March 14, 2009 / 3:02 AM / 8 years ago

Scientists plan to drive the icy Northwest Passage

<p>Members of an expedition into Canada's north pose with their vehicle in Vancouver, British Columbia March 13, 2009. Team members are (L to R) Jesse Weaver, John Schutt, Dr. Pascal Lee, Kira Lorber and Dr. Stephen Braham. The scientists, who normally study the exploration of Mars, are planning the first ever land vehicle crossing of the fabled Northwest Passage.Andy Clark</p>

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Scientists preparing for the exploration of Mars are planning history's first car drive through the fabled Northwest Passage, a trip they said on Friday will provide data on global warming and man's potential impact on other planets.

The trip using a modified armored Humvee vehicle will provide comprehensive data about the thickness of winter ice in the waterway through Canada's High Arctic, said Pascal Lee, chairman of the Mars Institute and leader of the expedition.

The scientists also hope to learn more about what happens to the microbes left behind by humans as 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, a trip that took three years to complete.

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

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

GLOBAL WARMING OPENED A WINDOW

Environmental 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 it continues for another decade it 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 (5,400 kg) vehicle to drive over, and will be accompanied by two snowmobiles in case of an accident.

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

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

Reporting by Allan Dowd; Editing by Frank McGurty

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