MOSCOW - Russia is evacuating a drifting Arctic research station that was supposed to last until September because the ice it is built on is starting to break up.
The cracks are another indication of the rapid decline of the Arctic ice sheet - especially so because the encampment is on the Canadian side of the Arctic Sea, where the ice is oldest and most durable.
"It's a huge loss for us, and for science," Vladimir Sokolov, director of the expedition, said in a telephone interview from his office in St. Petersburg. "For us, it is very important to get information about the climate system in the high-latitude Arctic."
The station - the 40th in a string of North Pole drift stations that began in 1937 - went into operation last Oct. 1, later than usual because the leaders of the project had a difficult time finding a sufficiently robust floe to base the camp on. In fact, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the extent of sea ice last September was the lowest on record, 18 percent lower than the previous minimum, in 2007.
Last year's ice conditions, Sokolov said, forced the Russian researchers to look for a base floe closer to Canada than to their own country.
In years past, drift stations have remained in operation for 12 months or longer, with the exception of 2010, when an early breakup also caused a premature evacuation.
One station in the Soviet era, called North Pole-22, was launched Sept. 13, 1973 and stayed in service until April 8, 1982.
Because there is no land at the North Pole, the drift stations provide one of the most important means of studying sea-level conditions. The 16 researchers on North Pole-40 have been collecting data on low-altitude atmospheric conditions, ozone concentrations, ice thickness, sea temperature and the ocean bottom.
NOAA's "Arctic Report Card" notes in particular the decrease in older ice - that is, ice more than 4 years old. A long-lasting tongue of older ice that extended toward Russia virtually disappeared in 2012.