Thursday, February 10, 2011

Russian expedition seeks to unlock Arctic mystery

Two amphibious all-terrain vehicles will set on an expedition around the world on February 17 via remote Arctic regions in Europe, Asia and North America. It is hoped that the Russian expedition, Polar Ring, will solve the mystery of Sigizmund Levanevsky’s ill-fated Arctic flight.
(Editor’s note: On August 12, 1937, Sigizmund Levanevsky (1902-1937), a Soviet pilot of Polish origin, and five other crew members took off in a converted Bolkhovitinov N-209 long-range bomber from an airfield near Moscow. They were to fly to Fairbanks, Alaska, via the North Pole, before proceeding to Canada and the United States. The aircraft disappeared on August 13, 1937. No traces of the plane and its crew were ever found. The fate of Levanevsky’s flight remains an enduring mystery in the history of Arctic exploration.)
The eight-member expedition – which includes two Canadians of Russian descent – will investigate the theory that Levanevsky’s crew landed on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.
Researchers will also collect ice samples for oceanographic studies, track polar bears, test Russia’s Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) in Arctic conditions and assess opportunities for Arctic tourism. Internet users will be able to track Polar Ring’s progress online as it explores a vast tract of land, stretching from Russia to Canada.
This long-term project has been 20 years in the making. A team of polar explorers headed by Vladimir Chukov first ventured into the Arctic in 2002. And the last trip is scheduled for 2014.
Researchers have turned the Arctic into a veritable testing ground for Russian technologies in the past decade. Five unique Russian all-terrain vehicles have been tested there since 2002.
A sixth model will be used for the upcoming trip – a six-wheel, all-wheel-drive vehicle. Chukov says the new vehicle will be able to cross inland areas and Arctic straits on its epic 8,000-km journey.
Unlike the previous model with 130-centimeter wheels, this unique Russian all-terrain vehicle features 170-cm wheels for better off-road capability. The new polar “tank” is designed to venture even further off road than its predecessors. It is expected to travel over some 3,000 km of drift ice during the expedition. 
The expedition will set out from Sredny Island in the Severnaya Zemlya archipelago, and will cross drift-ice formations in the Arctic Ocean en route to the North Pole. The final destination, before returning to Russia, is Resolute Bay, Canada.
Chukov explains that the trip may last a bit longer than planned due to the unpredictable nature of drift ice and, indeed, of the Arctic as a whole.
It is extremely difficult to transport heavy loads in the Arctic, and it is not uncommon for team members on Arctic expeditions to fall behind and even lose their way due to poor coordination.
However, the upcoming expedition will have the advantage of greater mobility, and its all-terrain vehicles will be able to fuel up at the Barneo ice base, 100 km from the North Pole. That base was established in late March 2009. Barneo is to serve as the expedition’s largest transshipment point. There is no time for long stopovers, however, as the explorers must accomplish numerous objectives.
Education is one such objective. Chukov hopes that the expedition will grab the attention of the younger generation, which knows next to nothing about Russian polar research and the equipment needed for a successful Arctic expedition. Chukov believes students sometimes don’t know how to apply their energy, and that it is important to offer them constructive and creative outlets, such as travel.
Young people might be interested in the World Capsule project, for example, which will descend an electronic polar time capsule to the floor of the Arctic Ocean, where it will transmit electronic signals for future generations.  
But getting today’s generations engaged in Arctic research is the more pressing concern. The Polar Ring expedition has received scant media coverage to date. According to Chukov, the media is more interested in violence than science.
If the expedition finds traces of Levanevsky’s plane and crew, this could provide fresh impetus and material for books about these intrepid Arctic explorers, in the tradition of the popular Soviet novel “The Two Captains,” by Veniamin Kaverin, about the mission to find the lost Arctic expedition of Captain Ivan Tatarinov and the discovery of the Severnaya Zemlya archipelago.
But even if the expedition fails to solve the mystery of Levanevsky’s disappearance, it will have accomplished something valuable. It will show that we can overcome the most extreme physical and psychological challenges posed by nature.
Newspapers and novels used to relish in humankind’s struggle with nature. But contemporary Russian writers are more interested in romanticizing talented criminals than explorers engaged in the act of discovery.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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