Traveling to the North Pole presents some very unique and difficult challenges over a journey to the South. For starters, Antarctica actually has solid land underneath the polar icecap, while the Arctic is actually one giant slab of ice floating above the Arctic Ocean. That means that the ice is far less stable, and Arctic explores often have to deal with large open areas of water, called leads, that they must somehow find a way around, or cross. In recent years, those open leads have become larger and more frequent, particularly at the start of the journey, with global climate change usually being blamed.
Arctic explorers also have to deal with a frustrating phenomenon known as negative drift as well. Negative drift is caused when the large slab of ice they are traveling across actually floats further south, carrying them away from their intended destination at 90ºN. It is not uncommon for someone traveling in the Arctic to spend a full day covering ten miles of distance, only to stop for the night and have negative drift carry them in the opposite direction. More than one Arctic explorer has found that they are significantly further away from the North Pole when they wake up the next morning than they were when they went to sleep.
Those aren't the only challenges to Arctic travel either. For instance, the unstable nature of the ice can cause large areas of it to collide with one another, causing it to crack and break. This can create large debris fields filled with massive boulders of ice which can be extremely difficult to cross, particularly when you're dragging a sled filled with equipment and gear behind you. Additionally, when traveling through the Arctic, explorers need to carry a shotgun with them to help dissuade the polar bears from getting a little too close. In the Antarctic, explorers never encounter anything more vicious than a penguin.
As I write this, two expeditions are preparing to get underway. The Irish North Pole team, consisting of Clair O'Leary and Mike O'Shea, are waiting for word on whether or not their flight to Cape Discovery will fly today. Joining them on that flight will be Japanese solo skier Yasunaga Ogita, who hopes to complete an unsupported journey of his own to the North Pole.
In the days ahead, more teams, including a large contingent from the Indian Army, will head out on the ice. Lets just hope they have better luck than last year, when bad storms at the start of the season delayed flights long enough that most of the explorers simply gave up and went home. The window for skiing to the North Pole is a very narrow one, and the journey has only gotten tougher in the past few years. I hope that everyone at least gets a fair shot at achieving their goals in 2012.
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