Riding with the wind over the Greenland ice sheet | Polarjournal
Instead of kitesurfing on the ocean, Ramón Larramendi and his team are speeding across the Greenland ice sheet with wind power on a nearly 30-day expedition across the Greenland ice sheet. Image: courtesy of Osservatorio Arctico

Traveling in the Arctic and Antarctic, research teams often have to deal with logistical problems. Thereby, the method of transportation plays a major role. Either they use conventional vehicles, which consume fuel but can cover long distances fairly easily, or they travel on foot or on skis, exposing themselves to the cold and difficult ice and wind conditions. A novel transport system is now set to improve the situation and is currently being tested on a 1,500 kilometer expedition in Greenland.

Seven men and one woman on a sled, speeding from south to north across the Greenland ice sheet at speeds of up to 50 km/h, conducting research and not using any diesel in the process? What sounds like a sci-fi novel is a proper reality: Spanish polar explorer Ramón Larramendi and his seven team members are currently testing a new type of sled system that is powered solely by solar and, above all, wind energy. They set off on an expedition from Qaleraliq in southern Greenland on 2 May 2024 and currently are travelling 1,500 kilometers to Upernavik in the north within 30 days. The expedition, called “SOS Arctic 2024” by Larramendi, not only wants to put the sled system through its paces, but also prove its scientific value and carry out a thorough research program.

The “Inuit Windsled” is a modular sled system based on Inuit technology and is by no means small – at around 20 meters long and 3 meters wide. The individual modules each sit on five runners, which are held together by a flexible network of bars and can therefore compensate for any bumps in the icy surface during the ride. The system offers space for up to eight people and while three drivers sit on the steering module at the front, the remaining members can make themselves comfortable in the living module at the end of the system. The system and the team receive energy for navigation and equipment from solar modules located in the middle of the system. Up to three tons of material can be transported on the “Inuit Windsled”, sufficient for longer expeditions both in the Arctic and in Antarctica.

At the heart of the system, in addition to the simple design of the sledges, is the propulsion system. It is based on an old idea that had already been tested by Fridtjof Nansen: sailing. But while Nansen (and some early polar explorers after him) still used traditional sails that resembled those of vessels, modern expeditions, especially when traveling alone, rely on kite sails. These small sails are robust, easier to steer and also work at lower wind speeds.

Larramendi, a veteran of polar expeditions and at his time the youngest polar explorer to reach the geomagnetic North Pole at the age of 25, asked himself “Why not use the wind to navigate across the ice masses of Greenland and Antarctica? Simplicity to achieve zero emissions at the North and South Poles.” The result of over 20 years of development is a system of twelve kite sails with a surface area of between 5 and 150 square meters and steering rope lengths of between 150 and 500 meters, with which “Inuit Windsled” can reach speeds of between 8 and 50 km/h. The system is controlled by three helmsmen who, according to the project, alternate in 10-hour shifts.

The 1-minute exclusive video shows the functionality of the sled and how to steer the “Inuit Windsled” using a kite sail. Video: courtesy of the Osservatorio Arctico

However, Ramón Larramendi’s expedition is not just a test drive, but also serves to investigate the Greenland ice sheet. Together with partner institutions from Italy, Spain and the USA, the team will collect snow and air samples at various locations for five different projects. These will then be analyzed for various chemical pollutants such as mercury, PFAS and soot, for microplastics and for the composition of microorganisms. At the same time, a new portable system for measuring ozone, nitrous oxide and solids in the air will also be tested. The main aim is to show that the sled system is not only suitable for transporting material, but also represents a real research platform that can be used for work in parts of the Arctic and Antarctica.

Ramón Larramendi is joined by an Italian electrical engineer and one Venezuelan and one Spanish mountaineer. The team is supported by Greenlandic logistics experts, a Greenlandic guide and an Italian Greenland guide. Several Italian (including the Polar Institute ISP and the Italian Research Council), Greenlandic and Spanish partners are supporting Larramendi’s project.

If the tests are successful (which currently looks likely), “Inuit Windsled” will be available for research as early as next year and, instead of flying diesel plumes, will speed through the white expanses of Greenland or Antarctica with flying kite sails in the service of science.

Dr. Michael Wenger, Polar Journal AG

Link to the website of Windsled.org

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