Q&A: Explorer prepares for Arctic expedition

Pen Hadow, who's preparing for a months-long trek across the Arctic, speaks on climate change, how technology has changed the life of an explorer, and the dangers of swimming with bears.

A three-strong team of explorers will set out early next year to spend several months trekking across the Arctic ice, gathering data they hope will enable scientists to more accurately predict how many years are left before there is no longer a permanent ice cap at the North Pole.

Current estimates put the lifespan of the Arctic's sea ice somewhere between 5 and 100 years. The aim of the Vanco Arctic Ice Survey is to narrow this down by using an ice-penetrating radar to take millions of measurements of the thickness of the ice cap--providing more accurate data for scientists to work with.

The team is led by veteran polar explorer Pen Hadow. CNET News.com's sister site Silicon.com's Natasha Lomas caught up with Hadow recently to discuss his hopes for the survey, how technology has changed the life of an explorer, and the dangers of swimming with bears in the Arctic.

Silicon.com: The Vanco Arctic Survey was due to set off this year but the start date has been put back to February 2009. What are you hoping to achieve with the extra preparation time?
Hadow: We'll be able to attract more scientific research organizations. We'll be able to offer a wider range of data sets from the raw data that we gather. There's phenomenal volume--essentially between 10 and 20 million (ice) cross profiles.

Over the next few months we will be able to develop some additional (made-to-order) software to strip out different facets from this raw material. For example, we believe we may be able to discern the age of each ice pan or ice flow that we cross--because, like growth rings on a tree, there are growth rings in the under-shelf of the ice each time it starts to freeze when a winter comes, so you can see how many winters the pan of ice has survived.

Putting an age on the ice cap offers a different dimension or a different body of information about the status of the ice cap. This extra time will enable us to do things we wouldn't have been able to do before, so it enhances the value of the raw data that we have.

Why is this survey important?
The scientific community clearly feels it's important because it is the only way of delivering the missing data set. They have estimates of the thickness of the ice provided by satellites and submarines, but they don't have any actual measurements of the thickness of the ice as opposed to the snow. And it is the measurement of the thickness of the ice that will determine how long the ice cap is likely to survive. So scientists are excited by the possibility that this survey team can actually produce this accurate measurement.

The focus of the survey is on a region whose change in response to global warming is greater than anywhere else on earth and is accelerating and therefore offers us the most powerful indicator of what is likely to happen--or is happening and what will continue to happen--if we don't change our carbon emissions or get a better control of them.

Do you believe climate change is being caused by human activity? How worried should we be?
I don't think there's a debate to be had. If you can find someone--some meaningful body of people--who are saying it is not humans who are generating it I'd be amazed. I think the argument has, to all intents and purposes, collapsed. I believe even President Bush's chief scientific adviser is 90 percent convinced that it's humans.

I'm not a scientist, but I've read more than most people about how climate and global warming has come about and, yes, I think that it is caused predominately by human activity.

I think 'worried' is probably not quite the right word. But it is happening. If we don't do something about it then it is fairly clear that in a generation--in my children's lifetime--life is going to get that much more stressful than it is now, because I believe there's going to be large movements of people across national borders in response to relatively quickly changing rainfall patterns and therefore water supply.

So I'm not standing here in a panic because it's not going to achieve anything. I'm just doing my bit.

What tech will the survey team be taking with them onto the ice?
This falls into several categories. At the epicenter of the survey is of course what is generally known as a ground-penetrating radar. But in this case it's an ice-penetrating radar, which are normally about 130 kilos (286 pounds) and have a 200-watt powerplant driving it and they're operated from aircraft.

We've reduced it down to 4 kilos (8.8 pounds) with a 16-watt powerplant. And it's the size of a briefcase--and it can be towed behind the sledge taking measurements about every 4 inches. We are covering the ground, and it is quietly getting on with its work. You don't have to stop for every sample. That was part of the thinking behind it--how could we cover the ground without having to be endlessly stopping to do the measurements.

That's the most important bit of technology from the survey's point of view. From the public engagement side, we've developed--with Vanco's help--a data transmission system via the Iridium satellite array that surpasses all previous capacities in terms of technology. So what we are doing is we're able to get relatively high volumes of data out down a fuse-wire thin data tube--2.6kbps. And what that means really is we can not only get the survey data out, we can also send Webcam footage back--which has never been done from the polar regions, Antarctica, or the Arctic ocean north of 80 degrees north--and we can also do live interviews with television, and we can do videoconferencing.

What excites you most about the survey?
This is real exploration and that's something I don't feel I've had an opportunity to do before. It's amazing that in the 21st century we still don't know how thick one of the biggest planet-defining surface features is. And that three regular folk with some sort of specialist technical experience are actually in the best position to do that is really exciting for us. We are the only people who can do it--or are prepared to do it. You couldn't pay a NASA scientist enough money to walk across the sea ice for three or four months and to swim at night in an immersion suit to some unknown point that may or may not offer thin ice or better ice or whatever.

People often say, "What's left to explore?" Well, we know the ice cap exists and we know roughly how big it is and how fast it's shrinking, but without knowing its thickness, we can't know how long it will last. So that's our contribution to the exploration scene.

How has technology changed the experience of traveling and working in the world's most isolated regions?
In part, we can travel much more safely. We can do more because we have these greater safety margins. The experience is different (from past explorers' experiences), but we are not here to have an extreme experience; we're doing this to get a survey done, it's a job of work. And therefore, within reason, we are much happier having a high level of communication.

The downsides are that you are in an extreme situation. People at home can never fully appreciate the extreme stresses that have to be dealt with on a minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour basis. And your mind being split between where you really are and the people back home actually produces all sorts of tension--additional tensions--when you're trying to focus on what you're doing. So it's not just nice to be able to talk to your mum all the time.

The idea that because we've got access to satellites and can send all these things back that life's a laugh all of a sudden just isn't the case. It's very, very time pressured every single day. So it's constantly trying to have to prioritize as to what's the most important or useful use of time.

The breakthrough for us (on the Vanco expedition) is going to be that we have three-way (communications) between the team as we're going along. We've got throat microphones linked to ear pieces and we can talk when we need to, which will make life different. That's a different experience for polar surface travelers because normally you are in your own world while you're pulling your sledge. You're left to your own thoughts until the next tea break in 75 minutes' time.

How can technology play a role in engaging the general public with environmental issues?
It's the intimacy that the technology enables between the viewer and the explorer. So for example, we've got some live heart rates being beeped out onto the Web site onto the homepage so you can actually see the explorer's heart rate hammering away in real-time and you can even opt in at a particular heart rate of your choosing as to when you get an e-mail alert or a text alert saying something interesting's happening. So it's closing the distance psychologically and, in a sense, geographically between those who are interested in following this sort of a project and those who are actually delivering a project.

It's not just that it's a long way away and who cares? And why should we care? It's right there in front of you. You're living and breathing it as we are. And therefore getting more involved and more engaged with the process and therefore more inclined to absorb more information about what this environment is all about and why is it important--what the implications of a disappearing ice cap are. Having gotten people involved, we then want to use that engagement to deliver messages of greater public value than simply following the story.

What gadgets/tech can you not live without--at home, and while on an expedition?
I hate to say it, but at home it'd be my BlackBerry. Life would grind to a halt really without my BlackBerry. Boring but true.

And as far as on the expedition, I don't take any (personal) technology. I've got food and a stove and a few bits and pieces.

There's been a debate amongst the team as to whether we will actually take iPods or not (on the Vanco survey)--because they're seen as being quite isolationist. (If) you're sitting in a tent with your two colleagues and you've got two people listening to iPods, how does that make you feel when you're not listening to an iPod and you can't talk to them because they might as well actually be on a Tube train somewhere? So the debate's out as to whether any iPods are actually going to make it onto the ice.

How much planning and preparation work is needed for a project like this?
This will have taken three and a half years, of which two and a half have been pretty much full time for me. And there's now a team of almost 40 people who have been working on this project, many of them full time.

That's one of the benefits of going later. Because things were getting incredibly tight, and training is the hardest thing to fit in when there are so many other things that always seem to be slightly more urgent and more important on any given day. So I'm pleased that we've got that extra time--so I know I'll be as fit as a flea when I set off. And I know my colleagues will be.

What inspired you to want to be an explorer?
It's a mixture of inspirations over many years. I was brought up by the same lady who looked after Scott of the Antarctic's son. So I was brought up on stories of his endeavors down in the Antarctic since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. Or knee-high to an Adeli penguin, depending on your point of view. So that's as much reason as anything.

Do you think developments such as the Internet, which allow people to experience things remotely, will end up making travel and exploration less necessary?
Clearly some areas that are relatively fragile, that are currently experiencing high levels of visitors are probably best left alone. The extent to which virtual experiences can start to scale that back again remains to be seen. There must be something in it.

I don't know where that's tracking. At the moment we seem to be getting more and more mobile and more and more out there.

What aspects of the survey are you least looking forward to?
The first 10 days. Swimming at night--being forced to swim at night in highly dynamic ice so it's really moving around quite a lot. There's no solid ice. It's all drifting around, swirling around, and you can't stay in the water indefinitely, and it's dark so you can't get any sense of the big picture around you, especially once you're down in the water. And then you hear the dreaded 'splash ker-plonk' and you wonder was that a bear dropping itself into the water to come and check you out, or was that a piece of ice just falling off into the water? That's about as bad as it gets, I would say.

Bears are curious and they're not afraid. And if they're hungry it's not so good. It tends to be the sick or old or immature bears that are the problems and are harder to deter, but once you're in the water it's very hard to really do anything to frighten the bears off or indeed defend yourself. The biggest bears--the ones with the biggest bodies--are off the Alaskan coast, which unfortunately is where we're setting off from, so my wildest nightmares are looking to be more likely rather than less likely to be true.

Natasha Lomas of Silicon.com reported from London.

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