Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Coldest journey on Earth for explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes

By Ray Cooling

UK explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes is taking on one of the world’s most hostile environments and last remaining polar challenges by attempting to cross Antarctica in winter - the coldest journey on Earth.

Having never been attempted, the expedition - consisting of Fiennes and five colleagues - will also provide unique and invaluable scientific research that will help climatologists. Additionally, it will form the basis for an education programme that will reach up to 100,000 schools across the Commonwealth.

Leaving London in December on board the South African ice-strengthened research ship, S.A. Agulhas, the team - led by 68-year-old Sir Ranulph - began its epic challenge to complete the “Coldest Journey” - the first trans-Antarctic winter expedition.

Kitted out with the latest scientific equipment, the team seeks to bring back a wealth of information about climate change and pave the way for a new dawn in Antarctic year-round exploration.

In addition, the Coldest Journey is attempting to raise 10 million dollars for Seeing is Believing, a global charitable initiative to fight avoidable blindness.

On 21 March 2013, the equinox, the six expedition members will begin a six-month journey to reach the Ross Sea. Their route from the Russian base of Novolazareskaya to Captain Scott’s base at McMurdo Sound - via the South Pole - will test the limits of human endurance.

During this time the group will travel nearly 4,000 kilometres (2,480 miles), mostly in complete darkness in temperatures as low as minus 90 degrees Celsius. The team will have to be entirely self sufficient and there will be no search-and-rescue facility available - aircraft cannot penetrate inland during winter, because of darkness and risk of fuel freezing.

Previously, the furthest any expedition has ever ventured into Antarctica during winter is 96km (60 miles). On this forthcoming journey, Sir Ranulph and his team will aim to cover about 3,220km (some 2,000 miles) in six months, crossing the polar plateau at an average height of about 3,050 metres (10,000 feet) above sea level.

Expedition leader Sir Ranulph - described in the Guinness Book of Records as “the world’s greatest living explorer” - said: “This will be my greatest challenge to date. We will stretch the limits of human endurance. Britain and the Commonwealth has a strong heritage of exploration, from Captain Cook 300 years ago to the present day. As such, it is fitting that a Commonwealth team should be the first to fulfil this last great polar expedition.

“It is a unique opportunity to carry out a number of scientific tasks in the extreme polar environment, which will make a significant contribution to our understanding of the true effects of global warming on the Antarctic continent,” he added.

The team is equipped with very sophisticated high-tech equipment, including battery-powered heated clothing and specially designed breathing apparatus to enable them to survive at minus 70 degrees C and possibly at minus 90C.

UK company Powertraveller has provided the expedition members with powergorilla devices, giving them the back-up electricity they will need to drive all their gear - from heated suits, to global positioning system (GPS) and satellite phones, and on to their radio transceiver.

Powertraveller developed new cables and connectors especially for the challenge to make sure that everything is as efficient and simple as possible. The team will be taking six powergorillas with them and a hand crank, ensuring that they can keep everything powered throughout the trip.

The expedition will be taking part in five international scientific projects, including the effect of climate change on the poles, mapping the height of the landmass using new GPS techniques and taking core samples to establish the water flow from the ice sheet. The ice team will be sampling for cryo-bacteria capable of withstanding the extreme cold conditions.

In addition, scientists on board the Agulhas - a ship provided by the South African Maritime Safety Authority - will make detailed oceanographic, marine biological and meteorological observations on behalf of a number of research bodies across the world.

Anton Bowring, co-leader of the expedition, with responsibility for the marine activities of the Coldest Journey, said: “As well as conquering this final frontier of polar exploration, the expedition also aims to make a decisive contribution to our understanding of global climate change and its impact on the polar ice caps. In addition, we will use this great opportunity to increase our knowledge of the marine and polar environments and the impact on them by natural and man-made factors.”

It is hoped the expedition will have far-reaching educational value and study opportunities encompassing mathematics, history, geography, biology and physics, to inspire young people in the possibilities of high achievement.

Students will be able to follow its progress on the web, take part in competitions and study fully integrated curriculum modules. These courses are being developed by Durham’s Education Development Service - one of the UK’s leading education resource providers - in partnership with Sir Ranulph and the expedition scientists, engineers, mechanics and ship’s crew and training officers.

Follow the team’s journey at www.thecoldestjourney.org for regular updates throughout the expedition.

London Press Service