National Geographic : 1997 Feb
detection by maneuvering among the lobes and caverns on the ice's underside, where sonar is scattered and absorbed, making it much less effective. After Pargo reached 90° north, the com mander brought the sub to the surface as he had earlier, ramming up through thin ice. Gore climbed out and got his first look at the North Pole. "It was very bright-and the eeri ness of the landscape was striking," he recalls. "Clouds of ice crystals were being blown back and forth by the wind, and I'll never forget how the ice sparkled in the air. It was a stun ning experience." SOME 500 MILES SOUTH of where Gore stood, a group of tired Russian scientists had, just days earlier, been weighing their chances of staying dry a few more hours. Riding a huge ice floe, Vladimir Sokolov had his doubts. "Pools of standing water," he recalls, "cracks in the ice. That sinking feel ing." Evidence, in other words, that the ice platform was finally, after three and a half years of faithful service to the Soviet Union, breaking apart, softened by the spring thaw and crushed by the surrounding ice. Since October 1987 dozens of scientists had lived and worked on this cake of ice, metic ulously collecting oceanographic readings, weather observations, and ice data as the floe made a slow tour of the Arctic Ocean, pushed by winds and currents. By April 1990, when Sokolov arrived by air to take command, the floe had turned south into the Canada Basin and stalled out. A few days later the drift station ran into what Soko lov calls an ice "meat grinder," a pressure sys tem that grinds the ice floe to pieces as it rotates helplessly, held fast on all sides by thicker ice. "This is when the trouble started," Sokolov says-when the ice started to crack, when sup ply planes couldn't land without falling into a crevice, when his scientists were intermit tently forced to stop taking measurements and start moving buildings from place to place in search of stable ice. This went on for a year. Then things deteri orated further, although Sokolov's crew con tinued to collect data until the bitter end. They were finally evacuated by an Antonov cargo plane in April 1991. Dramatic endings were not at all unusual for drift stations in Arctic waters. In fact, Sokolov's expedition, known as SP-30 for Severnyy Polyus (North Pole), Storm-swept and ked in ice, the Artic Ocean defied scientistong after other seas were being explored. Evth constant movement of Arctic ice wennexamine until 1893, when Norwegian e rer Fridtjof Nansen drove his research vessel, Fram, into the ice pack and allowed it to freeze Driven by wind and currents, the icebound Fram drifted some 2,200 miles in three years. Taking a cue from Nansen, the U.S.S.R. in 1937 mounted the first of 31 drift stations vanguard of a program for scientific and mili tary research that grew to include more than a hundred polar stations, a dozen ships, and vast airborne surveys. Most activity ceased with the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991. During the Cold War, Western nations tried to keep pace with ice stations of their own, along with automated buoys and a massive reconnaissance effort from submarines, air craft, and satellites. Inset maps (right) show the relative concentrations of observation points since World War II.