Revisiting An Expedition Across The Arctic
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
As we approach the end of the year, we are revisiting some of the stories we brought to you in 2009. And today we will check in on an expedition that was getting underway this year across the Arctic. Back in March, I talked with Dr. Pascal Lee, who was about to lead a expedition across the Northwest Passage. The team was going to drive a bright yellow Humvee 1,000 miles across sea ice in Canada's high Arctic. Dr. Lee is chairman of the Mars Institute which promotes the study and exploration of Mars. He told me then that the goal of the trip was to simulate exploration conditions on the moon and Mars. And we talked about the risks the team faced.
D: Of course, the ice being thin or...
BLOCK: That's a problem, yeah.
D: ...the ice even being just jumbled and very rough to traverse. Of course, we're also in the Arctic wilderness there, so the polar bear is at the top of the food chain.
BLOCK: Well, what happened, Dr. Lee, did you make it?
D: Well, we succeeded in driving 500 kilometers, which is a record-breaking distance on sea ice with our Humvee. But we decided to cut our expedition short in Cambridge Bay rather than continuing on all the way to Devon Island because the sea ice conditions were incredibly rough. And as well this year as a result probably of climate change, there was an incredible amount of snow covering the ice. And one of the problems with that is that you cannot see the leads in the ice, the cracks in the ice. And so at some point Humvee drove over a patch of snow and the next thing you know it came to a stop. It's started tilting backwards. And I saw a sky out of my windshield.
BLOCK: Now the back was falling through the ice.
D: The back was falling through the crack in the ice, yes. And my immediate thoughts were, of course, of safety. We were hundreds of kilometers from any community that could have sent any help and it would have been several days away. We anchored some steel bars ahead of the vehicle in the ice, used the vehicle's winch and were able to extract it from its predicament within couple of hours, so - and we were on our way.
BLOCK: Well, pretty scary time.
D: It was a heart-pounding moment for sure.
BLOCK: Now when we talked back in March, Dr. Lee, you told me that you thought the carbon footprint of your traverse in the six-ton Humvee will be very small. But I gather you were burning through diesel like nobody's business up there.
D: Well, our footprint was large compared to any Prius you might have out there...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BLOCK: To put it mildly, yeah.
D: But there really isn't a lot of irony in the fact that we were using this high-consuming vehicle in an environmental study. You know, to study the earth's environment, you have to sometimes pay a price in impacting the same environment you want to study. You have to launch a rocket to send a satellite in space to monitor the earth's environment. So, there is an environmental cost to studying the earth and in our case the benefits of what we have learned about the Arctic, I think, outweigh the slightly higher consumption rate of our one vehicle for, you know, for that one week.
BLOCK: Well, you didn't make it all the way across Northwest Passage, as you had hoped. What happens with your expedition now and where is that Humvee?
D: So, the Humvee made it to Cambridge Bay. We then flew it from Cambridge Bay to Resolute Bay. And the Humvee is now in Resolute getting readied for our final crossing this coming April when we will drive it from Resolute Bay to the NASA Help Mars project research station on Devon Island. So, that will be about 150 kilometers ahead of us still.
BLOCK: So, you still have hope you can finish this.
D: We are definitely committed to finishing this with another 30 kilometers of sea ice crossing along this 150 kilometer track.
BLOCK: Well, maybe we'll be talking to you in a year or so to figure out whether you made it.
D: Thank you so much.
BLOCK: Dr. Pascal Lee is chairman of the Mars Institute, still hoping to complete that Arctic journey across the Northwest Passage.
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