April 9, 2009

Arctic Research Team Slowed By Brutal Weather

British explorers studying the Arctic are struggling with a series of technical problems after enduring ferocious weather, BBC News reported.

The crew has been dealing with breakdowns and uncertainties involving its portable radar device, known as Sprite, which is designed to make millions of measurements of the ice thickness.

Additionally, the ship's SeaCat, an instrument meant to measure the temperature and salinity of the water beneath the ice-cap, is also malfunctioning.

However, other research that includes regular drilling through the ice has had no problems.

Researchers gather data about the ice for transmission via satellite as the radar system is dragged behind the sledge of expedition leader Pen Hadow. But the Catlin Arctic Survey crew's technology failed after the ship encountered an unexpected wind chill as low as minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit.

The crew said that on the fifth day in these conditions, one of the radar system's cables simply snapped and just four days later they had all snapped.

The Sprite only gathered data over a total period of seven hours of trekking in the expedition's first 18 days due to the malfunctions. But the device was picked up by a resupply flight last month and sent back to the UK for repairs and that work is now complete.

However, the support staff is still having trouble accessing the ice data stored inside it.

A radar replacement was delivered to the expedition but it's not yet known how well it has functioned over the past few weeks or if its data can be retrieved.

The newly repaired original Sprite device and the communications system were brought back on another resupply flight on Wednesday.

Now, after nearly 40 days on the ice, the expedition's organizers are hoping that the radar data can be gathered and transmitted as planned.

The original Sprite unit was out of action for 13 days' worth of measurements, and assuming the crew can retrieve any data collected during that time, they're hoping those are the only losses sustained so far.

"Given the very extreme conditions they are operating in during the Arctic winter we were always going to face potential difficulties with the array of advanced technology despite our robust testing program," said Simon Harris-Ward, Director of Operations for Catlin Arctic survey.

He told BBC News they had been cautious about making any statement about Sprite simply because of a combination of factors.

"First, an uncertainty about the exact nature of the problem and second, the inevitable delays in assessing data which had to be extracted on our re-supply flights before it could be analyzed," he said.

He added they still remain confident in their ability to deliver data to their scientific partners.

"Most of the Catlin Arctic Survey science program does not require data from Sprite and the Ice Team has been continuing to collect valuable data in its wider science program, including measurements of the floating ice's thickness," he said.

Other research tasks during the expedition include drilling through the ice by hand, on average four times a day.

So far, hundreds of measurements have been made of ice thickness and snow cover with 102 holes drilled and counting.

The crew hopes that all of their collected data from the radar system will help Arctic specialists at the US Navy Postgraduate School in Monterey, California assess the likely fate of the ice-cap.


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