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When longtime polar explorer Will Steger traveled to the North Pole in 1986, the conditions were what he described as "the old-fashioned winter." When they were first starting out, it was around 70 degrees below zero. That expedition, which he co-led, involved dog teams, and they traveled from northern Ellesmere Island in Canada to the pole, which he's reached four times.
"From a dogsledding point of view, those days are over of reaching the pole," Steger told VICE news. "I don't think anyone will ever be able to reach the pole from the shoreline. A lot of people fly out within 15 miles or five miles and they ski to the pole, and that's great. But in terms of a real expedition, where you're going from land — you'll never see … a dog team reach the pole again."
A perfect storm of thinning sea ice, caused by global warming, and changing aviation logistics, says National Geographic, are imperiling modern land-to-North-Pole expeditions. Adventurers haven't used dogs since 2005, but traverse the harsh habitat with skis, snowshoes, and dry suits to protect them as they swim across water.
Sea ice in the Arctic Ocean waxes and wanes with the seasons, melting in the summer months and freezing again during the winter. It's at a minimum in September, at summer's end, Robert Newton of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory told VICE News.
"Arctic Sea ice is losing mass. So there's simply less ice. And that's operating in two ways," he said. "One is that the extent of the ice is getting smaller, and we see that very clearly from satellite imagery. There's just no question."
Another factor, less apparent from satellite pictures, is that the ice is also getting thinner, Newton said.
"It's really quite extreme," he added. "We've lost on the order of 50 percent of the [summertime] ice in just the last couple of decades, between those two factors operating simultaneously: the loss of extent and the loss of thickness."
A related issue is that multiyear ice — ice that has more than one winter under its belt and is thus thicker — is also dwindling. "At this point, there's no question that this is attributable to global warming," Newton said.
'Imagine if all the sudden nobody was able to climb Mt. Everest ever again.'
Reasons behind the melting ice are due to a "combination of some naturally occurring phenomenon as well as global warming, and the warming Arctic, specifically," Stephanie Pfirman, also of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told VICE News. "The Arctic's been warming faster than almost anyplace else on earth, as a region, and so clearly that's involved in it." Winds and storms have also played a role.
Explorer Eric Larsen, who has made the journey to the North Pole three times, told VICE News that the combination of logistical limitations and changing ice conditions has made a land-to-North-Pole journey all but impossible. For one, a Russian station called Borneo, which has a runway — and was a way for people to fly out at the end of expeditions — hasn't been operating as long into April as it used to, he said.
"The other thing about the logistics is the really only other way to get picked up is by a company which is called Kenn Borek — they specialize in flying into remote places," Larsen said. "What happened this year is they ceased flying operations all together for expeditions. For a variety of reasons, one of which is just the shifting ice conditions, it's much more dangerous."
Then there's the expense and "rigamarole" of working with North Pole expeditions.
"You can't even get to the starting line," Larsen added, for a trip from land to the North Pole.
He compared it to a classic mountaineering pursuit coming to an end. "Imagine if all the sudden nobody was able to climb Mt. Everest ever again."
"There has been one successful North Pole expedition in the past five years," he said. This year, there was a brief, aborted expedition in which one person flew into the Borneo station. Expeditions like that might still be possible — it's the more traditional, land-to-north-pole expedition that, like the polar bear, is an endangered species.
Thinning sea ice in the Arctic may make expedition logistics harder, but there is a — perhaps sad — flip side. Boat travel in the Arctic is getting easier, Newton, of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, pointed out. "There's a lot of economic interest in shipping in the Arctic," he said. When the ice drops below one million square kilometers in the summer, he said, that's what is considered to be an "ice-free Arctic."
"At that point,' Newton told VICE News, "you'll have an open Mediterranean Sea there."
Follow Rob Verger on Twitter: @robverger