Techno explorers take to the ice
This month a team of explorers lead by Pen Hadow will set off on foot for the North Pole. Man-hauling ice-penetrating radar instrumentation for more than 1,000km, the expedition will relay back to the scientific community crucial data about how climate change is affecting ice thickness in the Arctic. By Nick Smith
Sitting in his expedition headquarters in Leadenhall Street in London’s financial district, Arctic explorer Pen Hadow is at the centre of operations of his latest mission. His Catlin Arctic Survey is about to head off to the Arctic – hauling their own bodyweight of monitoring equipment across the ice – to do something satellites and submarines can’t.
“Circumstances are changing up in the Arctic Ocean so quickly that it’s just not possible to get the technology into space on time,” says Hadow
Satellites could easily carry ice-penetrating radar and, orbiting overhead, complete a survey in a fraction of the time that it will take Hadow and his team to cross the late-winter ice that surrounds the North Pole. But the difference lies in the phrase “on time”. It takes years to assemble and launch a satellite. The bleakest plausible prediction that says there will be no seasonal ice left to measure in just five years. “The shrinkage and thinning is happening at a pace that’s outstripping our ability to get new technology onto satellites.”
Getting up close and personal to the Arctic ice is worthwhile, Hadow explains. “There isn’t, and never has been, an accurate enough method of determining by satellite what’s going on with the ice.”
Existing satellite technology is able to measure the thickness of the ‘freeboard’ – the combined depth of ice and snow above sea level. The presence of snow is not relevant in the prediction of ice meltdown, but it does have a nasty habit of contaminating remote telemetry measurements. This is because radar cannot differentiate between the two, and so we can’t tell how much snow is depressing the ice cover. As the end reading is an extrapolation based on the assumption that the freeboard represents only one-ninth of the total ice thickness, any errors caused by snow become magnified to produce wildly inaccurate results. Submarine-based surveys are better at estimating the ice thickness, because their onboard technology measures the much larger draft of the ice. But even extrapolations based on these readings aren’t accurate enough. And, besides there’s hardly any submarine data available. So, it’s back to people hauling instruments on sleds in scenes that have not changed much since the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, when the likes of Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott were gunning for the South Pole.
Hadow’s business card says director and head of surveying, and it’s been his full-time job since he drew a line under his high-profile 2003 expedition, when he became the best-known polar explorer of his generation. That year, he became the first person to walk solo and unsupported to the North Pole, then regarded by the polar community as the last of the classic uncompleted challenges. A shadow was cast over his success at the pole by a media controversy that inaccurately depicted Hadow’s delayed scheduled airlift from the pole as a ‘rescue’.
For Hadow, the 2003 expedition was an eye-opener. In all his years exploring the north polar icecap, never before had the explorer seen so much thin ice and open water in the Arctic. “To travel my route in a straight line to the pole – 478 miles as the crow flies – I found myself needing an amphibious option.” Hadow equipped himself with an immersion suit and, in order to keep the route as short and straight as possible, when he encountered water he simply swam across it.
During the course of his research for his book Solo, his account of the 2003 trip to the pole, Hadow “started to better understand the process that was bringing about this increased open water and sea ice: global warming”. He also discovered that there was one critical data set that scientists did not have if they wanted to predict when the ice cover on the Arctic Ocean would disappear more accurately.
For Hadow, the solution was simple. He would check the existing data by dragging an ice-penetrating radar, its associated instrumentation, computers and communications technology across the Arctic. “Many of my previous expeditions have been about achieving something for me, seeing what I could do. Now I think that what we’re doing with the Catlin Arctic Survey is real exploring, going out into the field and gathering data that could be vital to our understanding of climate change. This data could provide our science partners with what they need to convince those in government that something needs to be done about how to manage fragile environments sustainably.”
Although going solo is something Hadow is used to, there is simply too much work to be done on this trip to go it alone. To assist him he has enlisted the help of two fellow explorers, Ann Daniels and Martin Hartley. Daniels is in charge of field operations – handling navigation and other logistics – while Hartley is the expedition photographer and filmmaker. Hadow will pull the sledge containing the radar equipment and computers. Apart from the ice-thickness readings, the on-ice team will conduct 50 different sets of measurements and samples, from the water column, the ice sheet and the atmosphere. Some devices will record the data continuously; other measurements will be taken hourly, daily or weekly. Getting across the ice is hard enough without having to do the science as well. “It’s going to be hard work,” says Hadow.
Much of the scientific and communications equipment the explorers will be using has been developed specially for the survey, with more data – including audio, video and biotelemetry – being transmitted than on any other polar expedition before. Taking up the most room and perhaps most important to the expedition is ‘Sprite’. The name is short for “surface penetrating radar for ice thickness establishment”, but Hadow says the name also doffs its cap to the Scott Polar Research Institute, one of the science partners that has played an influential role in the survey.
Not surprisingly, Sprite is robust. The team will drag it across fields of rubble and send it tumbling down pressure ridges over a total distance of more than 1000km. The impulse radar unit is a mere 4kg – 25 times lighter than equivalent radar systems used in aircraft surveys. It is mounted behind the survey’s sledge boat, effectively converting the sledge into a survey vessel, called the Lady Herbert, after the wife of one of the greatest polar surveyors ever, Sir Wally Herbert.
Built by Cambridge-based scientist Michael Gorman, Sprite will take a high-resolution cross-profile of the snow and ice every 10cm along the route. Sprite’s own computer will then process the raw data before transferring it to the central data unit, otherwise known as the ‘onboard sledge computer’. Here the data is compressed and sent using the Iridium network of orbiting communications satellites back to the survey HQ. There it will be reformatted and distributed to the Survey’s science partners.
Iridium is the only satellite network available in the Arctic and but explorers do not much like it. It’s narrow bandwidth channels result in a low data-transmission rate. The sledge computer, developed by Andrew Jackson, has to use a custom-built multi-modem data uplink system that can receive, format, store, compress and transmit the data back to the UK on a live, ‘delayed live’ or overnight basis.
While out on the ice, the team will be communicating with each other, and the UK HQ, using a three-way person-to-person communications system developed by IET member and independent engineering consultant Perran Newman. Designed especially for the survey, the rig consists of an ear-mounted, jawbone-sensing headset and separate throat microphone, connected through a wiring harness built into the sledging suit, to a belt-mounted control box. Team members’ control boxes are networked via radio links to allow three-way voice communications. The boxes are also linked to a radio-transceiver mounted on the Lady Herbert, containing the uplink facility to the Iridium array. Toggling between control box functions is by push-button, meaning that the explorers won’t have to risk frostbite by uncovering their hands to operate the system. Other features include voice-activation, and a ‘live commentary’ link that will allow armchair explorers to follow the expedition on the survey’s website.
The explorers will also be wearing a chest-belt with integrated biosensors that will measure and record physiological data such as heart rate, respiration rate, skin temperature and body orientation. Developed by Hildago, the Equivital system has been adapted from telehealth applications aimed at first responders and paramedics. Its use on the Catlin Arctic survey will provide an opportunity to assess how the body responds in the polar environment. Team members will also be taking ‘tablets’ that contain miniature temperature sensors, batteries and radio transmitters that will transmit information about their core temperature, as the pill negotiates its way through the stomach and the intestines.
By linking reportage-style web-cam footage and live audio commentaries to data generated from body-worn bio-monitors it will be possible to not just follow the team’s progress but to experience it too. Anyone passing the survey’s HQ in Leadenhall Street should watch out for the huge screens Hadow is planning to put in the windows of the offices donated to him by his main sponsor. Those in the City worrying about the economic climate will over their lunchtime lattes also have the opportunity to worry about the real climate.
Unlike so many modern adventures into the Polar Regions, the Catlin Arctic Survey has a real scientific mission as its main objective, and has more in common with the polar exploration of the Heroic age than any other recent expedition. This small team of explorers is going out onto the ice at great personal risk to themselves because there is no other way of getting the data. If they succeed, everyone on the planet stands to benefit. “There are times when I feel quite overburdened by the significance of the survey, and there are others when I just want to get on with it”, says Hadow.
All three members of the Catlin Arctic Survey – Pen Hadow, Ann Daniels and Martin Hartley – have been to the North Pole before, so there will be no need for personal ‘milestone bagging’ on this tour. Hadow says the team will focus entirely on securing the relevant scientific data and if that means they don’t get to the pole, then they don’t get to the pole: “we just want to ensure that we get the longest possible transect of meaningful data before we come home.”
But there is a very strong sense in which the real work won’t really start until they return. As Hadow says: “Were just the foot soldiers getting out into the field collecting the information that the scientists need to do their work.” And with the Arctic Ocean and surrounding High Arctic environment more responsive to climate change than most, the urgency for the Catlin Arctic Survey to get out there and do just that is greater than ever.
Chilling forecasts for ice meltdown date
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) thinks that seasonal disappearance of the Arctic Ocean’s sea ice will occur between 2050-2100. This is based on the best figures for the rate of the shrinking surface area and the IPCC’s long-range global climate forecasts. As if this weren’t scary enough, a super-computer model developed by the US Navy’s Department of Oceanography puts the meltdown date at within five years. Their calculations are based on the ice thickness estimates (as compared with surface area).
As Hadow says though, the accuracy of the models are merely a function of the quality of the data relied on. The data returned by the Catlin Arctic Survey will “allow for the re-evaluation of satellite and submarine digitised observations.
Climate Change modelers will be able to use the findings emerging from the survey to assist in validating or modifying projections made by the IPCC’s Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis report. The survey data can be factored into related areas of scientific work that until now had been based on satellite and submarine data, but unverified by a ground-truth survey.
Evidence for an earlier meltdown date than the IPCC’s – the most frequently cited and widely accepted – would mean that the environment lobby could apply more pressure on governments to take sustainable and responsible management of the environment more seriously. When it comes to Global Warming international agreements are the only route to success. But agreements can only be made if scientists can provide policy makers with higher-resolution forecasts than they already possess.
Global impacts of climate change
The complete meltdown of the North Pole ice cap as a perennial global feature is a major marker in the progress of climate change. Here are some of the impacts anticipated from climate change in general for different regions of the planet:
* Scientists have major concerns about 15 cities across the globe, 13 of which lie in coastal plains. If current warming trends continue London, Bangkok, Alexandria and New York will end up below sea level, displacing tens of millions and causing worldwide economic damage if adequate flood protection measures are not put in place.
* Large numbers of people living along the coast in South and East Asia (as well as in West Africa and the Caribbean) are at risk of losing their homes and their livelihood.
* Sea levels are rising in the Bay of Bengal affecting villages in Orissa’s coastal Kendrapara district in western India.
* Between 15 and 20 per cent of Bangladesh lies within one metre of sea level. Predicted rises in sea level will affect between 13 and 30 million people, potentially reducing rice production by 50 per cent.
* Pacific islands such as Tuvalu are already being evacuated as people leave to escape the rising waters. Tuvalu’s highest elevation is 4.6m, but most of it is no more than a metre above the sea
* Concerns are mounting in Shanghai, China’s economic capital, as the northern Pacific Ocean could rise by 7000mm before 2050. This impact will be exaggerated by the fact that Shanghai is sinking due to exploitation of groundwater needed to supply the population of 18million.
* About 80 per cent of the Maldives’ 1,200 islands are no more that 1m above sea level – the archipelago’s 360,000 citizens could be forced to leave in the next 50 years or so
* A rise of between 8-30cms in sea level could lead to the loss of 2,000 of Indonesia’s 17,508 islands
* Global warming could cost the Brazilian rain forest up to 30 per cent of its biodiversity and turn large areas into savannah
* Maize production levels could plummet by as much as 25-50 per cent in the next 50 years in countries such as Brazil, Nigeria, Mexico, South Africa and Tanzania due to rising temperatures and shifting rainfall pattern.
For more on the Catlin Arctic Survey visit www.catlinarcticsurvey.com
For more details about Pen Hadow visit http://www.penhadow.com
For more details about Ann Daniels visit http://www.anndaniels.com
To see more of Martin Hartley’s polar photography visit http://www.martinhartley.com