Business as usual

Because Norway's proximity to the Arctic circle means that the majority of its research activities are focused on that region, its exploration in Antarctica is coordinated with neighbouring Sweden and Finland, with each country taking turns as primary organiser of annual summer expeditions to the continent.

As part of the Norwegian Antarctic Research Expedition 2000-2001 conducted during the just-finishing austral summer, the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI, at www.npolar.no) sent a record 87 researchers to Antarctica along with around a dozen scientists from each of its partner countries. Many traveled aboard the R/V Lance (www.npolar.no/lance), a 61-metre research vessel based in Tromsø, Norway that's been specially modified with a reinforced hull, helipads and other capabilities necessary to suit polar exploration.

Supporting its 60 square metres of laboratory space is a shipwide network based on one Windows NT server and an ULTRIX-based VAX for supporting scientific applications. Each of the laboratories, as well as the 27 sleeping cabins and other key locations aboard the Lance, has a network port that allows scientists to connect to the shipboard network from wherever they happen to be. There are also three Pentium III-based computers available for general office work, with fax and email capabilities via a linkup with the INMARSAT satellite network.

"To us, working with computers in the Antarctic and Arctic is no different than working somewhere else," said NPI director Olav Orheim. "We just go there with our own computers and plug ourselves in; we've tried to make it as easy as possible for a scientist to go straight from an office situation into a field situation without any big hassle. That's easier when you are a small operation than a big one."

With no permanent base on Antarctica beyond the small Troll summer station, the NPI has been spared the trouble of having to maintain a LAN in a fixed location. Because they tend to keep their computers in the relative warmth of the researchers' field tents, Antarctica's extreme cold has not been an issue for the group: "you're not going to be sitting in 35 degrees working," said Orheim. "You wouldn't be sitting outside in Minnesota in the winter using a computer either. This is just people behaving normally."

The most complex task facing the group is ensuring continuous communications to the multiple groups of roving scientists who forage into the continent working around zero degrees longitude -- armed with an array of notebooks and one INMARSAT transceiver per group. As a backup, the groups are also armed with VHF radios that link them via repeaters positioned across the snow plains.

Since the Norwegian teams don't venture deep into the southern latitudes, Orheim says they're always within range of the INMARSAT network. Researchers have access to phone, fax and e-mail services across the 64Kbps satellite link, although the per-minute costs of around $US5 a minute means the scientists must economise their communications usage as much as possible.

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