‘The Last Ice Sentinel’ is a legacy project to locate and photograph the last fragments of the rarest ice on earth, driven by world renowned photographer Martin Hartley, who specialises in the Polar regions. These cathedral-like monuments of sea ice are seeking refuge like the last surviving herd of an endangered species in a remote unexplored corner of the Arctic Ocean. In February/March 2020, a small team – well equipped to deal with the hostile environment – will set off from the most Northerly point of Canada to ski 300 miles across an ice bridge to the most Northerly point of land on earth, to document the very last of the surviving fragments of the old Arctic. Soon the last of these Sentinels will be gone from our world, these beautiful symbols of the once mighty Arctic.
At the top of our planet lies the Arctic Ocean, the only Ocean on earth that has a frozen skin of sea ice floating on its surface all year round. This frozen Ocean is our Earth’s air-conditioning system. This white surface of the sea ice reflects between 80 and 90 percent of the sun’s radiation back into outer space. Without the sea ice cover, the Arctic Ocean will reflect only 7% of the sun’s radiation back into outer space. That sea ice used to cover 5.4 million square miles, an area one and a half times the size of the USA. On August 26 2012, the Arctic Ocean sea ice shrank to a record low of 1.2 million square miles.
The sea ice used to form in the Beaufort Gyre, an area of circular currents within the Arctic Ocean that moved the sea ice around the Arctic, whilst becoming thicker each year. Slowly growing to over 4 metres thick, this ice was able to survive up to 10 summers. These giant ice cathedrals, known as ‘pressure ridges’, can grow to 20 metres tall. This gyre has slowed down, almost to a stop, due to temperature changes in the sea water beneath. The result is that the warmer waters inhibit sea ice growth, and this new ice cannot survive more than a single summer. This single year sea ice forms in the Polar autumn and winter and melts again by the end of the summer. It was the old multi year sea ice, the mighty Sentinels that used to protect our planet from solar radiation, that is now the rarest ice on the planet. These rare chunks of ice are the last remaining formations of a pre-industrial revolution Arctic Ocean ice. There are only a few of these Sentinels surviving, perhaps by 2019 there may be only one or two. The aim of the expedition is to capture the charisma and beauty of this mostly unseen and undocumented landscape and to capture the last of the old sea ice for everyone on earth, before they melt and are lost to the sea forever.
The only possible way to reach these last sentinels of old sea ice is on foot at the end of the polar winter when the Arctic temperatures are at the coldest and most brutal, when the ice is at its most stable and the daylight is minimal. This time of year on the Arctic Ocean is also the most beautiful. The sun is no more than 10 degrees above the horizon, when shadows are long and the texture of life is rich. This is the time when the Arctic Ice is at its coldest.
Human survival during this phase is the most difficult. The expedition has secured the vast technical support of NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and an extended team of scientists, without which this expedition would not be possible. In addition to documenting this soon to be extinct environment, the team has with them Dr. Adrian McCallum, a polar research scientist and engineer, who will be assisting NASA and ESA with data collection on the ground to support the ESA and NASA’s Operation IceBridge, an unprecedented programme that aims to better understand connections between polar regions and the global climate system.
If we don’t attempt to document this area of our planet right now, it will be too late. These rare and mighty Last Ice Sentinels are the last of their kind. We are entering a new phase on the Arctic Ocean, an era where it is predicted that within the next 12 years we see a totally ice-free Arctic Ocean. Now is the last opportunity to record their majesty for future generations. We are all complicit in the extinction of the sea ice, with our lust for energy and progress. The least we can do is provide a visual legacy and to create an archive of the frozen Arctic Ocean, for our children the next generation of caretakers of our one earth.
Chase Expeditions is privileged to be coordinating this entire expedition.