Pen Hadow: Melting Arctic Sea Ice and How It Will Affect Asia

by Bhavani Prakash

Pen Hadow in Singapore

It is not every day that one bumps into a polar explorer in sunny, tropical Singapore. Pen Hadow, Project Leader of the Catlin Arctic Survey team was in town recently as a speaker, at the first ever Climate Change Seminar for the Asian Insurance Industry. He talked about how the rapidly disappearing Arctic sea ice will change the way our planet looks and behaves in future.

Acknowledged by Time Magazine as one of the Heroes of the Environment in 2009 along with Martin Hartley and Ann Daniels,  Hadow is part of the team which has been involved in cutting edge science, providing critical information to scientists on the thickness of Arctic ice. This enables more accurate predictions on how long the white polar cover will last.

He shares with us the incredible challenges of polar exploration, and at the same time, the profound implications of the data collected during the process and its findings, especially for Asia.

I managed to catch up with Hadow as he left the seminar for his next appointment. We got a bit lost finding the building and he quipped that you could never get lost in the North Pole, as there is only one direction in which to keep walking.

BP: How did you get interested in polar exploration?

PH: Our family has a strong connection with Captain Robert Falcon Scott who was the first person to explore Antarctica extensively by land. Captain Scott’s dying wish was for his wife to get their son interested in the natural world. Peter went on to set up WWF, the world’s largest environmental organisation.

Pen Hadow in the Arctic

Young Peter was brought up in a particular way, had a spartan regime and was left out in the cold in Britain with fewer and fewer clothes for longer and longer periods. This nanny looked after my dad when he was a young boy. The same nanny who was now in her 80s looked after me as a boy, with a similar regime of induction to the cold. I grew up on the stories of Scott and Shackleton who were my heroes.

BP: How did polar exploration and science come together?

PH: There’s been a transition in polar exploration from it being merely an adventurous activity for fulfilling one’s personal ambitions, to something beyond.

The north and south poles were reached in the first decade of the 1900s. Traditional explorers went about finding resources for their monarchs, courts, governments and so on. In the process of discovering these resources such as gold and spices, they mapped where everything was, all the major features of the planet – the river systems , mountain ranges, coastlines, icesheets and deserts.

The role of modern exploration is to gather data not resources, to help scientists understand how the natural world works. This has become more urgent than ever. There are so many of us now and our combined impact cannot be accommodated by the natural processes. We need to understand how the planet works if we are going to manage our relationship more effectively with it.

A lot of it can be done by regular scientific fieldwork, but at the sharp, scary end of fieldwork is exploration, and that’s where people like us come in and do things that no one else can.

BP: How do you prepare for such expeditions mentally and physically?

PH: I consider team selection to be very important. Very few people in the world have sufficient experience, skills and willingness to go through the extremity of working in the Arctic ocean and sea ice. So our potential pool of explorers is very small.

What we look for is people who can not only operate technically but have the commitment deep within and passion to do the science.

Anne Daniels, Pen Hadow & Martin Hadley

Just to be able to survive and travel is what most expeditions do, but then to add another layer of surveying all the time as you’re travelling at night and when you’ve got the camp up – there are very few people who can do that.

People often ask, how much of it is physical and how much of it is mental? I’d say that when you put in the months over many years, 70% to 80% of whether you achieve your objectives is because of what goes on in your head and what sort of person you are.

Most people don’t realise that the main challenge in a polar expedition is that we have to operate in winter-spring which is the coldest period of the year. It’s important to recognise and deal with the fact that the cold affects the brain function. You behave as if you’re drunk and you’re drunk for 70 days in a hazardous environment, following a policy of zero tolerance to any mistakes of any scale, while performing at a level of physicality that has never been done before. That’s a pretty ambitious and difficult cocktail.

BP: What were the physical challenges you faced during your expeditions?

PH: The physical challenges are immense. We lose about half a pound in weight every day so we have to put on extra weight before we set off. After about two weeks, we need our muscles to pull these very heavy sledges which weigh about 120 to 150 kgs, full of our fuel, food, tent, communication equipment and so on.

The trouble after about two weeks is that you’re not able to drag enough food in the sledge, to replace all the energy you have burnt. We average about 7,500 calories a day, but can only eat about 6,000 calories, so after the second week the body says its in crisis and breaks down muscle to reduce its metabolic rate. So you’re losing the very part of the body that you need the most, and there’s nothing you can do about that.

Arctic Polar Bears - threatened by melting ice

I’ve had 35 encounters with polar bears over the last 18 years, during the 15 or so expeditions that I’ve done. The closest I’ve been to a bear was just outside my tent. There wasn’t enough time to pick up a gun to shoot or scare it off. The first thing I could grab was a saucepan which I threw at the it. The pan hit the bear near the eyebrow, and it was really surprised and ran off. Polar bears assume you’re a seal, you probably smell like one without a shower for months, so for a seal to attack a bear was a novel experience. But it was the noise of the saucepan that freaked it out!

The real challenge is what goes on in your head. It’s critical to keep calm, sensible, mature and not panic when your progress is not as good as you need it to be or when the conditions of the weather or the sea ice surface are difficult. There are good days and bad days. So you tell yourself, “It’s OK to have a few bad days.”

I’ve often said polar exploration is really about putting one foot in front of the other, and an awful lot of times, interspersed with cups of tea.

BP: What is the objective of the Catlin Arctic Survey?

PH: It is to advance the public understanding of climate change. Each year we have a focus. In 2009, it was to help scientists to understand better, and forecast more precisely how long it would be before there was no sea ice in summer time on the Arctic ocean.

What we’re doing as explorers is to try and help the scientists with raw data, because only we can access the particular kind of information they need. A satellite can help measure thickness of the ice but it uses compromised data sets, as it uses secondary information to estimates the volume of ice.

KEY FACTS from the first Catlin Atlantic Survey done in 2009

Distance trekked: 270 miles (435 km)
Days on the ice: 73 days
Coordinates: Drop off: 81°83’N 129°97’W, Pick-Up: 85°45’N 124°84’W
Dates: 1 March – 7 May 2009
Average temperature during the first two weeks at Ice Base: -32 deg C
Explorers: Pen Hadow, Ann Daniels and Martin Hartley
Information on the Science :  Sea Ice Thickness (2009), Ocean Acidification (2010) , Thermohaline Circulation (2011)

BP: How did you go about collecting the data and what did you find?

PH: We started on the 1st of March 2009 at 81 degrees North, 270 nautical miles to the North Pole which took us over 70 days to cover. The sun didn’t come up for the first two weeks, and we had to use our head torches for visibility. Sometimes we had to swim with our sledges.

Ann Daniels and Pen Hadow taking measurements

Every night when we set up camp, we went out and actually measured the thickness of the ice. We’d call up the people crunching the data for us, give them the location and ask, “How thick do you expect the ice to be?” So they might say, “2 and a half metres thick.” We’d find that it would be about 1 ½ metres thick. This happened for about 90% of the journey – the ice we found was much thinner than expected.

We had taken about 6000 observations and measured every single surface feature. The sea ice in the area was traditionally thought to be composed of older and thicker ice, but we found that the ice on the ridges was newer, and more prone to summertime melting.

BP: What are the implications of the findings?

PH: It put on block, hard evidence that supported unpublished work of the sea ice community. It made the IPCC 2007 work seriously out of whack – it was too conservative and out of date. The IPCC predicted that the first ice free summer would be between 2050 and 2100. Prof. Peter Wadham from the University of Cambridge’s Polar Oceans Physics Group revised the date of Arctic ice free summer, nearer to between 2030 and 2040. There will come a time where we will no longer have a year round cover of ice on the Arctic ocean, perhaps in 100 to 300 years.

Polar ice cap melt : NRDC

When you’re in outer space and look back at the earth, you can recognise the green of the landmass, the blue of the oceans and the white top and bottom of the poles. It is a rare visual cue to what global climate change is doing to our planet.

It would be foolish to think that this white lid going away in summer time will not have implications. The polar ice is a white layer reflecting about 80% percent of solar radiation. When the layer is gone there will be a net gain of 70% percent in energy absorption.

That implies a major environmental state change – the polar caps that provide a cooling service to the planet, especially to the northern hemisphere, is being removed by the carbon emissions that we are generating.

It’s not the melting sea ice itself which will push up sea levels. The upper levels of the Arctic ocean expands as the waters get warmer and this raises sea levels. About 30% of sea level rise over the last 200 years is because of warming of the upper layer of the oceans.

Also, the warmer waters that are accumulating in the Arctic oceans around the North Pole are making the huge amounts of ice currently on the land of Greenland slip into the sea. This is what is really going to push up sea levels.

When the IPCC report estimated that sea levels will rise by 20- 60 cm by 2100, it didn’t take into account Greenland ice and Antarctic ice sheet. When sea ice melts, there is no net rise in sea level, but when land ice melts, that’s new water entering the oceans. If you start adding what they are now observing with Greenland, this could be nearer a 1 metre estimated sea level rise by 2100.

The weather patterns in the northern hemisphere are driven substantially by the temperature difference or gradient between the relatively cold north and the warmer tropical waters. With the disappearing Arctic ice, this temperature gradient is reduced, and the engine that drives the weather system is weakened. So there will be weather changes, big and small.

BP: What does this imply for Asia?

PH: We need to make the most of this warning of what is happening. Not having this protective white lid has big implications for the northern hemisphere right down to the equator where you are at Singapore.  For Asia, the consequences of this sea ice disappearing, will be an accelerated sea level rise.

IPCC 2007 mentioned that low lying coastal communities are going to be impacted by this rising sea level. This is not a ‘maybe it’ll happen, maybe it won’t’ phenomenon. Sea levels are rising, and accelerating in their rising. The 5 nations with the most people – the low lying coastal areas are in Asia – China, India, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Indonesia. This is one big consequence of climate change in Asia.

In and around Eastern Asia, 2009-2010 was relatively cold and snowy in winter. This weather system was a result of changed wind patterns which in turn was a response to the warming of air around the North Pole – where we are seeing temperature rises happening at 2-3 times the average global rate. We can only expect more cold and snowy winters in East Asia.

Another consequence is that ocean currents are starting to change. This has an impact for the timing of monsoons in Asia and the weather that’s associated with the monsoons. People can’t be specific at the moment and scientists are working really hard to forecast this to the best of their ability. What is going to happen and where, how big are the changes going to be, is hard to tell as it’s a massively complex thing. But one thing is for sure – it is going to impact a lot of people.

Video link here

BP: How do you engage business and industry with all these findings?

PH: Climate change is about risk management. And as I told the insurance industry at the seminar, I know all about risk management. If I don’t manage risk, I don’t come back alive.

Everyone knows about sports sponsorship, art and music sponsorship. A new sector is environmental sponsorship. Almost every businesses need to improve its environmental credentials and to communicate to all its key stakeholders what it is doing. An increasing number of businesses have surged ahead in their industry sector to becoming more sustainable. Sometimes they find it hard to get a return on investment with some of the stakeholders particularly from their customers and clients.

The problem we have identified is that what they are doing ‘less bad’ which is not really inspiration. There is opportunity for business to do ‘more good’. Get on the front foot. Do not necessarily look for an environmental program that is very relevant to your business alone – but for the greater good of the environment. That sort of indirect dislocation from your business, can really enhance the perception of how people see your business.

BP: What action needs to be taken immediately to avert a catastrophe?

PH: Individuals, households, businesses and government – we all in our own way need to share and increase people’s understanding, believe that these things are really happening and we are bringing them about.

Even if we are not – and I believe they are – the changes are happening, and are going to happen. Let’s start working out how we are going to deal with it, don’t wait till it has happened in a big bad way. Get organised now for coping with the situation.


About the interviewer:

Bhavani Prakash is the Founder of Eco WALK the Talk .com. She is passionate about the role of individuals and communities in bringing about the much needed change we need to see in the world.  She was an economist in her previous avatar, and is now an environmental and social justice activist using social media as well as offline community participation in her advocacy of a greener, fairer and happier planet. She writes and conducts talks and workshops on sustainability and can be contacted at bhavani[at]ecowalkthetalk.com. Follow Eco WALK the Talk on Facebook, TwitterLinked IN and YouTube

Further links you may be interested in:

1. Catlin Atlantic Survey will be conducting its next expedition in 2011. To find out more, please visit their website at CatlinArcticSurvey.com The objective of the 2011 expedition is to collect data on Thermohaline circulation. According to the website, “ The Arctic plays a crucial role in driving thermohaline circulation – powerful ocean currents that circulate warm and cold water around the world’s oceans. These currents have a major impact on Earth’s climate and weather patterns.  While a number of processes drive thermohaline circulation, there are a few that are unique to the Arctic. Further data on these will help scientists determine how important the Arctic is to thermohaline circulation, and what changes are taking place.”

2. EWTT: Climate Change in Southeast Asia And Why We Can’t Afford Not to Act

3. New York Times: Arctic Waters Warmer in 2000 Years

4. BBC: Arctic Diary: Explorer’s Ice Quest

5. BBC: Polar bear’s epic nine day swim in search of sea ice

5. YouTube: Arctic Changes: The Big Picture

Photo Courtesy:

Polar Bears: Fotopedia.com

Other photos are copyrighted to Catlin Atlantic Survey and found here:

Catlin Arctic Survey Team 2009 : BBC

Explorer swimming in Sea Ice: MSNBC

Explorer pulling a sledge: Guardian UK

Ann Daniels and Pen Hadow taking sea ice measurements: WWF UK


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Posted by on Feb 1 2011. Filed under Climate Change, Climate Change. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

3 Comments for “Pen Hadow: Melting Arctic Sea Ice and How It Will Affect Asia”

  1. [...] George Yeo – New Asia Republic: Would the Tunku support the New Economic Model? – EcoWalktheTalk: Pen Hadow: Melting Arctic Sea Ice and How It Will Affect Asia [Thanks [...]

  2. Yes, Pen Hadow is a god for me! Trekked 435 kilometers? wow!

  3. I like the interview. Very often, areas not inhabited densely are not recognised as important. The significant role of this block is that it helps in maintaining the global heat balance which underlines the need for mitigation efforts in the right direction.

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