The World at Their Fingertips; Christian Amodeo Presents an Overview of Just Three of the Many Rgs-Ibg Grant-Winning Expeditions That Have Set off in the Past 12 Months. (Exploration & Discovery)

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Expeditions of pure human endurance, geographical discovery and `world firsts' may capture the imagination and headlines alike, but most of the many expeditions that set off seek neither fame nor glory. Their goals are perhaps more noble--to further the understanding of an aspect of the Earth and its peoples.

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One of the most adventurous ongoing projects is reminiscent of past adventures on the high seas, while carrying out research to safeguard the planet's future. The Antarctic Convergence Zone expedition, winner of last year's prestigious Neville Shulman Challenge Award, is being led by Dr Alun Hubbard from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. He plans a complete circumnavigation of the Antarctic to carry out vital research on both the peninsula and remote sub-Antarctic islands to test for the presence of persistent organic pollutants (POPs), considered to be one of the great environmental challenges facing the planet. The convergence zone--where Antarctic cold and mid-latitude warm waters meet--is seen as a crucial area for such important scientific study.

POPs are human-made compounds, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Released into the atmosphere, they increase in toxicity in the food chain.

Although banned in most developed countries, their production and subsequent export goes largely unchecked throughout the developing world. But no matter where they are released, due to a process known as atmospheric fractionation, they tend to travel thousands of kilometres in gaseous form to the high latitudes. Here they condense in the lower temperatures--with potentially dire impacts upon the reproduction, development and immune functions of marine life.

Comprising environmental scientists, mountaineers and divers, the team on its maiden voyage sailed an ice-strengthened ketch, The Gambo, under the command of first-time skipper Dr Hubbard, via Tierra del Fuego to the West Antarctic Peninsula. "Last season's phase from New Zealand to the peninsula was very much a baptism of fire for myself and crew," says Dr Hubbard. "In effect our learning curve was almost vertical just in terms of the operating logistics of a sailboat in Antarctic waters."

Despite visiting far fewer sites than planned due to pack ice and bad weather--a week-long storm swept up 15-metre waves and at one point `knocked down' the Gambo--the team collected some "great" ice radar and snow accumulation data, and sub-glacial water samples.

Another danger was thin ice. Peter Taylor, a team member conducting ice thickness measurements, found out the hard way on the flat summit of an ice cap when he fell into a 20-metre crevasse up to his armpits, and without a rope. "It was just his arms holding him above the thin snow-surface with his legs and body dangling in thin air," recalls Dr Hubbard. Fortunately, it was a lesson in the risks of complacency which the entire team of six lived to learn.

Samples are currently being analysed; it is hoped the subsequent findings will be made available to the Inter-Governmental Panel for Climate Change. A second voyage is planned, the first trip having inspired Dr Hubbard to extend the two-year project to last a few years. "After last season's success I'll do everything to make it happen," he confirms enthusiastically.

Major deserts and Englishmen

When thinking of Englishmen in the desert it is hard not to conjure up scenes from the film Lawrence of Arabia. John Hare, winner of an RGS-IBG Expedition Research Grant, and his 13-strong team followed in the hoofsteps of camel riders from long before Lawrence's time when they crossed the Sahara Desert between October 2001 and January 2002. Hare set out on the three-and-a-half month, 65,000 [pounds sterling] Trans-Sahel expedition along the old 2,350-kilometre camel route used originally by the slave trade, from northern Nigeria to Libya, to compare the changes that have taken place over the last 100 years. …