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The countdown begins
Posted by Dominic Hilton

Friday, 08 May 2009 11:07
With the floating sea ice now starting to break up around Ward Hunt Island, it is only a matter of time before the summer melt begins further out into the ocean, including around the Ice Team’s location.  As such, the countdown to the end of the expedition phase has now begun.

Here in the UK Ops Room we are able to monitor the state of the ice using high resolution Radarsat 2 satellite imagery.  We are also able to identify potential ice runways with pinpoint accuracy and direct the Ice Team accordingly.  Once the team arrive at the runway, they are then able to measure the thickness of the ice along the edge of the airstrip, using their drill and tape measure, and confirm that it is thick enough to support the weight of a Twin Otter.  

The UK Ops team are also in constant dialogue with Kenn Borek Air.  It will, after all, be the pilots’ decision as to when exactly the team will be extracted.  When the time comes (quite possibly within the next 7-10 days), KBA will on this occasion use two Twin Otter aircraft, instead of the usual one.  Of these two planes, one will be carrying nothing but fuel, allowing the aircraft to venture far out onto the ocean.

Additional fuel is also still cached out on the ice, at the halfway point between Eureka and the Ice Team’s location.  These barrels will also be picked up and used, either on the outward journey or on the return.  Caching fuel is a standard part of operating out on the ice.  Barrels are always marked up with the owner’s details, to avoid them being simply abandoned.  Since the ice is at the mercy of the winds and ocean currents, barrels are never likely to be in the same position that they were left, and as such, fuel caches are also always tagged with a locator beacon.

All previous Catlin Arctic Survey flights out of Resolute have headed straight out over the ocean, usually flying over the abandoned High Arctic weather station at Isachsen.  Since the team are now operating far out to sea, however, the pick-up flight will on this occasion go via Eureka, a manned, fully functioning weather station just 1,110km from the North Geographic Pole.  Given the time it takes to fly from Resolute Bay to Eureka, then out to the Ice Team, back to Eureka and then back to Resolute, the extraction will most likely take two full days in total.
Category: Ops Room Blog HEADLINER

Posted by Dominic Hilton

Thursday, 07 May 2009 15:10

The Catlin Arctic Survey Team of Pen Hadow, Martin Hartley and Ann Daniels are back to a more normal schedule of sledge hauling and drilling, after the long awaited physical and mental boost of the re-supply.

“The long wait for the latest re-supply was very hard”, Hadow admits now they’re all feeling better.  “We spent a lot of the time sleeping once we became unable to do anything useful on the survey front.  Being very hungry, cold and without hot food has few redeeming features but now we’re on the move again we’re reflecting on how we did kill the time quite effectively.  Mostly with a series of rather intense conversations”.

The team were tent bound on emergency food rations for ten days as poor weather prevented the twin otter plane landing on the runway they’d prepared alongside their camp.

As Hartley explains, ten days of enforced lack of physical activity allowed their tongues to exercise themselves.

“Almost no subject escaped us because there really is absolutely nothing else to do in those circumstances”, he says.   “At the beginning of the week we talked mostly about the expedition, which we don’t often have time to do because we’re always on the move.  Then we moved onto school days and then we found ourselves taking on some really meaty subjects.  Anything and everything came up.  Corporal punishment, adoption and Nigel Mansell’s trophy cabinet are the ones that stick in my mind”.

The heavier subject matter was interspersed with random chatter.  Hartley lists mackerel fishing, Café Nero, exam results and the smell of his sleeping bag among the topics of conversation. 

“We also talked about snoring”, he remembers.  “Oddly, we realised that we all complained about each other snoring at the beginning of the expedition.  But then we realised that we’d all stopped doing it.  Why that is none of us know”.

Sounding as though they’d have done credit as guests on a late night discussion programme, Hartley also reveals the team talked about personal relationships, personal failures and ‘whether life ever ends.

“But we couldn’t do current affairs”, he adds ”because we had absolutely no idea what was going on in the outside world.  That’s still the same, but the tent was our whole world for ten, long days.”

Hadow made a pack of cards from his notebook which also helped pass the time, though the team became increasingly lethargic as the days stretched on. 

“But in spite of the cold, hunger and boredom, it wasn’t as miserable as it seems’, Hartley concludes.  “In fact that enforced time together in the tent was uplifting in its own way.  Especially now it’s over”. 


Category: Team HEADLINER

WildTrack - Polar Bear Monitoring
Posted by Zoe Jewell

Monday, 04 May 2009 00:00

Sky Alibhai and Zoë Jewell founded WildTrack ( in 2004 to develop and implement non-invasive and cost-effective methods of monitoring endangered species.  A zoologist and veterinarian, working with Peter Law an independent mathematician and tracker, they began to develop a footprint identification technique (FIT) while working in Zimbabwe to help monitor the highly endangered black rhino in Zimbabwe.  FIT has since been successfully adapted for several other species including white rhino, Bengal tiger, lowland and Baird’s tapir, the African lion and now the Polar bear. 

FIT won the Smithsonian Computerworld Honors award in the Environment, Energy and Agriculture in 2002.  WildTrack has presented and published extensively on non-invasive approaches to wildlife monitoring.  The organisation is currently based in Portugal but will be relocating to North Carolina USA,  to work with the SAS Institute and NC State University in July 2009.  WildTrack has been generously and enthusiastically supported by SAS software since its inception.

The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red list 2007 (Schliebe, 2006), and is a threatened species under the US federal Endangered Species Act.  There remain only an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 Polar bears distributed around the north pole, in territories belonging to the  U.S. (Alaska), Canada, Russia, Denmark (Greenland), and Norway. (IUCN/SSC, 2006).  The Polar bear is also an iconic species of these Arctic ecosystems, and hence a keynote species in the ‘International Polar Year’ time frame of 2007-2009.  The Polar bear needs sea ice to hunt for seals, and hence to survive (Derocher et al, 2004; Stirling & Parkinson, 2006). Dramatic reductions in sea ice coverage (IPCC,2007) are projected across the whole Arctic in the near future. Close and regular monitoring to manage and protect populations is essential for the long-term survival of this species, but is not possible under the current protocol of invasive and extremely expensive aerial Capture-Mark-Recapture (CMR) inventories every 12-15 years.  This frequency is clearly insufficient to inform on essential changes in Arctic environment which might be affecting the bear populations.


Furthermore, current monitoring methods are invasive by nature. New data are emerging which suggest that repeat immobilizations of individuals, required to fit and maintain radio-telemetry devices, could have negative effects on fertility and behaviour (Cattet et al., 2008, Dyck et al. 2007).  This is consistent with WildTrack research on black rhino in Zimbabwe (Alibhai et. al. 2001; Alibhai & Jewell 2001, 2002) and that of others reviewed by Murray & Fuller, 2000.

WildTrack is now in the process of developing and implementing a non-invasive, cost-effective and sustainable approach to Polar bear monitoring.  The footprint identification technique (Jewell et al. 2001, Alibhai & Jewell, 2008b. 2008c, Alibhai & Jewell, 2008a ), will work alongside Inuit Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) of polar bear habitat preference and behaviour, and with non-invasive genetic census techniques to provide reliable annual scientific data and build capacity for monitoring in Inuit communities. 

The Catlin Arctic Survey and WildTrack have been working together over the last year to take the opportunities afforded by this expedition to collect data on Polar bear distribution along the transect.  These distributions are expected to change as climate warming accelerates, and the presence or absence of bears along the transect line to the north pole will be recorded as baseline data for later investigation.  Footprints collected will be classified by individual and sex, and then fed into the newly established Polar bear footprint database to further develop and refine the species FIT algorithm.  The expedition photographer, Martin Hartley, will take digital images of any Polar bear footprints seen.  A voice recording tag on his camera will link essential data relating to the track numbers, date, animal information etc to the image, and an integral GPS will record the position of the track onto the image.  Using the WildTrack photo protocol, several different footprints will be recorded in each track found, to cover the variation in footprints produced by an individual bear.  These images will be sent, at the end of each day, directly to the control office in London and onto the WildTrack base in Portugal for identification and feedback.

The FIT process works in this way: Digital images of footprints are photo-optimised and standardised and exported into JMP from SAS business intelligence software (;  Landmark points are marked on the footprint at anatomical positions, and derived points automatically placed according to a pre-determined algorithm. More than one hundred measurements of distance, angle and area are then taken automatically from each footprint in customised JMP graphics window and output to a JMP data table where multivariate statistical techniques customised for FIT by WildTrack are employed to classify the footprint at the individual, gender and age-class levels.



References and further reading.


Alibhai, S.K, & Jewell, Z.C. (2008a).  The development of a footprint identification technique (FIT) for censusing and monitoring Polar bear (Ursus maritimus).  Unpubl. preliminary report.

Alibhai, S.K, & Jewell, Z.C. (2008b).  WildTrack: Using footprints to monitor endangered species.  Presentation delivered at the International Workshop on Distributed Sensing and Collective Intelligence in Biodiversity Monitoring.  Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica (CWI), Kruislaan 413, 1098 SJ Amsterdam, The Netherland.  3rd-5th December 2008.


Alibhai, S.K., Jewell, Z.C. & Law P.R. (2008c). Identifying white rhino (Ceratotherium simum) by a footprint identification technique, at the individual and species levels.   Endangered Species Research 4: 219-225


Alibhai, S.K. & Jewell, Z.C. (2007)  A census estimate of Lowland Tapir (Tapirus terrestris) in the Morro de Diabo State Park, Sao Paulo State, Brazil, using the Footprint Identification Technique (FIT).  Report to P. Medici, Chair, IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group.


Alibhai, S.K. & Jewell, Z.C. (2006) Individual identification, gender and age class determination for the lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris) using a footprint identification technique (FIT). Tapir specialist group newsletter July 2006.  Report to P. Medici, Chair, IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group.


Alibhai, S.K. & Jewell, Z.C. (2002).  Response to Atkinson, du Toit, Radcliffe, Dooley and Kock.  In ‘The cost of information: should black rhinos be immobilized?’ Editorial by Boyd, I.L. In J. Zool. 258: 279-280.


Alibhai, S.K. & Jewell, Z.C. (2001). Hot under the collar: The failure of radio-collars on black rhino (Diceros bicornis). Oryx 35 (4), 284-288.


Alibhai, S.K., Jewell Z.C. & Towindo, S.S. (2001). The effects of immobilisation on fertility in female black rhino (Diceros bicornis). J. Zool. 253: 333-345


Cattet, M., Boulanger, J., Stenhouse, G.,  Powell, R.A. & Reynolds-Hogland, M.J. 2008.  An evaluation of long-term capture effects in Ursids: Implications for wildlife welfare and research. J. of Mammalogy, 89 (4): 973-990.


Derocher, A.E., Lunn, N.J. & Stirling, I.  (2004)  Polar bears in a warming climate. Integrative and Comparative Biology 2004 44(2):163-176; doi:10.1093/icb/44.2.163
Dyck, M.G., Soon, W., Baydack, R.K., Legates, D.R., Baliunas, S., Ball, T.F. &  Hancock, L.O. 2007. Polar bears of western Hudson Bay and climate change: are warming spring air temperatures the ‘ultimate’ survival control factor?  Ecol. Complexity 4, 73-84. doi:10.1016/j.ecocom.2007.03.002.

Himmelsbach, V. (2008).  Into the wild: A database project like no other. Article in IT world Canada.


IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M. Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 996 pp.


IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group 2006. In Polar bears: Proceedings of the 14th Working Meeting of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, Edited by J. Aars, N.J. Lunn, and A.E. Derocher. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, U.K.


Jewell, Z.C. & Alibhai, S.K. (in press).  Ethics and the immobilization of animals.  In the encyclopedia of animal rights and animal welfare.  Greenwood Publishing Group.


Jewell, Z.C., Alibhai S.K., &  Law, P.R. (2001). Censusing and monitoring black rhino (Diceros bicornis) using an objective spoor (footprint) identification technique, J. Zool. 254: 1-16


Murray, D. L. & Fuller, T. K.( 2000) A Critical Review of  the Effects of  Marking on the Biology of Vertebrates, in Research Techniques in Animal Ecology: Controversies and Consequences, Boitani, L. & Fuller, T. K. (eds.), Columbia University Press, NY.


Schliebe, S. Wiig, Ø., Derocher, A. & Lunn, N. 2006. Ursus maritimus. In: IUCN 2007. 2007 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.


Stirling, I. and Parkinson, C.L. 2006. Possible effects of climate warming on selected  populations of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) in the Canadian Arctic. Arctic 59: 261-275.



















Category: Environment

Posted by Gaby Dean

Saturday, 02 May 2009 11:14
People living in the UK tend to be obsessed by the weather.  But thousands of kilometres away from the prospect of decent shelter, let alone a hot bath, what the weather is doing becomes something of an obsession.  Especially now, as the team await a re-supply that’s been delayed for several days.

Pen Hadow, Ann Daniels and Martin Hartley have seen it all, weather wise, on this expedition.

“In February, when we set off, the wind chill factor was fairly permanently, adding considerably to the -40 degrees Celsius ambient temperatures,” Hadow reminds us.  “Now conditions have improved somewhat, it feels safer to look at the impact that had on us.  We were all battling hypothermia.  Our brains definitely slowed down a little.  It was very, very tough.”

Now though, with temperatures a comparatively balmy -20 degrees C, the team are occasionally able to use the weather to their advantage.

“If the wind drops, we can get our clothes dry by hanging them on ski poles,” says Martin Hartley, who had a particular problem with a wet, frozen sleeping bag in the first half of the expedition.   “We dig the poles deep into the ice and hang our jackets over them.  Towards the end of the day, there’s even a slight warmth in the sun that gets them almost dry.”

At the other extreme, however, are the storms that on a couple of occasions have kept the Ice Team tent bound for days at a time.

“Then the fear is that the whole tent will blow away with us inside it,” says Hadow.  “Given that we’re on moving ice and not solid ground in the first place, that creates a feeling of extreme vulnerability.”

The tent remains anchored to the ice in part because of the weight of the three explorers and their kit pinning it down from the inside. The three try to catch up on sleep during storms, but extreme gusts of winds ensure that sleep is fitful.

In recent days, as they progressed northwards until finding the ice pan suitable for the re-supply plane, the team has enjoyed the spectacle of the unique Arctic weather.

“Today the clouds were dancing and shimmering”, says Daniels.  “There was a prism effect with colour in the clouds.  It wasn’t the northern lights, but it had a heavenly, surreal feeling to it.  It was odd, extraordinary.  It was snowing too, which is rare, strange though that may seem up here.  I can’t do it justice with words but I felt privileged to be a part of it”.
Category: Team Environment HEADLINER

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