A major cause of magnetic spacing losses in data tape systems is pole tip recession (PTR). This study is an investigation of PTR in a linear data tape recording system and identification of the mechanisms responsible for these effects, but the results have implications for any head where the tape bearing surface is Al2O3/TiC, AlTiC Tape cycling experiments were performed using the linear tape open system as the experimental platform with metal particle tape. All experiments were conducted within a matrix of pressure and humidity, which encompassed the system operating extremes. Atomic force microscopy was used to analyze the surface topography of the heads. Auger electron spectroscopy and x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy were employed to analyze the chemical changes on the surface of the heads and tapes. Environment was found to have a significant influence on the head/tape interface. Head wear and PTR was highest at high temperature and humidity. Water vapor was found to transform the surface layers on the TiC grains in the tape-bearing surface to TiO2. This process results in the production of TiO2, fragments that become trapped in the recessed pole tip region, acting as three-body abrasive particles. The TiO2 present on the TiC grains and on the surface of heads increases with the water content after cycling against tapes. The hypothesis is supported by the presence of Ti on the poles.