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Sailing To The North Pole, Thanks To Global Warming


OK, here's a possible first, brought to you by climate change. A British team is about to attempt a trip to the North Pole by sailboat. The crew hopes to depart Nome, Alaska, today. Melting ice and troublingly mild weather in the Arctic could make this voyage possible for the first time in history. From member station KCAW, Emily Kwong reports.


EMILY KWONG: The North Pole has long been locked in ice. But climate change is breaking the Arctic apart, turning a polar landscape into something far more friendly for boats...


KWONG: ...Like the Snow Dragon II. With its big white sail, the yacht looks like a pleasure craft. But it's sturdy enough to collide with sea ice at full speed without breaking apart. Explorer Pen Hadow is actually taking two boats on this trip - the Snow Dragon, with its aluminum hull, and the Bagheera, which is made of steel. He hopes their journey will send a powerful message to world leaders that something isn't right at the top of the world.

PEN HADOW: We are not going to be able to carry on mindlessly taking whatever we want from the environment. And I think a lot of people are looking to this as a symbol for a new debate.

KWONG: Because if two sailboats can get there, a whole universe of economic activity opens up around shipping and fishing. Both Russia and Denmark have filed claims for the North Pole, and other countries want to expand their Arctic territory, too. Unlike the South Pole, the North Pole has no legal protections. Hadow wants to shine a spotlight on the vulnerability of this region by being the first to get there.

HADOW: It is a strange challenge and ambition indeed - working very hard to put together a project that you don't actually want to succeed.

KWONG: Because success means the ice is going or gone. Hadow calls the project Arctic Mission. His crew of 10 includes lead scientist Tim Gordon, who will collect data from creatures both well-known and mysterious.

TIM GORDON: When the ice melts, polar bears struggle to hunt seals. But there's a lot going on beneath the waves that we know much less about.

KWONG: There's bacteria, plankton and other species living in frigid temperatures and total darkness. In studying them, Gordon wants to create a snapshot of how human action is changing the world.

GORDON: Now that the ice is melting, they are all of a sudden going to be exposed to commercial fishing, to commercial shipping, to a whole wave of new competitor animals that will come in.

KWONG: In other words, Gordon says, the whole food chain could be altered without ice to protect the region. There's broad scientific consensus that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. For NPR News, I'm Emily Kwong.

(SOUNDBITE OF WESS MEETS WEST'S "THE WARS OF MAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Kwong (she/her) is the reporter for NPR's daily science podcast, Short Wave. The podcast explores new discoveries, everyday mysteries and the science behind the headlines — all in about 10 minutes, Monday through Friday.