The three-person team of British explorers on the Arctic ice cap may or may not be in danger, depending upon which of the team’s representatives back at headquarters in London is doing the talking.
Martin Hartley, Pen Hadow, and Ann Daniels have been on a “scientific” mission to measure sea ice thickness that is routinely measured by satellite and buoys. Unfortunately, just about all of their equipment failed as soon as the team got onto the ice, due to what the BBC has reported as unexpected wind chill values as low as minus 70 degrees Celsius.
On the health front, according to Catlin Arctic Survey medical adviser Doctor Martin Rhodes, the team are battling chronic hypothermia. Additionally, Martin Hartley has frostbite on one foot, photographs of which are on the mission website, with a disclaimer for the faint of heart.
On the other hand, according to Catlin communications director Rod Macrae, all is well. “They’re fine,” he said, in a phone interview Thursday. “There is no hypothermia.” Macrae maintained that people with agendas that he didn’t even want to speculate about were looking to criticize the team, when, actually everything is going very well indeed. “Pen [the team leader] has said, ‘Were stuck in the tent, and we’re unable to take any measurements.’ And people have rushed to all sorts of hasty conclusions about their situation being dire or something.”
And yet, according to a blog entry on the Catlin website by support team member Gaby Dean, the team members do not sound normal when they phone in each day, their words slurred and muddled. Macrae was surprised to learn that the team’s “live” biotelemetry (heart rate, breaths per minute, core temperature, and skin temperature) had been repeating for upwards of a week (closer to a month, it turned out). Hadow’s core temperature reading of 33 degrees Celsius (91 degrees Fahrenheit), day after day, had given plenty of the people following the mission pause, if not a sense of foreboding. As for the slurred speech, Macrae explained that when the facial muscles get cold, they do not perform normally.
“All clothing can do is slow down the process of losing heat,” Doctor Rhodes said. “The only way they can keep the hypothermia at bay is to keep moving and to keep eating.”
Although the team is equipped with the highest-tech cold-weather gear that money can buy, many have questioned the decision not to use traditional seal and animal fur gear, considered by some experts to be superior in the extreme environment.
As of the end of the day on Thursday, which was a rest day, the team had progressed 245 kilometers. Their goal is to take ice measurements all the way to the north pole, but with only 40 days left before they will be removed from the ice, their pace will have to quicken in order for them to attain their goal. They have 678 kilometers still to travel.
The pilots who have brought the team two resupplies are the same ones who will pick them up at the end of the expedition, and they have stated that they are unwilling to risk their aircraft and personal safety on the increasingly questionable ice after May 25, according to Macrae.
“To be honest, reaching the pole is entirely secondary to capturing the scientific data,” Macrae said. When asked whether any sea ice data (live streaming data had been promised prior to the expedition) could be made available, Macrae explained that Catlin had decided to hold off on that for the time being. “We will be putting some data up onto the website, when we think it’s substantial enough to provide something of interest.”
He was pointed in denying that any discussion of removing the team from the ice had taken place. “No, never,” he said. “I think there has been a fairly serious misinterpretation of the situation.”
When informed later in the day that the team’s own medical adviser had diagnosed them, albeit remotely, with chronic hypothermia, Macrae responded with an e-mail: “What has been said and is, as you I am sure aware pretty obvious, they are constantly battling hypothermia.”