January 24, 2008 12:06 PM PST

Q&A: Explorer prepares for Arctic expedition

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.

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