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An epic exploration to learn about the Earth’s air conditioner

Adventure takes many forms, such as parachuting from the skies, diving into the water’s depths, or climbing mountains to reach their peaks. But it can also be as simple as exploring your own backyard. For Nicolas Peissel, that backyard happens to be the Arctic.

“Being Canadian, we have one of the greatest backyards in the world that we don’t explore,” Peissel said. “I always had a dream of exploring—learning more about our planet and finding interesting ways of seeing it.”

Peissel is the leader of Mission Arctic, a two-part expedition led by a team of scientists, researchers, and polar explorers into the heart of the Arctic to discover its uncharted stretches, conduct scientific surveys of its waters, and examine the impact of its melting ice on our planet. The first part of the mission—“Into the Melting Ice”—set sail on June 2017 and returned to land the following October.

One of Mission Arctic’s goals is to share the dramatic changes taking place in the Arctic environment, particularly the Arctic sea ice erosion and depletion brought about by the world’s warming climate.

“We want to put a face to this change. Through an expedition, through human struggle, we want to bring more awareness to the Arctic’s melting ice,” said Peissel.

In those four months of journeying the Arctic, the team sailed a third of the way around the world (7,000 nautical miles), starting from the coast of Greenland down to the coast of North America aboard a 45-foot yacht they named Exiles. The team reached an area known as the “iceberg factory,” where the largest icebergs in the Northern Hemisphere form, break off, and move down the coast of North America.

“Reaching that area over 80 degrees latitude north was incredible. We were only 600 nautical miles from the North Pole, which is unheard of for a sailing vessel of our type,” Peissel said.

The team collected scientific data on how the melting ice is impacting the mixing effect that drives global ocean currents, tracked the movement of icebergs calving from glaciers, and conducted underwater and aerial surveys of the ice. “It may take quite some time to analyze this data,” said Peissel. “But it will answer certain questions we have about how the Arctic is changing and will also inform scientists of other research that needs to be undertaken.”

Preliminary findings from the team’s expedition showed the complexity of Arctic waters. “Warm surface waters — up to 10 degrees Celsius — were observed near a marine-terminating glacier in Eternity fjord,” said Dr. Dan Carlson, an observational physical oceanographer and the Mission Arctic team’s science officer. “Drone time-lapse imagery also provided the first documentation of small-scale ice dynamics, which yield quantities that are relevant to the development of accurate oil spill models in waters with high concentrations of glacial ice.”

For Peissel, one of the greatest successes of the mission was retrieving five deep sea instruments in difficult conditions. These instruments were dropped in strategic areas along the Arctic over a year ago by the International Arctic Research Center and have been collecting data on the ocean floor. “It was extremely rewarding because we were picking up a year’s worth of research,” he said.

An epic exploration such as this is not without its difficulties. Since the Arctic thaws only during a specific window, the team had a limited amount of time to travel. Extreme wind and freezing conditions also made for a challenging voyage. Peissel recounts an occasion when they almost lost their boat. “We were anchored in fjords during inclement weather with very heavy winds. Our anchor chain was trapped—it almost brought the expedition to a close,” he said. “We did our best to navigate as safely as possible but Mother Nature can throw curve balls at you. She really rules up there and gets the final word.”

Centuries ago, explorations were limited by the lack of maritime technology. “Back in the 18th and 19th century, expeditions would essentially push blind into the Arctic. They were true explorers, with no maps or technology to guide them,” Peissel said. For the Mission Arctic team, technology made all the difference in overcoming challenges and making exploration possible.

The team used GPS to navigate the Arctic, satellite phones to communicate with the Canadian Ice Service and obtain information about ice conditions, drones to scan the ice ahead, and underwater automated vehicles to examine what’s happening under the ice. “Technology is paramount,” said Peissel. “We would not be able to do this voyage without it.”

Peissel noted that their Lenovo devices played a central role in making the mission possible. Their navigation software runs on the ThinkPad X1 tablet, which was the workhorse of their navigation instruments on board. “It was fast enough to keep up with our second-to-second course changes,” he said. “It was also constantly exposed to the elements—winds, waves, and sub-zero temperatures—but was able to take a lot more shock, a lot more exposure to the harsh environment. The X1 tablet served us extremely well as a navigation computer on board.”

Meanwhile, the ThinkPad T470s provided enough processing power for modeling weather information and downloading satellite images and ice charts. These were essential in helping the team plan their path through the Arctic seascape.

For the Mission Arctic team, the journey doesn’t end here. The team is preparing for the second part of Mission Arctic—“Searching for Bones”—in 2018. They’ll be undertaking a reverse treasure hunt, discovering what the Arctic is now exposing such as lost expedition sites, the most northern wooly mammoth remains, and other hidden treasures. It will be another exciting expedition weaving science, archaeology, and history.

Beyond the adventure, Peissel emphasizes the need to address the Arctic melt and the warming of our planet. “This is the big story that we’re trying to get across,” he said. “We can’t rely on others to ensure that change will take place. We each have that power, that opportunity to accomplish something incredible.”

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