Humvee to tackle the Arctic
Team says journey will simulate what long-range exploration on Mars would be like
KATE ALLEN March 14, 2009 Globe And Mail
VANCOUVER -- The Canadian Arctic will be "Mars on Earth" for a team of planetary and climate researchers determined to be the first to traverse the ice-choked Northwest Passage by road vehicle.
Four team members in a converted Humvee truck will be researching what long-range exploration on Mars and other planets would be like as they navigate the notoriously treacherous 2,000-kilometre route. They will also be measuring the thickness of the sea ice beneath them to determine the effects of climate change in the Arctic.
The team says the passage has been navigated on snowmobiles and skis, but never a road vehicle.
The wheels of their truck, a military ambulance, will be replaced with skis to minimize pressure on top of the frozen sea.
Designers left one feature of the Humvee intact: its armour.
"It can take mortars, but more importantly, it will protect us - we think - from polar bears at night," expedition leader Pascal Lee said.
The team is using the polar North as an analogue for terrain on other planets. The researchers say that rocky, barren Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, their ultimate destination, is the closest thing to the inhospitable geography of other planets.
"We're fascinated by what Devon Island presents to us and we're viewing it as a Mars park for the world to study and understand," Dr. Lee said.
Devon Island is the site of the Haughton impact crater, a meteorite blast 23 kilometres across that was left 39 million years ago. The crater's similarity to those on other planets and moons is of particular interest to the researchers.
The team will also be cataloguing the region's snow dunes and ice ridges to see if they have counterparts on other planets, and using drills to determine the thickness of the ice pack.
Setting out from Kugluktuk in Western Nunavut in April, they hope to reach their research station two weeks later, but will carry enough provisions for four weeks.
Conditions during that time will be extreme. The team faces temperatures ranging from -20 to -35. The Humvee's cab will be exposed, as will be the two team members on snowmobiles escorting the truck. "During the drive, nobody will be warm," Dr. Lee said.
At night, the team will bunk in cots set up in the Humvee's trunk. They will "live in a very cosy way," Dr. Lee said.
The Northwest Passage's reputation for danger and death is centuries old. In 1775, the first vessel to successfully traverse it, the English whaler Octavius, was discovered drifting near Greenland with all hands frozen to death below deck.
Among its most famous victims was the Franklin Expedition of 1845, whose 128 crew members died of starvation, hypothermia, scurvy, and lead poisoning after the ship became lodged in ice. Bodies that were recovered showed signs of cannibalism.
This April's Arctic trip will be the fourth for Jesse Weaver, 18, the team's vehicle technician, who was initially hired by Dr. Lee after he noticed the young man repairing motorcycles at his grandparents' house in Tennessee. The danger is "what makes it so exciting," Mr. Weaver said.
John Schutt, the expedition's field guide and a veteran of over 42 Arctic campaigns, is also aware of the risks his team faces. The more successful they are in determining significant effects of climate change in the Arctic, the less successful their trip across the thinning ice may be.
"It's sort of ironic in that regard," Mr. Schutt said.
The trip was organized by the Mars Institute and is supported by both NASA and the Canadian Space Agency.
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