Last month marked the start of what’s widely being regarded as the greatest remaining human challenge on Earth— an epic 2,000-mile expedition traversing Antarctica in the harsh depths of its polar winter.
Led by veteran British polar explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, ‘The Coldest Journey’ expedition launched on December 6, comprised of a six-man “Ice Team” and polar experts that embarked on the SA Alguhas for Antarctica. This kicked off their journey to collect scientific data on the effects of climate change and form the basis for an education program accessible to more than 43,000 schools in the UK and a further 57,000 across the Commonwealth’s 54 nations. With dollar-for-dollar matching from Standard Chartered, Sir Ranulph and The Coldest Journey team also aim to raise $10m in charitable funds for Seeing is Believing – a global initiative designed to help tackle avoidable blindness.
Sir Ranulph and co-expedition leader Anton Bowring have spent over five years of planning, recruiting, organizing and training for this journey. Members of the team consist of highly-skilled veterans of working in Polar Regions, including two mechanics and one doctor. Prior to launch, the team devoted time and resources to learning advanced first aid and crevasse rescue training. They also learned to use ground-penetrating radars in order to detect crevasses, conducted equipment testing in the Cold Chamber and field-trained in wintry northern Sweden. During the traverse, a two-man ski unit will lead the expedition using the ground penetrating radar to detect and avoid crevasses, followed closely by teammates in Mobile Vehicle Landtrains (MVL). The MVLs consist of two Caterpillar® D6N track-type tractors which will pull two specialized cabooses developed for scientific work, accommodation and storage, and fuel designed not to freeze.
Over the journey, the team will carry out a total of five scientific projects, which include mapping the height of the landmass using GPS techniques, sampling surface snow to establish patterns of large-scale atmospheric transport of water vapor across the ice sheet, and sampling for cryo-bacteria capable of withstanding extreme cold conditions. Current measurements of how climate change affects the polar ice caps are being done by satellite alone. Thus far, it’s been impossible to physically measure the ice sheet profile during the winter months to validate the satellite’s readings—a feat the Ice Team has endeavored to accomplish on this expedition. The takeaways will aid in understanding key questions not only about our planet, but also the human race and our capacity to endure physical and psychological extreme conditions.
Furthermore, the expedition will offer the unprecedented opportunity to create engaging, real-time educational content for schools and serves to inspire a generation of schoolchildren. Participating students will be able to identify the current position of the team and expedition ship through an interactive map, and bear witness to live feeds from Antarctica, including highlights of collected scientific data and interviews with Sir Ranulph and the Ice Team.
An attempt to cross the Antarctic during winter has not been tried before because of the technical complexity required to complete it; however, we now have technology sufficiently advanced that equipment can be modified to withstand extreme temperatures and hostile conditions. For this very reason, Panasonic was chosen as the technology partner because it can uniquely provide professional broadcast cameras, Toughbook mobile computers and broadcast quality camcorders and digital imaging equipment fit for the tasks at hand. During field exercise and Cold Chamber training in Sweden, Panasonic’s professional products were subjected to the toughest trials, such as the AG-HPX250 P2 HD camera filming flawlessly for 45 minutes in frigid -72°F temperatures. Toughbook mobile PCs, capable of temperature extremes as low as -60°F, will be used by the team to facilitate scientific experiments, communicate via an Iridium sat-link as well as edit, compress, and upload recorded images from the journey.
The expedition is projected to last a year with environmental factors ranging from temperatures as low as -128°F to 24-hour pitch black darkness. The SA Agulhas is set to arrive on the coast of the Southern Ocean, Antarctica around mid-January 2013 with a scheduled departure date for the traverse of March 21, 2013.