Packing for a 1,200-mile trek to the polar ice cap can’t be easy — especially when 150 hours of swimming is part of the journey — but British explorer Pen Hadow is counting on a few design advancements to lighten his sled.
This weekend, wolves, polar bears and arctic foxes will be among the only observers when Hadow and teammates Ann Daniels and Martin Hartley test drive their gear near the Eureka Weather Station on Ellesmere Island, off the coast of Canada. In February, the trio will set out on what is expected to be a 100-day journey from Barrow, Alaska, to the North Pole to get an accurate measurement of the polar ice cap, which would give scientists a better sense of just how far global warming has advanced.
“I believe the disappearance of one of our planet’s most recognizable features is the biggest visual clue we are going to get as humans of the effects of global warming,” Hadow said. “If we don’t respect and react to its disappearance, there really is no hope for it.”
Until now, satellites and submarines have been the main sources for measurements, but they are unable to determine the amount of snow versus the amount of ice, Hadow said. Readings used to be taken annually by British and American submarines — a practice initiated in 1958 and conducted in the Arctic en route to military duties — but there have been a number of gaps over the years, he said.
The sea ice surrounding the North Pole is believed to be about 3 meters, or about 10 feet, thick and was about 40 percent thicker 30 years or so ago. In comparison, the average near the South Pole is estimated at 1.2 miles thick. Depending on whom you ask, the polar ice cap is expected to melt in the next 15 to 100 years. With new radar technology, Hadow will take measurements every 20 centimeters, or about 8 inches, for 2,000 kilometers, or about 1,243 miles, resulting in millions of measurements, Hadow said. In the past two years, he has worked with researchers to lower the amount of power needed for the radar and to develop lighter radar, scaling back the weight from 220 pounds to about 8 or 9 pounds. “Now it’s about the size of a briefcase,” said Hadow, a former IMG sports agent, who is headed to his favorite place to work. “The only way this data can be seen is to travel across its surface.”
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In 2003, he bucked naysayers by becoming the first person to trek solo from Canada to the North Pole without any outside support. Would-be explorers will be able to trace his mettle, thanks to biomonitoring equipment developed by glaciologist Michael Gorman. During next year’s 100- to 120-day expedition, each explorer will wear sensors in and on their bodies to keep track of their heart rates, blood pressures, core body temperatures, hours of quality sleep and other vitals. A vest with sensors will monitor their respiratory rates and respiratory volumes. All the data will be posted online live or delayed live at vancoarcticsurvey.com, Hadow said.
More limited information will be available online for the Canadian test that gets under way this weekend. “We’re really trying to exploit and develop leading-edge technology. We want to show the body and soul — what we’re about and what it takes to do this,” said Hadow.
For plunges in the slightly below-freezing waters, the suitably named U.K.-based firm Polar Bears has created dry suits made from highly specialized polyester, and a tri-laminated fabric consisting of two layers of polyester fabric with a rubber layer sandwiched between for waterproofing. The company also has suited up New York City firefighters.
For trekking in what could be minus-52 degrees, Daniels worked with Welsh company Brenig to develop suits with a pile fleece inner layer and an outer layer made of Pertex. Hadow has worn synthetic fibers as a base layer for the past 20 years, but this environmentally minded mission calls for superthin, itch-free merino wool, which won’t absorb body odor like man-made ones do. Lightweight as these garments are, Hadow still will be dragging 198 pounds on his sled, including camera equipment for photographs and a film. The other two will tow 132-pound sleds, since Daniels will be the lead person on the ice and Hadow needs agility to film and take photographs.
In total, 45 people are scattered around working on the $4 million, mostly privately funded project. Hinting at his fund-raising might, Hadow noted the U.K. has only allocated $8 million for the International Polar Year, a two-year scientific initiative focusing attention and research money on the Earth’s polar region.
But he insisted the Vancor Arctic Survey is not a matter of ego. “This is not just three people using their personal skills and high-tech equipment to pull this off. We are all linked into a network of the world’s leading scientific research network,” including everything from the U.K. Met office for weather to NASA in the U.S. “I wouldn’t be doing this if there weren’t some scientific meaning in it,” he said. “We need to get the news out there right now and not only mitigate, but envision, a solution. We need to stop talking and start acting to adapt to the consequences.”