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Russian expedition across Arctic is cut short due to melting ice

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MSNBC staff and news service reports

updated 10:58 a.m. ET, Mon., July. 14, 2008

MOSCOW - Russian scientists are evacuating a research station built on an Arctic ice floe because the ice has melted to a fraction of its original size, a spokesman said.

The North Pole-35 station, where 21 researchers and two dogs live in huts, will be taken off the floe in the western Arctic Ocean this week instead of in late August as originally planned, said Sergei Balyasnikov of the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in St. Petersburg.

The research crew landed in early September on the 1.2- by 2.5-mile floe near the Severnaya Zemlya archipelago. During its westward drift of more than 1,550 miles, the floe shrank to just 1,000 by 2,000 feet.

"The evacuation is ahead of schedule because of global warming," Balyasnikov said.

Just last April, the ice floe was long and strong enough to build an air strip in order to fly out several researchers.

The nuclear-powered icebreaker Arktika will escort the research vessel Mikhail Somov to the station, which is drifting between the Franz Josef Land archipelago and the island of Novaya Zemlya in the western Arctic.

The researchers are packing up their winterized huts and equipment to prepare for the ships' arrival, Balyasnikov said.

Collecting data

Over the last 60 years, Russia has organized dozens of stations that collect data on weather and Arctic flora and fauna. Soviet polar researchers were hailed as heroes, and the results of their journeys were once hailed as unique achievements of Communist science.

Russia recently resumed the tradition of using polar research to make political points.

Russia last year sent an expedition to plant a Russian flag on the seabed under the North Pole and said research indicates a massive underwater mountain range in the area, which is believed to contain huge oil and gas reserves, is part of Russia's continental shelf.

The drifting research station was one of Russia's contributions to global research allied under the umbrella of the International Polar Year. Some 50,000 scientists and technical staff from more than 60 countries are jointly researching the role of the Arctic and Antarctica in shaping the climate and the earth's ecosystems.

Among the projects carried out on North Pole 35 was one focusing on sea ice, which has contracted significantly in recent years during the Arctic summer.

The scientists first boarded the ice floe near Wrangel Island and then traveled west across the North Pole.


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