Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Sam Branson's Arctic diary

Sam is travelling to the North pole on an expedition to highlight climate change and keeping a travel log for Mirror.co.uk

sam branson

Day 5, 1 September

The view off the ship this morning was mesmerizing. The fog which engulfed us last night has lifted and the sun is shining bright, lying close to the horizon in its usual summer position. The sea is now calm as it is protected from the wind by the ice that must lie ahead and huge white ice sheets now scatter the deep waters surface. I climbed up to the crows nest on the front of the ship. Looking down from around 80 feet at our surroundings, it reminded me of a pond. A giant one covered with huge white lily pads sitting on the calm waters surface.


Travel this morning was tough. The temperature has dropped dramatically and each time the guys get in the water in is a notch harder. We are starting to see larger chunks of ice, which instead of weaving through, they have to paddle around. The occasional chunk hits the bow of the ship sending small pieces out to the side into the route of travel for our paddlers. One nearly knocked Lewis of his kayak. The water is now below zero and a spill could be quite painful. The moving water by the feet of the guys has started to freeze and this could take a toll on their much needed warmth. I know that Robbie has been struggling with his toes.

There has been quite a lot of confusion on the ship today. Receiving information from the outside world can be difficult and we are getting varied information on what is going on with the ice further afield. There has been a report in Englandthat the Arctic ice has become an ice island for the first time. It depends how you look at it. The ice is still connected to Ellesmere Island and Greenlandbut now is not attached to a main land continent as it was before. This is a harsh image of the changes are planet is undergoing. It is so important to give out correct information so as not to confuse people.

This has come about because the North East and North Westpassages are now open. This is the first time in the 30 year satellite record that both have opened up at the same time. The opening of these passages is iconic, but the ice loss we see today is not new; it is the result of big changes which started decades ago, due to global warming. Ice loss will continue with our current climate. Ice loss is already leading to further warming in the Arctic, and this can increase climate change across the world, catastrophically. Loss of sea ice affects us all and we must take it personally.


Sea ice reflects most of the heat that it hits, but as it melts, it exposes the dark ocean below, which absorbs most of the heat that it receives. So, as the ice melts, the water warms faster, leading to further melting; so a downward spiral of ice loss has started. This is an accelerating or positive feedback mechanism.

It is considered that the loss of sea ice we see now is a result of a change in the sea ice that happened in the early 1990's, where by a precipitous loss of sea ice predisposed it to further loss. This can be referred to as a tipping point; the point at which change becomes rapid until a different stable point is reached.

With this ice loss, new shipping routes are opening up, like we have seen today. As the sea ice retreats over the years, interest in exploiting Arctic resources has increased. It has been very worrying to see sea bed claims made for this remote and previously inaccessible region. A rush for oil and gas in the region is underway. Once, not even considered accessible, the vast hydrocarbon resources of this fragile wilderness is becoming within possible reach of exploitation within coming decades. The rather undignified dash for gas has lead to an increase in tension in the region. There are many reasons why further exploitation for hydrocarbons should be avoided - not least, because it leads to further climate change. It is time to recognize, that the way to tackle the energy security and the climate emergency is the same - we need to use less fossil fuels, more renewables and be smarter about how much we use and in what ways.

All of this said. We are humans. It is in our nature to consume. The world still needs to tick. People will still travel, computers will still be used and we will always feel the need to want things we may not need. But the way the cogs work need to change. There are great new technologies out there today. We just need to see the urgency in adapting to using them.

Sorry for such an information filled dispatch, but it is important to get this information across.

Day 4, 31 August

Waking up this morning, I pulled on the many layers one wears out here, and walked up the steep stairs to the mess, to start the routine we have all slipped into. Breakfast at 0800 hrs followed by a short team meeting and then in the water at 0900 hrs. As I opened the door to the mess it was empty, with the odd steaming mug lay scattered about. Usually it is bustling with people filling themselves with food and coffee. Thinking it was strange; I sat and poured myself a cup. Soon enough Julia (the physiotherapist) came down to say 'have you not seen them?' 'What?' I replied, 'the whales'. I ran upstairs to the bridge to find the crew and team looking out over deck. There were two large fin whales and a bowhead whale swimming off the bow of the boat. They would disappear under the icy water before coming up to spray the air with the water that covered their blow holes, reaching 6 meters from their backs.

The fin whale can reach a length of up to 25 meters and can weigh an enormous 90 tonnes. A regular summer visitor to the Arctic, the fin whale is similar in shape to the much rarer blue whale, but smaller, both have a dorsal fin. They are able to cruise all day at a comfortable 7 knots but can sprint at 18 knots. In a deep dive the animal can be down for nearly half an hour.

It was a great start to the day. There is something magical about seeing an animal so calm in their natural environment. Not scared at all, they cruised along side us inquisitively checking us out. An inquisitive 90 tonne animal can be very dangerous, especially to a small vessel like a kayak.

The waters today are much rougher and the wind is coming from the north east. The coldest direction as it blows over the cold wastes of the Arctic Ocean. It will be a tough day for our men in the water. The ship is noticeably colder and we are all wearing an extra layer. I have been on deck loading the kayaks and boats back onto the ship. The water soaked ropes seep moisture into your gloves and it saps the heat from my hands fast. I can only imagine what it is like for Lewis and Robbie holding on to a cold paddle with waves crashing over them. The first thing Lewis said when he got back in was 'I can't feel my backside!'

I have travelled myself for three months out in the Arctic, in the cold winter to spring time. Although it was far colder than this, we did not get wet. It can be a real physical and mental struggle. I can only wonder what is going through Robbie and Lewis' heads. The last few kilometres are always the hardest. Trying to motivate yourself to the end. It is nice to get into a rhythm but when you are tired it is always hard to get that last bit of energy to push to the kilometres you need. We leaned over the side of the ship shouting encouragement to them. A funny moment was when I grabbed a magazine and held a photo of an attractive lady for them both to paddle towards.

Whilst paddling, they are having to avoid many small and some large chunks of ice scattered on the waters surface. Even though on the surface they may look small, it could just be the tip with a vast quantity of ice under the surface. The kayaks are super light and rigid, designed for speed to cover great distances. But because of this they are fragile and hitting the ice could not only knock them over into the freezing water, but break the hull which would be a major set back. The guys have to weave through calling out to one another as they spot the floating pieces.

The ice loss here has dangerous impacts for, not only the Arctic region, but potentially for the whole globe. As the sea ice melts, the water warms up faster. Some of this heat reaches the ocean floor and some is released back to the atmosphere. The warmth of the sea air penetrates deep into the land. The shore of local land masses are naturally filled with methane as well as permafrost. Permafrost is the frozen soil under the ground. As the matter held within in melts, it decomposes and may release even more methane. As the Arctic regions and permafrost warm, we risk the release of large amounts of methane to the atmosphere. Methane is a strong greenhouse gas. We must stop the Arcticfrom melting. Not just to protect the Arctic, but to protect the whole globe from climate change.

The team are getting to know each other well and jokes are being cracked frequently. It is great for the moral of the guys when they get back aboard the ship, before they head out again. I can see a faint ice wall on the horizon ahead. Just how large, we will have to find out.

Day 3, 30 August

We have left the shores of Svalbard behind us and entered the open ocean. It snowed overnight adding a dramatic edge to the mountains we have left at our backs. There is always an exhilarating feeling leaving land behind you. It also leaves you slightly anxious. We are off now on our own. Looking around from the bridge we could be anywhere, but soon we will enter the ice and know we are nearing the top of the planet. Along side us the odd Puffin breaks the surface of the cold water gracing us with its presence. It is said that there are around 10,000 pairs of the species up here and increasingly evident. With the warmer temperatures, more and more species are migrating north. The adults are deep divers, reaching down as far as 70m to collect beak loads of fish.

It is great to see the guys paddle out into the open ocean with its huge expanse filling the horizon. Seagulls fly over their heads on occasion as if to check out these alien beings. Robbie, the more experienced of the two is the pace setter on the trip. He has a quiet and gentle nature but not to be mistaken for shy. He is leading the way with Lewis keeping at his side. In a way, he is an unsung hero. Paddling the distance and taking much of the hardships without much of the attention. Not that he would want it. He is obviously a modest man.

One you could imagine, saving a baby from a burning building and not uttering a word about it to anyone. Between the two there are slight differences of approach. Lewis, a swimmer by trade, likes to have a set amount of time to travel. Whereas Robbie, a champion kayaker by trade, likes to have a set distance and push to it. He has the mentality of most paddlers or rowers, always able to push just that much further. An easy balance between the two would be the best option, but with Lewis not having the wing span of an Albatross like Robbie, they will have to stop when he starts to feel it. In his words 'get out when things are still good.'

The equipment they use is crucial to their mindset on the water. If they are too cold or warm, things can get pretty uncomfortable and start to wear down their positivity. Something which is an integral part of any expedition and usually the key to success. On a more important note it is what this expedition is about that fills my mind. The Arctic sea ice is being lost at an unprecedented rate and faster than predicted. The level of loss of sea ice in 2007 was not predicted to happen for 30-50 years by most modelling. Other aspects of climate change are also ahead of predictions, such as sea level rise.

This means that we have underestimated key aspects of climate change (by global warming), and therefore, we are likely to have underestimated what we have to do to be safe, and how fast we need to act. Being up here in the Arctic surrounded by this information and natural beauty it would be hard not to take heed, but I understand (coming from a city) that it is easy for one to get mixed up in the fast pace of life and get detached from what is actually most important.

Balance and preserving the environment that we live in. And the way we in the modern world is tipping the scales. Why is it that those surrounded by nature are the ones most committed to rectifying the problems? It is because they can see the changes happening around them and are more in tune with nature, like we all were once. I hope that by me opening a window to you at home from this place that you will have a clearer view of what is going on and be empowered to make a difference, no matter how little. Together we can make an impact. It is up to you to decide what side of the scale you want to jump on.

Sitting on the bridge writing this, I have a clear view of all around me and it is truly inspiring. Not a bad office. I was out driving the boat this morning for the crew to film the guys paddling. Hours will be sent trying to get a hold of a satellite signal to send out our dispatches and photos. It can sometimes be a tedious process but I wouldn't change my seat for any. We will hit the ice in the next day or so and travelling will become a little trickier. I am looking forward to having some more excitement on board.

Day 2, 29 August

A Voyage for Madmen is the title of the book I am reading. I can't seem to stop making comparisons to the voyage we are on now. The calm and collectedness of our team could make a person believe that what we are attempting is normal. I am quickly coming to realise that it is far from the case. I will take a paragraph from the book which explains what I am talking about.

day 2

'The perimeter of one's vessel at sea is the very clear boundary of safety; beyond it lie peril and possibly death, and their nearness is clearly felt. It helps keep one aboard. The visceral, unreasoning fears of abandonment, the abyssal depths and all its creatures, make it very difficult for most people to jump overboard once the shore has receded beyond a short distance away, even with trusted companions aboard a boat.'

This sums up the task which our men are embarking on. Yesterday our Capitan gave us a safety briefing. The water that surrounds us is nearly 1.8oC below zero. You would not survive more than two minutes. The cold would stop your body being able to function and you would drown. Aboard, we are relatively safe but our men are paddling inches from the waters surface in a vessel no wider than two feet. It is a hostile environment and one to never underestimate.

The wind and seas have started to pick up. You have to ask the question 'why are these men risking so much?' There are huge changes happening to our planet. The Arctic is feeling the heat of global warming faster than nearly anywhere else on earth. While global average temperatures have risen around 0.8oC since pre-industrial times, parts of the Arctic have warmed of up to 4oC, and are rising fast. It is imperative that we start to understand the issue and learn how we can reduce the damage we are doing.

day 2

This afternoon we took a small trip to the land nearby. The island is called Danskoeya in a bay called Virgo Hamna. There are lots of historical ruins scattered across the shore from visitors from the past. We were lucky to get a close up look as the area is protected and you can only get on land with a permit. The bay we visited was used mainly for whaling. The men would drag the whales ashore before cutting off their blubber and another part called the berlina. They would boil the blubber on the shore and make oil which would be used for lanterns. The berlina would be used to make umbrellas and corsets. After they took what they wanted, they would leave the whale to sink and decompose. It seems tragic to only use a small amount of such a great animal and leave it for waste but it reminds me of the shark fining which goes on today on such a massive scale. All over the world fishermen cut the fins off of sharks to sell for soup. They leave the, still alive, shark to sink to the bottom and drown slowly.

Although this region has a sad whaling history, it also has a great expedition history, which makes it a prominent place to start. A few different expeditions set off from here to try to make the pole, including some balloon attempts. None actually made it to the pole. One team (of three) were actually found in their tent thirty years after their departure on an island further north. Due to the cold, their bodies, clothing, diaries and film were all left intact. Another historical moment was when one of the most famous explorers of all time periled near here. Ronald Amundsen (the first man to the South Pole) died on a rescue mission to save his former Italian team-mate who crashed his airship on a pole attempt. I have seen my fair share of ballooning launches with my dad's crazy attempts at breaking world records. I am happy to say that he has always made it home.

From the island, the team set off about two hours ago. We are all in good spirits and Lewis and Robbie seem to be making good ground. They have averaged around five knots, which is a great start. The wind is cold and we'll see tonight how they found the conditions. Huge blue glaciers still sit along the shore, standing high with the grandeur that only time can give and the snowy topped mountains lie on the horizon. Soon we will pass the land and be in the realms of the ice. I am looking forward to seeing what tomorrow will bring.

Day 1, 28 August

So we're here, our first day out on the water. Flying up yesterday brought home to me how close the Arctic actually is to us. We took three small one and a half hour flights. Starting in London we headed to Oslo (Norway), and then up to Tromso on the north of the country and then a short flight up to Spitsbergen, which is a part of the Svalbard Archipelago. Some may know this place from the book 'The northern lights' by Phillip Pullman, where he calls it, 'The land of the ice bears'. From what I've heard, this name could not be closer to the truth. The boat we are on has just returned from a trip in the ice and along the way they encountered eighty eight bears. Svalbard (translated to cold coast) is one of the northernmost land areas in the world and although it has been exploited and used as a base for whaling, fishing and hunting, it is still relatively pristine. The island lies between 74 and 81 degrees north and has an area of about 61 000 square kilometres.

Sam Branson

Flying in to Svalbard was magical. Leaving Tromso the sun had set. The further north we travelled, the lighter and more ice filled it became. We are in the end of the Arctic summer and the sun is up for nearly twenty three hours of the day. The colours in the sky grip the eye and send your imagination flying. The sky is the deepest of blue behind clouds which are stripped with electric pink lighting up the vastness of this place. There are mountainous peaks that fill the land and ice covered glaciers along the shores.

Sam Branson

The team are all anxiously awaiting our setting off north. Lewis is the man who has organised this project and Robbie is Lewis' teammate. Hungarian from origin he is a beast of a man at six ft seven and not to mention a seven times world kayaking champion. These two are our men attempting this North Pole kayak. The two have been in the water all morning, preparing for the long hard paddle ahead. We are taking this voyage on an old fishing boat called the HV Havsel which translates to, The Ocean Seal. It is a rusty boat with character. She is like an old war veteran who has seen hard days at sea.

At present, the air is fresh and cool, but not bitter and the sea is calm. It is nice to have the freedom to move around outside without the environment being a constant struggle. For us on the ship, I would have to say so far it is pretty comfortable. For our kayakers however, they are going to have a tough battle ahead. I don't know what our route will throw at us but knowing this environment, she will have a few things up her sleeve. There are always mental and physical challenges on these sorts of missions, we will have to see what lies ahead.

For now, this is where we are. We set sail tonight for the north and start our adventure. The glacier around us sends the occasional crack of thunder as large chunks of her break off, reminding us of the main purpose of this mission. Not only to paddle as close to the North Pole as possible. But also to tell the world of the ice loss which is happening here on such a large scale.

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