The Hole at 90 Degrees North

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For the tourists and their scientific guides aboard the Russian icebreaker Yamal, it was an astonishing sight. Just as they approached the North Pole, they spotted a mile-wide hole in the ice. "It was totally unexpected," Harvard oceanographer James McCarthy, one of the scientists on board, later told the New York Times. Paleontologist Malcolm McKenna, of New York City's American Museum of Natural History, said, "I don't know if anybody in history ever got to 90[degrees] north to be greeted by water, not ice." Even more surprising, they saw ivory gulls soaring blithely overhead. The Times itself commented that the last time anyone could be certain the pole was awash in water was more than 50 million years ago.

Telling evidence of global warming, right? Not necessarily, climatologists quickly pointed out. Thanks to wind and waves, without any help at all from rising temperatures, fissures often form in the polar ice, especially in the warmer summer months. "In fact," says Claire Parkinson of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, whose satellites have long kept an eye on the polar ice cap, "it happens many, many times every year." Sometimes the openings can be hundreds of miles long, explains the Jet Propulsion Lab's Ronald Kwok, another Arctic observer.

Even so, the scientists did not dispute the many other signs of warming in the Arctic. It's just that one opening in the ice, even at the pole itself, doesn't mean a polar meltdown. But what about those ivory gulls? Aren't they pretty rare birds in a locale known more for fauna like polar bears? Not really, explains the Audubon Society's John Bianchi, who points out that the tough gulls are regular inhabitants of the Arctic Ocean. "If you've got open water at the pole or anywhere else up there," he says, "you're going to find these birds, because that's where they eat."