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Northwest Passage? Two words: Road trip

Scientists plan to make the first road vehicle trek there, to gather

March 15, 2009|Allan Dowd | Dowd writes for Reuters.

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA — Scientists preparing for the exploration of Mars are planning history's first car trip through the fabled Northwest Passage, a trek they said would provide information on global warming and man's potential impact on other planets.

Pascal Lee, chairman of the Mars Institute and leader of the expedition, said Friday that the trip in a modified armored Humvee would result in comprehensive data about the thickness of winter ice in the waterway through Canada's High Arctic.

The scientists also hope to learn more about what happens to the microbes left by humans when they explore remote areas, amid concerns from some scientists about the detrimental impact of such journeys in space.

"It's not just about protecting men from Mars. It's also about protecting Mars from men," Lee said in an interview.

Long sought as a faster route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Northwest Passage was first traversed by ship in 1906 by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. That trip took three years to complete.

Failed attempts to navigate the passage include that of Sir John Franklin, who with his crew of 128 died after setting out in 1845 and eventually becoming stuck in the ice.

The 1,000-mile car trip, if successful, would mark the first time a road vehicle has driven the length of the passage, the researchers said at a Vancouver news conference.

Scientists warn that global warming has been melting summer ice in the Northwest Passage, and a channel was opened though it briefly in 2007 and 2008, the first time that has happened in modern memory.

Scientists now estimate the ice thickness using satellites, so the land journey will improve the information they have and provide a base of data against which changes can be judged, Lee said.

The melting has destroyed much of the older ice that would have been too jagged to travel over even a decade ago, but if the melting continues for another decade the ice may not be thick enough to travel on at all.

"We're taking advantage of a window of opportunity," Lee said.

The scientists will still be watching out for areas that are too thin for the 12,000 pound vehicle, and will be accompanied by two snowmobiles in case of an accident.

The drive is expected to take two to four weeks, and the scientists hope to start in early April, although they can wait as late as mid-May if needed.

The Mars Institute is already active in the region, using a facility on Devon Island to test vehicles that might eventually be used to explore the surface of Mars or the moon.

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