No Ice Radar? No Catlin Expedition!

The Catlin trio has given up on ice radar“, reports David Shukman on the BBC today.

This is a bad sign. Twice bad: as it calls into question the need for risking the lives of the team any further, and the overall organization of the expedition.

The Catlin trio should just pack up and come back home before anything truly bad does happen.

The SPRITE “ice radar” is (was) not just another instrument. It was THE meaning for the whole expedition. Here’s a screenshot from the Catlin Arctic Survey’s science pages on their website:
Catlin Science pages

Such a surface Survey has never before been attempted

The team’s ground-penetrating radar (SPRITE) will distinguish between the base ice layer and any over-lying snow layer

The Catlin Arctic Survey’s data will allow for the re-evaluation of satellite and submarine digitised observations of recent decades – and future ones – and thereby improve the accuracy and confidence of the modelled outputs.

Even the BBC noticed the extreme importance of SPRITE for providing a meaning to the Catlin trio’s efforts, as it can be seen in the caption of the image opening one of their first articles on the expedition (by Jonathan Amos in February 2009):

BBC introducing the Catlin expedition (1)

The yellow SPRITE radar is the expedition’s key piece of kit

And in the text:

“It is intended to give scientists the very latest “ground truth”, to better constrain their models and their interpretation of the observations coming from satellites.

‘No other information on ice thickness like this is expected to be made available to the scientific community in 2009,’ explained Arctic ice modeller Professor Wieslaw Maslowski, a science advisor to the survey.”

What needs to be done now? According to the latest BBC article:

As a result, the explorers are now drilling more sampling holes than planned, which means they are progressing more slowly than hoped.

But what is the point of that? This is what Amos wrote back in February:

BBC on Catlin - detail

At frequent intervals, the team will also gather manually the same data by drilling through the ice. This will put a calibration check on the radar measurements.

The manually-drilled sampling holes are meant to be just calibration measures for the radar. Hence, if there is no radar, there is little meaning in drilling any sampling hole. Furthermore:

Over the course of the expedition, the team hopes to have gathered millions of readings.

Obviously, those millions of reading will simply not be there. A couple of thousands of manual measurements cannot be a scientifically-plausible substitute for millions of automatic readings.

And as already mentioned, the SPRITE debacle actually suggests the risk for the above is not minimal. In fact, how did such a “key piece of kit” manage to become useless? Shukman again:

The failures are blamed on problems with power supplies, either with batteries not working or with cables snapping in the cold.

Now, what kind of organization put together their most important equipment for a winter-starting polar mission using material unable to withstand extreme cold? What else have they forgotten to consider?

I for one would not mind if Hadow, Daniels and Hartley were to try again in 2010 or 2011. It’s just the 2009 effort that worries me (a lot) regarding their well-being.