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Arctic Scientists Tread Softly Around Natives

Polar bears keep researchers on their toes

Before we leave our Arctic "hotel," the icebreaker Des Groseilliers, we stop at the ship's bridge to pick up walkie-talkies - and two .338 magnum rifles.

Science on the top of the globe, it seems, can be risky business. Shifting ice, snowstorms, and bitter-cold temperatures are to be expected. But there's another factor I hadn't given much thought to. We are temporary interlopers here, tramping through the vast backyard of this region's most powerful predator and year-round resident: polar bears.

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During the past three weeks, scientists and crew have seen only two bears: one while the Des Groseilliers and a companion Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker, the Louis St. Laurent, were en route to the floe we now occupy; and the other after the two ships had arrived.

"That was a bit hairy," Steve Semmer says of the second sighting, "because it was only 150 yards off the St. Laurent's bow when someone finally spotted it."

Everyone out working on the ice scrambled aboard the ship, and expedition staff members were able to scare the lumbering carnivore away.

Today, Mr. Semmer, John Militzer, Martin Mulhern, and I leave the safety of the ship to set up reflective trail markers to "Baltimore" and "Atlanta." These are two of four weather and solar-radiation monitoring sites named for the cities whose baseball teams made this year's pennant races. Baltimore lies about two miles aft of the Des Groseilliers, as the snowmobile travels. Atlanta lies about a mile off the starboard side.

Semmer and Mr. Militzer are both engineers here to install experiments run by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

With a tug on the starter cords, our two snowmobiles rumble to life, and - after radioing the bridge to let them know we are leaving - we head out to set the markers.

The field-work phase of the SHEBA project, a 13-month exhaustive study of the delicate energy balance between the Arctic Ocean, ice, snow cover, and sun carries a price tag of $20 million. Amid the expensive technology, however, we've cobbled together our markers on the cheap: slim bamboo tomato stakes topped with bright orange paint and reflective tape.

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Back home, they wouldn't survive the winter's first snow-plowing, but here they'll do, marking snowmobile trails even during winter's 24-hour darkness. This will allow crews to service the sites through the winter..

EACH stop along the trail to plant another marker elicits more comments about the stark beauty and silence of the ice floe.

"This is just awesome," says Captain Mulhern, almost reverently, as he slowly scans the icescape's low snowdrifts, gently undulating buckles, and ridges of broken ice. Mulhern retired recently from the NOAA Corps, the arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that operates the agency's research ships and aircraft. Called back out of retirement to help NOAA researchers up here, he's on his first - and probably only - Arctic trip, he says

The landscape is almost enough to make me forget the bears - almost. Close to camp, officers on the Des Groseilliers's bridge scan the area with binoculars, searching for bears. Each group of scientists that goes out to a nearby instrument tower or research hut carries a rifle or 12-gauge shotgun. Five quick blasts from the ship's horn means that someone has sighted a bear and it's time to hustle on board. The last person through the gate must be sure to latch the door on the gangway's protective cage.

Farther out on the ice, where we are, each team is on its own. One or two members work on equipment, whoever's left keeps the weapon close and an eye out for any 1,500-pound ursid wearing a white coat. My eyes are peeled.

Our two snowmobiles arrive at Baltimore, which sits on "new ice." Unlike the ice back at the ship, which is at least 2 meters thick, we're standing on ice only half a meter, with 3,500 meters of Arctic Ocean beneath. It's thick enough to land our lifeline to civilization, a Twin Otter aircraft.

But it's also thin enough to earn the respect of veteran ice scientists. "It's a little unnerving to drill through it and see water coming back up almost to the top of the hole," says Don Perovich, SHEBA's chief scientist, who drilled some holes to install ice-thickness gauges at Baltimore.

As Militzer and Semmer finish downloading data from Baltimore's weather instrument box, Militzer notes that today has some of the best weather yet. During the past few days, daytime temperatures have ranged from minus 26 degrees C (minus 15 degrees F) to today's minus 6 C. Cold, perhaps, but nothing unusual for wintertime residents of, say, International Falls, Minn.

On our way to Atlanta, the ship's horn sounds once - the midday meal call. We push on and quickly finish up our work.

As we make our way back to the Des Groseilliers, three hours after setting out, we pause just outside the ice station's perimeter. Mulhern and Militzer pull out their cameras to take a few last souvenir snaps before heading home.

I scan the horizon again. Our furry denizens are nowhere to be seen.

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