. The Arctic is not usually accessible for research expeditions at this time; temperatures can plummet to minus 40 and survival is key.

Victoria Hill: As a scientist the reason I’m prepared to come out here and be cold is because of the desire to learn and answer burning questions I have about what’s going on up here, why is the ice is melting as fast as it is. Only way to understand that is to come up here and collect data,

The Arctic is actually a sentinel system for climate change… we’ve seen much More rapid changes in arctic than we have in the rest of the world. The Arctic drives global circulation and therefore our global climate.

All oceans have huge currents carrying warm and cold water around the globe. Known as thermo-haline circulation, they are driven by temperature and salinity and have a huge influence on the patterns of the weather around the world. As warm water evaporates, the salinity increases and the temperature decreases, producing a denser water mass – this colder water sinks lower in the ocean and warm water replaces it, continuing the cycle. If the Arctic gets a lot warmer we see a slowing down of global circulation because the water will no longer sink at the arctic it will be too warm. If that happens we’ll see the climate in places like England change subtly and get colder because the warmer waters from the south won’t be pushed north any more.

As an optical oceanographer, my work is focused on understanding more about how the sun’s energy is absorbed into this frozen sea – accelerating the ice melt – and increasing the amount of fresh water entering the Arctic system.

Arctic ice is made up of sheets which are constantly moving due to winds and tides. When these sheets move apart, a patch of water opens up called a ‘Lead’, exposing the water that was underneath the ice to sunlight.

In early Spring, small particles of organic matter are seen in Arctic waters and also found in sea ice. I call it 'Ocean Tea' and I think it may be formed from Algae. My theory is that this organic matter absorbs the sun's energy making the ice melt faster.

This could be a missing piece in the puzzle to explain why the Arctic ice melt is happening quicker than climate models have predicted. Until now, I’ve not been able to gather the raw data I need due to the difficulties of getting to the arctic in the early spring.

Really excited to start to get going on our science, I’ve been waiting seven years to come out here to collect data, so it’s been a while in the making and I’m really looking forward to it.

Narrator: This annual Arctic survey is a unique collaboration between scientists and explorers, sponsored by corporate finance and overseen by veteran explorer Pen Hadow and his experienced team.

Victoria Hill: This is Tuk he’s our camp dog, he has a couple of jobs to do whilst he’s with us – most importantly he’s a polar bear warning system, he’ll bark if he senses a bear nearby and second job is morale for the camp.

Narrator: The importance of which cannot be underestimated given the scale of the physical, mental and scientific challenge over the coming six weeks.

John (pilot): My name’s John and this is my co-pilot Dusty and we’d just like to say that we’re privileged and even a little bit honoured to be a part of an expedition that’s going to help us all understand climate change and just what’s happening in the world today.

It’s a two and a half hour journey from Resolute Bay to Ice camp in this twin otter light aircraft. The base is not on solid land. 1000 miles north of the Arctic Circle, 310 miles north of Resolute Bay it lies on one metre thick ice, the edge of which melts and refreezes with the seasons.

Victoria Hill: We’ve just landed at camp. Right out the window there.

Narrator: This patch of frozen ocean is now home for Victoria her five fellow scientists, the five-person support team and of course Tuk, the camp dog.

Victoria Hill: It’s such a great location; you can just see ice for as far as the eye can see. It’s very cold the daytime temperature is about minus 38 degrees Celsius.

The camp is laid out in a very specific way; the tents are laid out in a very linear pattern. Behind me is the mess tent. The most important tent in the whole camp really. Fran spends her days cooking lovely meals for us. Let’s have a look inside. They’re doing the washing up from breakfast right now.

This is our sleeping area and around it is an electronic bear fence. The idea is that if a curious bear comes along in the night he will get an electric shock from the fence and be scared away.

This is my walk to work every day, pretty nice really. This is our main science sampling hole to get to water in ice. Inside tent is tripod and hole in ice through which we will be deploying our instruments and this is a brand new bike powered winch. When we want to lower or raise something, we just get on the bike and pedal.

The scientific instrument attached to the winch can be lowered to a depth of 500m and measures temperature, salinity and the absorption of sunlight at different wavelengths.

Every two days we sample with this instrument we’re using today. I’m trying to find out more about how solar energy is absorbed in the water column – like when a lead opens up in the ice. I take samples from a variety of sources to analyze in the lab. But with such cold temperatures, my biggest challenge is to avoid too much ice freeze and actually get to the water beneath…

Right now this is my job – every morning coming out here and chipping ice away from the experimental hole in the ice. It’s cold, it’s hard work it feels a little bit surreal.

Everything is so much more difficult here, everything just takes so much longer to do, but the data we are getting here has not been collected before so it’s well worth the pain and effort that actually goes into deploying instruments and collecting samples.

It’s very much removed from everyday life but actually you find yourself enjoying it. I guess I wouldn’t be up here if it wasn’t fun for me but it is weird that this is my life for two months.

Narrator: Living and sleeping in tents for six weeks in temperatures twice as cold as a domestic freezer has its own challenges. The Arctic sun also barely sets at night which means its light for nearly 24 hours a day.

Victoria Hill: Is there a dog in here? Hello Tuk. This is what my hair looks like after not washing it.

Narrator: Dr Victoria Hill is an Oceanographer. One of five scientists a long way from home, she’s on a quest to find out more about why the ice here in the Arctic is melting faster than predicted.

Victoria Hill: I tend to stiffen up in my joints so lower back hurts so I have to shift position then my knee hurts so move to another position. Sleeping on a mattress is getting to my body a bit, it’s not as comfortable as it used to be.

Just being here is really tough – but what keeps me going is my curiosity. Being a scientist is a bit like being a detective – I’m testing a theory that when ice begins to melt, organic matter within it absorbs solar energy and heats up making even more ice melt. I call it ocean tea, but its technical name is CDOM, short for Chromophoric Dissolved Organic Material. But where does it come from?

I took all snow off the area to get as much light as possible to get down to sea ice, what I’m hoping to find chlorophyll growth and lots of CDOM which I’m really interested in. I’m pretty excited to take core and get going and hopefully my hypothesis is going to come true.

We know that when there’s less snow on the ice, sunlight can penetrate through. But I’m discovering that these conditions cause lots more algae to grow. Does this mean there’s more light absorbing CDOM produced by this algae? I want to know! I’ve created what I call, a ‘Garden Patch’ to try and find out. It’s kind of difficult to start the core off. Which is why having somebody is always helpful.

We’ve definitely got quicker at cutting the core over the last few weeks. The first time we did it, it was about 2 hours and now its down to 45 minutes because the ice is a bit softer, the sun is up pretty 24 hours a day now so that makes a difference in just warming up the ice a little bit and making it easier. But it’s still hard work especially when you’re trying to cut 6 cores in one day and it’s just this action over and over again.

My hands get really cold when I’m cutting the core up because I’m touching it. Can’t wear thick gloves because I can’t grip the core and cut, so I have to wear thin ones.

I’m sawing up the sections of the ice core ready for melting, each section will be filtered then measured by a spectrometer to see if the exposure to more sunlight really has created more algae growth – and the extent of its light absorbing and heating properties.

Narrator: With temperatures averaging around minus 30, taking regular breaks is essential. The mess tent is at the camp’s heart.

Victoria Hill: Fran has arguably the most important job in camp – she feeds us. This is inside the mess tent; we have our water bottles and tea mugs. We stop for a lot of tea breaks to keep warm. Fran cooks at the end of the tent, here’s where we have snacks – nuts or dried fruit or chocolate oat bars that Fran makes for us.

Fran: Victoria is a connoisseur, she is a chocoholic. At breakfast Victoria will always sample a teeny bit of chocolate.

Victoria Hill: It’s not true, there are other people who eat chocolate, but I do have it breakfast, lunch and dinner and just before bed in order to stay warm in sleeping bag at minus 40, you do have to have chocolate before you go to bed… Look at all this chocolate, we have loads!

Narrator: Bad weather has set in at the Camp and looks set to stay. Victoria battles through the biting winds and heads back to the science tent to analyze the samples she gathered earlier.

Victoria Hill: Inside these glass jars are melted sections of core from the ice core we collected taken from my garden patch. And the reason that I’ve made a garden patch is that what I’ve found is that the less snow on top of the ice the more algal growth we’re getting on the bottom of the ice and the algae are producing this Colour Dissolved Organic Material that I’m interested in because it absorbs solar energy and causes heating.

So I’m excited to finally get to filter these and see if my theory has come out that I should see much more algal material in these when I finish analyzing them. It looks like taking the snow off the top of the ice has made a huge difference. And this will be more characteristic of the conditions we would find in maybe another month or so will all the snow melting off the top of the ice. This machine will measure the amount of light absorbed by the algae at different wave lengths.

Narrator: This is a key moment for Victoria – this science has been hard fought and could be a critical step in moving her theory forward of why arctic ice is melting faster than predicted.

Victoria Hill: Wow. Yeah look at that. That is a really strong absorption peak here in red on algae and here, nice strong absorption in the blue - this indicates a lot of algal material. And this is really exciting and means they are producing coloured dissolved organic material or CDOM in bottom section of core – what that means as ice melts from bottom that material will come out into surface water and be absorbing light and heating up the water and melting the bottom of the ice very slowly.

What I’m interested in is where is it coming from? Is it coming from ice algae, phytoplankton, rivers – and how much of it is there and how is affecting heating? It’s actually small question but when you link all these questions together we end up with an answer to why sea ice is melting so fast.

I don’t wake up every morning and think ok today I’m going to got out and answer some big overreaching science questions, I’m going to go off and save the world today. I’m actually thinking I wonder if that sample I collected has this in it or if it’s totally empty or did my experiment work? I’m actually focused on much smaller questions.

Narrator: Tomorrow is the final day at the Ice Camp and as the team spend their last hours in the Arctic, they are desperate to gather remaining data before they leave.

Victoria Hill: It’s cold, it’s windy. I think the wind chill minus 38 degress something like that today. I wish we had a nice day for our last day to collect water samples. It’s gonna be kind of difficult to cycle on the winch today I think. Because the amount of wind we’ve had here its blown a lot of snow in here and it’s totally snowed in so we’re having to unpack it so to speak, get all the snow off so we can actually use it.

Narrator: Meanwhile, Manager of the Ice Camp, Simon, is concerned about how to get them home.

Simon: Wind and snow is a problem obviously – have you looked at the satellite to see if there’s any change to where the ice edge is.

Narrator: The only member of the team not troubled by the weather is Tuk.

Victoria Hill: When it’s really windy like this he will put himself on the leeward side of tent, he’s got a light covering of snow over him that will keep him nice and warm, he’s ok; he seems quite content actually.

It’s what you make of it being here really – you could be miserable and hate it and not do anything or you could be a bit homesick but still get what you need to get and go home with good data and that’s what it’s all about actually, good data – good data, important data.

I’m ready to go home but when I think when I step on that plane and leave the ice, I’m going to be sad, sad to leave the friends I’ve made, sad to leave the arctic again. It’s a really wondrous place, it’s beautiful but it’s harsh - challenging and wonderful rolled into one, it’s the reason we keep coming back, we’re all in love with it – it’s quite mysterious.

And I’m glad to say we haven’t been troubled by polar bears. I’m going to be sad to leave actually, didn’t think I’d say the first week I was here.

So I have a cooler full of samples that I’m taking with me. I probably have 6 months if not more of analysis and hopefully I can write a research paper and get that published. The data that I’ve collected will be passed on to people who are modeling the Arctic climate and it’s a piece of that jigsaw puzzle and this will enable us to get much better estimates of how fast the ice will melt and it will also allow us to predict what’s gonna happen in the future.

Narrator: Anyone can be an Earth Reporter, to find out more about how to join the global conversation, go to





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