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WC Retro: Ben Saunders Does Greenland

bad_ice.jpgBy WC Team, Posted April 3, 2006.

Almost a year ago, we asked you to help brainstorm some green solutions for our fearless polar-exploring friend and ally, Ben Saunders. Ben's been throwing himself into some of the most astounding human challenges imaginable, humbly framed as the the ambitious undertakings of an ardent athlete, but resulting in visceral first-hand accounts of just how much things are changing in the Arctic - the "barometer of global climate change."

In October, Ben will set out on the longest unsupported polar journey in history - 1,800 miles roundtrip from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole. As a training expedition, he and teammate, Tony Haile, went to Greenland, where the largest ice cap in the Northern Hemisphere would provide ideal prep conditions. As well thought-out as the voyage was, Ben and Tony did not expect the sweltering heat they encountered. "Blistering Arctic" may sound like an oxymoron, but it's just what they found.

Here's the report Ben sent us of his Greenland expedition, complete with the results of testing several solar devices which the pair chose to try out based upon a number of excellent Worldchanging reader suggestions:

The First Green Polar Expedition

Our tiny Twin Otter ski-plane had been flying for about 90 minutes when I caught sight of some drifting pack ice, a sure sign that we were approaching our destination. Spotting the pack took me straight back to the Arctic and the three months I spent traveling over the shifting surface of that forgotten ocean in the spring of 2004, and I was certain I wouldn’t want to pitch my tent on what I could see beneath me---it was far too fractured and weak. We were now just a few miles from our destination, the Kangerdlussuaq mountains of Greenland.

We were flying to an almost totally unexplored mountain range in order to hone our fitness, practice negotiating crevasse fields - one of the biggest obstacles we will encounter in Antarctica in October - and stress-test some exciting new equipment. Our aim has always been for our expedition to be a genuinely pioneering expedition. Geographically, there’s not much left to explore nowadays, but as athletes, we will be performing at the outer edges of what is humanly possible. Alongside this, we plan to break new ground environmentally. Every day, Antarctica receives enough solar and wind energy to fuel the entire planet’s energy needs several times over, yet even contemporary expeditions have relied on fossil fuel-burning stoves to melt snow.

With a gnawing appreciation that there must be a way to harness a tiny fraction of this raw energy to melt our modest daily requirement of drinking water and recharge camera and communications gear, we turned to WorldChanging’s readership for ideas. Based on dozens of suggestions, we decided to field-test flexible photovoltaic panels (for electricity production) and a number of ‘direct solar’ systems that harness and focus the suns rays to produce heat, in our case for melting snow.

The route we had chosen offered us a chance to play in some crevasse fields as we wended our way towards Greenland’s huge icecap. It also involved several days of ascending from near-sea level to 2,000 metres. I was prepared for tough climbs with the sledge forever pulling me back; I was prepared for the occasional crevasse fall. I was even bracing myself for Tony’s cooking (he and I will be sharing a tent for nearly four months during our Polar expedition). The one thing I hadn’t prepared for was to be wandering around our first campsite in the High Arctic with my shirt off.

It seemed Greenland’s welcome was to try and broil us alive. We spent a month trekking through this mountain range and the temperature was never anything less than blistering. Our expedition jackets lay in our sledges, our bodies sweated gallons into our thin thermal tops; often the only clothing we wore during the day. The heat was playing hell with our rehydration calculations. Our factor-60 sun cream did not stop either of us turning a very British pink under the sun. This was Greenland; this was the Arctic and it felt like a snow-themed Cancun. Eventually we took to skiing during the night - the sun was still up, but we could handle the temperature better and we even had one or two genuinely cold nights.

Our experiments with solar power offered mixed results; the flexible PV panel from Iowa Thin Film Technologies exceeded even our wildest expectations. Even in the early hours of the morning, with a low sun and overcast sky, it continued to charge our gear. In full sunlight, it was so powerful that we could run our Iridium satphone (by far our most power-hungry gadget) directly from the panel, with the phone’s own battery removed.

Upon our return, we found that for the first time in living memory, a mountaineering expedition even further north than us had been able to sail right up to the coast. The ice pack wasn’t proving the obstacle it had previously been. In the words of Dr. Carl Boggild of GEUS, the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland: "there is no doubt that something very major is happening here.” I’m no scientist, and I’m not going to try and throw out any theories, but anyone who doesn’t think the Arctic is changing should take a trip to the mountains, glaciers and valleys of Greenland. Just remember to bring the sun cream.

-- Ben Saunders

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