Ross Edwards wasn’t sure what he’d gotten himself into when he arrived in Kangerlussuaq this past May to begin a month-long traverse of the Greenland ice sheet.
(From NewsDeeply / by Julia Rosen) — His four teammates were busy assembling the strange vehicle they would use to cross the barren ice – a train of wooden sleds pulled by a giant kite. But Edwards, an earth scientist at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, worried that it wasn’t up to the task. “Man, this looks like a futon,” he thought.
A few days into the trip, however, Edwards began to appreciate the WindSled as it sailed silently across the ice, propelled by wind. “It was kind of magical when it was happening,” he said. “It’s like you’re being towed along by nothing.” And indeed, the trip was a success. Late last month, the team arrived at an ice core camp in central Greenland with all the data and samples they had hoped to collect. The expedition helped convince Edwards and others that the WindSled could be a simple – and green – way for scientists to carry out critical research in Greenland and Antarctica.
The contraption is the brainchild of Ramón Larramendi, a Spanish explorer who has spent three decades exploring the poles and now lives part-time in Greenland, where he runs an adventure travel company. After a skiing expedition to the North Pole in the late 1990s, it occurred to him to combine Inuit dogsleds with the nascent sport of kite surfing. “You just change the dogs for the kite and try to make something there,” he said.
The first challenge was to see if he could do it. And 17 years and 10 prototypes later, the WindSled has evolved from the far-fetched dream of an adventurer to a reliable means of polar transportation. The vehicle has traveled more than 20,115 km (12,500 miles), completing seven trips in Greenland and two in Antarctica. It has supported one previous research expedition, although nothing as ambitious as this recent venture.
The sled is made up of four modules: a sheltered wheelhouse where the driver sits to steer the kite, a tent that serves as the living quarters, and two rafts of solar panels and cargo in between. All told, it weighs just over two tons, including its crew of up to six people, who sail around the clock, resting in shifts. “It’s not the Hilton, that’s for sure,” Larramendi said, “but you can sleep.”
They carry an array of kites suited to a variety of conditions, and typically travel around 10 km per hour (six miles per hour) – that’s gentlest on the sleepers, according to Larramendi. Tacking like a sailboat, the sled can move in many directions, including up to a 90-degree angle away from the wind.
On this trip, WindSled successfully navigated to each of the spots where Edwards wanted to take shallow cores of snow. Edwards also collected surface samples to measure the amount of black carbon, or soot, in the snow, which can accelerate the ice sheet’s melting. In some cases, this black carbon has been blown thousands of miles by the wind from wildfires burning in North America. Increasingly, it comes from local sources, too, like shipping and natural gas flaring in the Arctic. The sled also towed a radar instrument that probed the ice beneath them, providing estimates of yearly snowfall, and carried an air sampler mounted on the driver’s tent.