Whitehall puts Ranulph Fiennes' latest trek at risk – with a couple of tractors
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent and i. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; four times highly commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigations into the tobacco industry. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Friday 04 January 2013
A pioneering British expedition to trek 2,000 miles across the Antarctic in winter led by veteran explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes has been made more risky by the interference of the UK Government, a key team member has warned.
Dr Mike Stroud, who accompanied Sir Ranulph, 68, on the first unsupported crossing of the Antarctic 20 years ago, said that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has jeopardised the entire expedition by insisting on the deployment of two 20-tonne tractors to support the crossing. The support tractors make it less likely that that the UK will be called upon to rescue the team if the mission goes wrong.
"I believe the Foreign Office's attitude, which led to this vehicle-led concept, has made the trip vastly more dangerous and less likely to succeed," he told New Scientist magazine.
"Operating complicated machinery in that environment is asking for trouble. We've tried to envisage every problem that could arise with the tractors but it wasn't practical to test everything at those temperatures. Are the seals going to fail? You hope not," he said.
Rather than crossing the Antarctic entirely on foot and unsupported, the two-man expedition has now grown into a six-man team followed by two Caterpillar tractors pulling sledges containing mobile living quarters, equipment and 20,000 litres of specially prepared fuel designed not to freeze at temperatures of -70C.
"My original idea was for a simple, lightweight expedition with me and Ranulph, but because that wasn't feasible it has morphed into a huge vehicle-supported trip taking a year," Dr Stroud said. "That is why I'm not going – it would take me away from my job for too long. The original idea had a measure of insanity but it is even closer to insane now," he said.
Dr Stroud, a consultant gastroenterologist at Southampton University Hospital, is the senior medical adviser for the expedition and is currently on board the ship taking the equipment to the Antarctic. However, he will return to the UK rather than take part in the expedition itself, which is scheduled to set off on 21 March on the 2,000-mile journey across the frozen continent in the near-total darkness of the polar winter.
Last month, another British Antarctic expedition had to be called off as a result of equipment failure. The scientific mission to drill through the ice sheet and reach Lake Ellsworth buried two miles beneath the ice was abandoned following a series of technical failures.
Dr Stroud said that the added complications of taking heavy machinery and its associated equipment and fuel are more likely to lead to some kind of technical failure that would ruin the mission than if it was just the two men pulling sledges.
"Lots of things could go wrong. Anything made of rubber or plastic has a problem, and computer hard drives have real trouble in cold and low-oxygen environments," Dr Stroud said. "Psychologically it is a completely different challenge to anything we've tried before. You've got six individuals in a very contained, pressurised environment, unable to get out of it," he said.
An FCO spokesperson said this would be the first attempt at a winter crossing of the Antarctic when there would be no possibility of mounting a rescue if things went wrong.
"Working with us, Sir Ranulph developed his plans to meet the various requirements of environmental responsibility (e.g. testing fuel storage systems), safety (e.g. team training, clothing, equipment, medical and safety provisions) and self-sufficiency," she said.
"The FCO is grateful for the constructive way that Sir Ranulph and his team engaged with us and responded so positively to the challenges they faced in designing their expedition."
- 1 Humans of New York image of crying gay teen receives best response yet from Ellen DeGeneres
- 2 What supermodels really think about posing in the nude
- 3 People all over the world are getting semicolon tattoos to draw attention to mental health
- 4 Black teen in critical condition after store employee 'shoots him for stealing 79-cent pack of cookies'
- 5 Chris Moyles reportedly set to make radio comeback with new breakfast show on XFM
Humans of New York image of crying gay teen receives best response yet from Ellen DeGeneres
Swedish minister gives strongest case yet on why EU should stop turning away asylum seekers
North Korean defector flees to Finland 'with evidence of chemical testing on humans'
Isis schoolgirl Amira Abase who fled London to join terrorists in Syria mocks victims of Tunisia massacre
Father faces deportation to Thailand after 27 years in Britain for two 'stupid crimes'
More Britons believe that multiculturalism makes the country worse - not better, says poll
Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
Osborne to cap family benefits at £23,000 – announced ahead of his post-election Budget
Forget little green men – aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert
Girl, 7, stares down hate preacher at Ohio festival with pro-LGBT rainbow flag gesture
£20000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This long established dealer gr...
£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company is the UK's leading...
£23172 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading and fastest growing h...
£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an experienced Resident...