Engineer up a mountain

Techno explorers take to the ice

This month a team of explorers will set off on foot for the North Pole. Hauling ice-penetrating radar instrumentation for more than 1,000km, the team will relay back to the scientific community crucial data about how climate change is melting ice in the Arctic.

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 body weight in equipment across the ice - to do something that can't be done by satellites and submarines.

"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 says that 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, Padow 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 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 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. 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 days of Sir Ernest Shackleton.

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. 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. 

For Hadow, the 2003 expedition was an eye-opener. For all his years as a professional guide working in the Polar Regions, never before had the explorer seen so much thin ice and open water in the Arctic.

"To travel my route in a straight line - 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 as possible, when he encountered water he simply swam across it.

During the course of the research for his book 'Solo', his account of the 2003 trip, Hadow "started to better understand the process that was bringing about this increased open water and sea ice: global warming". He also discovered that scientists did not have critical data.

Catlin Arctic survey

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. The Catlin Arctic Survey was born. The project has amassed substantial financial backing for the £3m survey, securing support from groups such as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and WWF International as well as the patronage of HRH The Prince of Wales.

"Many of my previous expeditions have been about achieving something for me, seeing what I could do. 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 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 tough 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 bio---telemetry - being transmitted than on any other polar expedition before. Taking up the most room, and perhaps most important to the expedition, is 'Sprite' (surface penetrating radar for ice thickness establishment) - Hadow says the name 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 rubble fields and send it tumbling down pressure ridges over a total distance of more than 1,000km. 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.

Sprite ice profile

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 explorers do not much like it. Its 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 webcam 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.

Scientific mission

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: "We're 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.

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