The Tech I Take To…The North Pole
Dan Greenspan has one of the coolest jobs in the world. Literally: he recently travelled to the north pole, spending a month drilling holes in the ice to test a new system he designed and built that uses sonar to profile the sea floor under the ice sheet.
Dan works at the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, where he builds equipment to measure climate conditions in remote locations. As part of the Switchyard project (a multi-organization project to build a system to observe the climate in the Arctic), he went to various locations between Ellesmere island and the North Pole. Starting from the CFS ALERT station in northern Canada (the northernmost permanently occupied location on earth), they travelled to various locations on the Arctic ice. At each location, he tested a data collection buoy that is lowered through a hole drilled in the ice and down to 600 meters deep, measuring the temperature, salinity and oxygen level on the way. This project hopes to help map the flow of water around the pole, looking to map how the flow patterns are changing as the ice cap melts.
He recently returned from his trip, so we asked him to describe the gadgets that he took with him to the pole.
Dan Greenspan: What do you take to the north pole? It’s a question that was not so easy to answer my first time up. There are three parts to the answer:
1) everything you need to not die.
2) Everything you need to accomplish the task for which not dying will be necessary.
3) everything you need to amuse yourself when isolated for a month with the same bunch of heavily bearded scientists every day.
Really, you take as much as you can, and three of everything, because if it breaks or gets lost, there will be no trip to radio shack to replace it. This goes for clothing, food, personnel - everything, not just tech. It is one of the reasons this kind of research is very expensive. You need not just special tough equipment, but a lot of it, much of it destined to languish in the spare equipment locker.
There is, of course, electronic tech, such as laptops and the other electronic systems that I built and went up there to deploy. I used a number of laptops, including a Panasonic Toughbook, but believe it or not, my standard work-issued Dell Latitude went with me and rested on a parka at the pole – and lived to tell the tale. My ancient iPhone 3Gs also went with, but its GPS was totally inadequate and did not provide accurate readings above 83 degrees north. The main purpose of the phone was as an mp3 player and movie player when back at base. We had some superior GPS units of the type used for aircraft navigation, and some good handheld GPS units as well. One colleague had a GPS dongle that plugged into his iPhone, and it worked quite well.
I have a nook, which lasted almost the entire month on a single charge, even though I read a lot – I had purchased it just for this mission because of its battery life, and it delivered. One of my favorite pieces of equipment was my Sennheiser noise-cancelling ear buds, which are so important for those long trips in the military C-130s, which are unbelievably loud. Wearing ear protection is not optional in those things; it’s just a matter of what type of protection you choose. I wore the active earbuds underneath a pair of David Clark noise-isolation aviation headphones (isolation, unlike cancellation, is entirely passive). The combo was no only acoustically effective but warm as well.
There was a lot of less “techie” tech, mostly clothing, that was critical. The warmest winter boots you can imagine are not adequate when you are on a skimobile going 25 MPH in -25 weather, flying in small unpressurized aircraft for hours, and drilling holes in ice, standing in sea water. The boots must not only be waterproof, but also have insulated liners with thermally reflective coverings. There must be special insulation in the sole to limit conduction from the bottom of the foot. Gore-tex is a religion up there, and with good reason. It’s hard to balance the needs of the body in very cold weather while working hard; you don't want to get wet with sweat, but you don't always have the luxury of exposing a lot of skin either. So breathable, high-tech fabrics are super important.
I spared no expense on gloves, socks, goggles, balaclavas, and so on. Chemical heat packs are a nice bonus. All of the equipment has to be chosen with the thought that you must be able to survive if you become immersed in sea water, which can happen for a variety of reasons (landing in a small ski plane on untouched sea ice is more… exciting than your average commuter flight). Carhartt arctic-level wear is great not only because it’s warm and tough, but because it’s got the pockets to hold the batteries for all of my equipment that would die if not warmed by my body, screwdrivers, small pieces of gear, etc.
One big failure was electric gloves. I don’t know if it’s because they were too large, or not insulated enough, but it certaintly wasn’t because they were too cheap (about $200). I used them for a day or two and then threw them in the parts bin in disgust; my fingers were always cold in those things.
I had a big pelican case with voltmeters, power supplies, wire, cable ties, all kinds of pliers, cutters, soldering irons, everything you’d use to fix electronics - you name it. We also had the gas-powered ice augers with their special bits (9 feet long, 1 foot around). We couldn’t take any propane-driven equipment because of flight regulations, but we had plenty of electricity at the base. Of course we had tons of spare batteries for the probes we put into the water every day (each one took three C cells). I don't remember the weight limit of all of our gear – I think it was 5 tons – but all of the clothing, personal gear, and mission equipment was stuffed into pelican cases (a very important part of any expedition, those cases) and wooden crates, and strapped to a special pallet for the C-130. We had two pallet loads for our team of three people and two experiments. We had every size from Kleenex box to coffin, to carry everything from small delicate electronics to 6-HP gasoline-powered auger engines.
You can see by the relative size of the people in the background how large these piles are. There are not just pelican cases of all sizes, but also many other brands of container, including custom-built ones. Here is a photo of some cases on the ice (there are three in the photo, and one of those awesome north face gear bags)
One personal thing I forgot to mention – my smallest scuba camera, a Canon PowerShot SD1200 IS with a 200 meter-proof case. This I rigged to an expandable painter’s pole, and stuck it through the holes in the ice, so I could get a look around. It was not scientifically required but how could I resist? I saw copepods (essentially, sea monkeys) and spooky ice formations, including mineral formations that looks like coral or stalactites (this is a whole field of study). There are seals and fish to be seen, but I did not see them. The gadget point, though, is that this consumer-level stuff was inadequate. The seal was not meant for that kind of temperature and it leaked. If you watch the video, you can hear the water start leaking into the case at about 1:40. The camera survived, just barely, and I got my images. Next time, I'll carry something better, if I can get my hands on it.
The pinging noise in the video is the sonic signal used by the depth finder. It is doing ultrasound on the sea floor, which in this case was about 16000 feet away. We don't just get depth; it’s more like medical ultrasound, so we get data about the structure under the sea floor.
Thanks to Dan for telling us about the tech he took to the North Pole, and be sure to read his blog to see more about his work and his adventures. If you want to post about your experiences of tech on a trip that you took, then post a comment to this story and you will be invited to join Medium.