Dodging polar bears and scoffing butter on Arctic trek

Tracey Ferrier |

Queensland researcher Adrian McCallum is training for another expedition in the Arctic Circle.
Queensland researcher Adrian McCallum is training for another expedition in the Arctic Circle.

When home is hot, humid Queensland, training for a 580km trek in the icy Arctic Circle demands creativity.

But glaciologist, engineer and polar adventurer Adrian McCallum is nothing if not resourceful.

He’s managed to reach peak physical fitness by dragging four-wheel drive tyres up and down the steep, forested hills that surround his home in the Sunshine Coast hinterland.

The hefty haul is a substitute for the sledge he’ll soon be dragging from one side of Greenland to the other, measuring the mass of its ice sheet as he goes.

Adrian McCallum training
Dr McCallum is training for the expedition by dragging four-wheel drive tyres up and down hills. (Supplied/AAP PHOTOS)

Dr McCallum will be travelling with expeditioners he’s only ever met online, from the far colder climes of Denmark, Germany, Sweden and Greenland.

But ironically the scientist from the subtropics has the most polar experience, having made many trips to the planet’s hostile extremities.

That’s landed him with the job of keeping everyone alive, and part of that is preparing for the prospect of polar bear attacks.

The possibility of an encounter is very real – one of the five expeditioners knows a woman who lost an arm to a polar bear in Greenland.

“We are carrying a weapon to ideally scare a polar bear away, but worst case you aim to kill it,” he said.

The other big deal when it comes to survival is food, and part of the diet for the intrepid travellers will be roughly 2kg of butter each, to be consumed in chunks on the trek.

It seems like an odd inclusion alongside dehydrated meals and electrolytes.

But it’s the kind of calorie-dense food that will keep them going through crevasse fields on both the west and east coasts of Greenland, and plenty of hard-core slogging in between.

To put the physical challenge into perspective, Dr McCallum weighs in at about 76kg but the sledge he’ll be manhauling tips the scales at about 100 and it’s been getting heavier by the day.

“As people have heard about the expedition, they’ve reached out to me and asked can you do this science, and can you do that science.

“It’s an almost once-in-a-lifetime chance to get this data, so I said ‘let’s take it’.”

His scientific work will include dragging a ground-penetrating radar across the ice, to image the rocky layers that lie beneath and get a handle on the thickness of the ice.

“This information is crucial to accurately assessing the mass of the Greenland ice sheet, which in turn is essential to monitoring changes and the impact on sea levels.”

Dr McCallum will also be towing a receiver that will help understand the accuracy of data provided by satellites.

“The receiver essentially gives high-accuracy, high-precision elevation data for the ice cap, and that’s useful because satellites are used these days to estimate ice cap elevation.

“I use the word estimate deliberately, because that’s what they are.

“This data from the receiver can be used essentially to calibrate satellites, so that we can see if the satellite is giving us the right elevation.”

Adrian McCallum training
Self-discovery and teamwork is inspiring Dr McCallum to put in the hard yards. (Supplied/AAP PHOTOS)

While the science and adventure have enduring appeal for Dr McCallum, he says something else keeps him returning for epic journeys like the one ahead.

And that’s the exploration of self and teamwork in the face of shared adversity.

“We don’t really know each other aside from Zoom meetings for about three years. We’re going to be plonked in one of the harshest environments on earth, to survive together for a month or so.

“It’s going to be fascinating to see how we’ll make that work.”

When he gets back, Dr McCallum will be sharing his experiences with his engineering students at the University of the Sunshine Coast.

“I’m trying to introduce expedition-based courses at my university so I can also expose students to opportunities to look deeper within themselves and realise what they are capable of, and how they might best serve the world.”