The last stage of an Arctic odyssey

03/30/04

The "Arktika" expedition is nearing its conclusion. Gilles Elkam and his twelve sled dogs, who, last May, set up summer camp in a disused military base, close to Cape Shelagskiy (the most northerly point in Chukotskiy, in the far east of Russia) restarted their trek on 14 January during the polar night. Ahead were 1,500 chaotic kilometres of pack ice to be tackled in permanently stormy conditions before reaching the Bering Strait and completing the first crossing of the Eurasian Arctic without mechanical means or any assistance.

Using space technology

This adventurer is being supported by ESA, one of the expedition's partners. Analysis tests of satellite maps created by the Envisat and ERS-2 satellites were carried out in collaboration with experts from Saint Petersburg's Nansen Institute. This data enables Gilles Elkam to redefine his itinerary on the extremely unpredictable pack ice of the East Siberian Sea, the Chukchi Sea and the Bering Sea. A choice of routes helps him avoid areas of moving pack ice and polynya (areas of very thin, young ice) that make progress extremely dangerous with a sled laden with half a ton of food and equipment. Engineers from ESA, specialising in structures, also advised the adventurer on how to repair the sled's runners that had cracked after a fall into a canyon the previous winter and have now been strengthened using high density plastic blades.

As well as being a human adventure, the "Arktika" expedition is also a technological project. The environment crossed - the Siberian tundra - is one of the most hostile in the northern hemisphere. Winter temperatures can fall to -70C and the difference between summer and winter temperatures can be as much as 100C. Wind and humidity are continuous along the shores of the Arctic Ice Ocean and exposure to ultraviolet radiation is intense in spring and summer. This environment means that electronic equipment can be tested in the most hostile of conditions and, for this reason, ESA, under its technology transfer programme, has equipped the explorer with a computer, two beacons (for positioning and for distress signals) and means of satellite communication that enables him to remain in contact with his support team, as well as regularly updating the expedition's website, even when the temperature outside his tent is close to 30C!

This has also enabled him to receive data from observations collected by the Envisat and ERS-2 satellites, capable of differentiating between different types of pack ice. The correlation between observations carried out by the explorer at ground level is invaluable when interpreting this data.

Originally developed for the space sector, which is also characterised by very hostile environments, these technologies have demonstrated their capacity to make life and work easier for explorers in extreme conditions. It is these technologies that have made Gilles Elkam's expedition possible and have enabled him to visit these inaccessible regions of the Siberian Arctic.

An extreme adventurer, this is not Gilles Elkam's first exploit. For 20 years, this 43 year old nuclear physicist has been gripped a real passion for expeditions into the last remaining natural sanctuaries on the planet, from the Sahara to Greenland and from Papua New Guinea to the depths of Siberia. Having already crossed 10,000 km of Siberian tundra, he has almost completed his latest challenge.

During the eight "summer" months, Gilles Elkam lived the rough life of a hunter in the Great North Waste and continued his research into physical and mental adaptation to the polar environment. His cabin was built on the autumn migration route of polar bears, so that he would have several chances to observe the largest plantigrades on the planet.

The final stage is far from being a pleasure trip. The meteorological conditions in Chukotskiy are exceptionally harsh during the polar night. Winds are continuous and blizzards are frequent. The adventurer spent long months meticulously preparing his equipment and hunting products enabled him to make new fur garments that withstood temperatures of 50C. His tent is now experiencing its fourth winter and has had to be resewn and the pitch of its roof rebuilt with anything to hand.

During the last four years, as well as completing an exceptional adventure in both human and technological terms, the French explorer has also met some of the most isolated people on the planet: the Smi of the Kol'skiy Peninsula, Nenets from Yamal, Dolgans and Nganassanes of Tamir, Evenks, Evenes and Youkhaguirs from Yakutsk, Chukots and Yuits from Chukotskiy. Married to a Siberian and being a fluent Russian speaker, Gilles has been able to adapt to their traditional way of life and report on it in authentic documents aimed at raising public awareness about the preservation of the environment and ethnic minorities.

Gilles Elkam is expected at the Bering Strait sometime during the spring.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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