April 14, 2009

Arctic Research Team Runs Into Equipment Problems

British explorers hiking the Arctic sea-ice are out of luck after more technical problems have caused them to resort to old-fashioned techniques to carry out their research.

Both a radar device to measure the ice thickness and a satellite communications unit are still not working on Day 44 of the trek, even though the devices were sent to the U.K. for repairs and then redelivered last week to the team.

The explorers are now drilling more sampling holes than planned, which means they are progressing at a slower pace than anticipated.

It is less likely now that the team will reach its destination point of the North Pole.

The Sprite radar system is meant to be dragged over the ice while making millions of measurements, but is now being carried on a sled instead.

Pen Hadow, leader of the Catlin Arctic Survey, said that losing the use of the equipment is frustrating, but hostile conditions have overwhelmed the technology.

"It's never wise to imagine that either man or technology has the upper hand in the natural world," he said. "It's truly brutal at times out here on the Arctic Ocean and a constant reminder that Mother Nature always has the final say."

During the first few weeks, the team and their equipment faced temperatures below negative 40 Celsius, which is equivalent to minus 70 with the wind chill considered.

The equipment malfunctions are blamed on problems with power supplies, either with batteries not working or the cables snapping in the cold.

Losing the equipment has focused attention on data gathered by old methods like drilling through the ice by hand.

There have already been 102 holds dug so far, and 1,000 measurements have been made of ice thickness, snow density and other features.

The most recent findings show that almost all the ice surveyed is first-year ice, which is ice that only grew this past winter, as opposed to tougher multi-year ice which survives the warmth of summer.

Their data indicates an average ice thickness of 1.15-3.75m, which is expected to mostly melt between June and September.

According to the team's organizers in London, the expedition's data is still important for research and so is reaching the Pole.

Simon Harris-Warn, operations director, said, "What matters most is gathering the maximum amount of data possible over a scientifically interesting route."


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