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19/12/2014

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Exploring self and science

Next year I hope to start a highly ambitious set of Ice Warrior expeditions. Their purpose will be to benchmark and afterwards monitor the condition of the Arctic Ocean. Our aim is to reach the Northern Pole of Inaccessibility (otherwise known as the Arctic Pole) which stands as the last true world first in the Polar regions, defined as the furthest point from land on the Arctic Ocean. As yet, nobody has managed to reach it – and for good reason. The journey is 800 miles and will take 80 days to complete across a very dubious part-frozen ocean, taking in the Magnetic North Pole on route.

Ice Warrior

Ice Warrior is an organization dedicated to modern-day exploration using ordinary, everyday people to achieve extraordinary expeditionary feats. I created it in 2001 to satisfy my yearning for adventure. It is accessible to everyone with what I call ‘good egg’ characteristics. That is, determination, persistence, resolve and tenacity - all those things which drive people to achieve - tempered with those which make a good team player: compassion, considerateness, empathy, enthusiasm and engagement.

The fact that I am enrolling and training ordinary people to do this trip in itself engages a much wider audience. Each one of them is charged with telling their part in the story of our endeavour to best effect; no spin, no bluff, only the truth, warts-and-all.

I am always intrigued by the fact that, at enrolment stage, twenty percent of Ice Warrior participants are female. However, by the time they have undertaken ten days of UK technical training, a week of basic polar training, a week of advanced polar training and a week of putting it all together in a training expedition at our base in Svalbard, Norway, the teams balance out to around 45% per cent female. They come from all walks of life: emergency services, civil servants, teachers, nurses, doctors, geographers, vetinarians, business owners, corporate employees, retirees and even the unemployed.

So far, we have trained over 220 people, 26 reaching a North Pole but all gathering vital data for our scientific partners.

Scientific partners

These include the Met Office, the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre, the Norwegian Polar Institute, the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, the UK Scott Polar Research Institute, the universities of Washington in Seattle, Imperial College, Birmingham and Cambridge and we are currently talking to the Chinese who have an increasing interest in the Arctic.

And we have our own resident scientist, Bjorn Erlingsson, a specialist in sea ice mechanics. He ensures that a portfolio of science is created for each of our expeditions.

Gathering information

What we actually do takes the form of simple data gathering. We do not pretend to be scientists but we do go to extremely remote areas which are seldom visited, if at all, which makes our simple efforts worthwhile.

Our work for Professor Tom Grenfell of Washington University, Seattle is a good example.  Ice Warrior had two teams of ten people going to the Geomagnetic North Pole in 2006 from different drop-off points on the eastern side of Ellesmere Island in High Arctic Canada. Both journeys traversed the island through the Sverdrup Pass. Each day we collected and accumulated snow samples according to a strict methodology, and on return to Resolute the samples were given over to Tom and his team to analyse the amount of particulate matter the samples contained, giving a measurement of ‘black carbon’ affecting the snow albedo – its ability to reflect solar radiation. This formed part of a larger Arctic-wide study which continues today.

Next year is particularly exciting as we will be measuring a piece of the jigsaw which might explain some of the inaccuracies of previous ice depletion models; but this is still being evaluated.

New skills

The learning process is fascinating to watch. All of us living in ‘normal’ circumstances put up facades, have agendas, act on emotions and are persuaded by spurious attributes such as ego and pride. Such extreme environments strip all of this away and are the greatest of levellers. I love to watch people coming off of a warm aircraft into frigid temperatures for the very first time. As they take their first breath of minus forty degree air their facial expressions quickly change from delight at reaching their destination to serious concern as they cough and feel their nostril hair freeze, partially blocking their nostrils.

This is serious and the first thing they learn is to dispense with bluff, spin, delusion and other such nonsense. Having done this they are confronted with themselves; sometimes for the very first time. This is truly enlightening, cathartic and ultimately empowering.

The very next thing they learn is that if they buddy-up with people exposed to the same environment, the threat is lessened and being a model team player not only becomes natural but essential to survival. This all may sound melodramatic, but having witnessed it and experienced it myself time and time again I can assure you it’s true.

In addition to this are the technical skills required of a modern-day polar explorer. Navigation, weather, rope work, camp craft, medical skills, critical crisis management as well as familiarisation with the environment such as differing sea ice types, prevailing winds and cultural sensitivities. And of course capturing that story on stills and video cameras and conveying it using blogs and the whole gambit of social media.All form important parts of a comprehensive and for that matter intensive syllabus.

Exploring today

I call this modern-day exploration and I feel it is about as close as we can get to emulate the golden era of exploration, when we knew so little of our world and simply the unknown made the risks much greater.

These days, our discoveries are more about change, pollution and biodiversity than mapping undiscovered areas - but this doesn’t make them less significant.

Scientists for fifty or sixty years now have recognised the importance of the Polar regions for our survival, but have we really got a grip on monitoring the condition of our Earth? Have we got a finger on the pulse of the planet? I don’t believe so. This drives me onward to get to the point where we have one confluence of such information; an unbiased, apolitical, non-commercial forum for discussion and debate as well as a truly educational experience. Not just from our cold climes either but the other extreme regions; the deserts, jungles, mountains and oceans. It probably won’t surprise you to know that ‘Warrior’ versions of these are all in my planning.

Role of the public

To me, engaging the general public in science is all about relevance. If it is the general public that is seen to gather such vital data, that immediately makes it relevant.

I also want the project to contribute to our knowledge and understanding of the Polar regions and to show that ordinary people, from all walks of life, with the right attitude and training can achieve extraordinary things.

I am so proud to say that is exactly what we do.

1 For daily dispatches of previous expeditions, see http://ice-warrior.com/expeditions08.htm

Jim McNeill
Jim McNeill is the founder of Ice Warrior, and an accomplished polar explorer, presenter and keynote speaker
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