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ASTRONAUTS: WHY THE FUTURE MUST HAVE WINGS

**SPOILER ALERT** If you haven’t seen it yet, watch Astronauts:  Do You Have What It Takes?  Episode 4 on iPlayer first.

One of the tests that we were given was to present to the panel on a topic of space exploration.  Being an aerospace engineer my talk was on a topic that has fascinated me since childhood:  Access into Space.

Why The Future Must Have Wings

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The hardest part of space travel in our near solar system is getting into space in the first place; out of our atmosphere. 

So far the only way we have reached orbital spaceflight is by rockets and these, on the whole, are inefficient, expensive and unreliable.

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In comparison, aircraft are very efficient, reusable and for anyone who has flown half way across the world on holiday, incredibly affordable.

In order to understand the difference between these two technologies that have developed over a similar timeframe we really need to understand how a rocket engine works:

·       A rocket engine operates under the same principle of if release a blown up balloon.  By accelerating a large amount of gas out of the back, an equal and opposite force is imparted onto the rocket pushing it upwards, as described by Newton’s third law of motion.

·       The rocket is generating these hot, compressed gases internally through combustion.  For any combustion be it a rocket or a campfire, you need three things:  a fuel source, an oxygen source and a heat source.  The rocket carries all of these components on board with it in stored energy and as a result becomes extremely heavy.  This is evident when we see that the oxidiser is six times heavier than the fuel source!

·       But this does give it one big advantage, the rocket can operate in the vacuum of space but must result in expending it’s stages as it goes up to reduce mass.  And the atmosphere is just a hindrance.

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In comparison, the airliner doesn’t see the atmosphere as a disadvantage but uses it beneficially in three different ways:

1.     The atmosphere provides the aerodynamic lift on the wings providing the upwards force opposing gravity.

2.     Instead of carrying the oxygen with it, the jet engine uses the oxygen in our atmosphere for combustion, and

3.     Crucially the jet engines use the air as the working fluid or propellant.  The big fans and compressors, suck the air in, compress it, heat it up in the combustion chamber and accelerate it out the back creating the equal and opposite force pushing the aircraft forward.

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A much more elegant and efficient solution.  Clearly the future of space access must our atmosphere as a benefit rather than always seeing it as a hindrance.

That’s why there is a lot of interest in developing single-stage-to-orbit spaceplanes.

A spaceplane takes off and lands just like an aircraft and uses an air-breathing engine and wings to climb to the upper reaches of our atmosphere travelling at Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound.  As the air becomes too thin for the air-breathing engine, the intakes close off and it switches to a rocket engine, accelerating to Mach 25, for the last and final push into orbit.

Now imagine this, as our single stage to orbit vehicle hasn’t jettisoned it’s fuel tanks on its way to orbit, as soon as we reach orbit we have many more options open to us:  We can refuel the spaceplane with a conveniently placed orbital refuelling station giving it enough fuel to gently pop over to the moon for a supply trip or a tourism visit and after a few days it will coast back to Earth and re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere.  But the benefits don't just stop there, with the much superior re-entry characteristics the spaceplane offers it can land on one of several runways around the world and after a quick check over, a refuel, it is ready to go again.  Completely reusable.

And that is why the future must have wings.

Astronauts:  Do You Have What It Takes?  Episode 5 is on Sunday 24th September at 8pm BBC2.

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ASTRONAUTS: DOCKING ONTO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION

**SPOILER ALERT** If you haven’t seen it yet, watch Astronauts:  Do You Have What It Takes?  Episode 3 on iPlayer first.

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I remember a time when I was seven or eight and my brother nine or ten years old and we used to walk 400m away to a Scouts friend’s house to play on his computer console.  He had a Nintendo Entertainment System and we used to marvel at how he used to navigate the two dimensional terrain of Mario Brothers and save Princess Peach with so much more finesse and speed than we could muster.  We begged our parents to buy us one but finances and ideology left us disappointed.  So the only times we got to play in these pixelated virtual worlds was at friends’ houses or when we were older, at the local video rental store that had an arcade:  In the evenings and especially after the hour of prayer at the local mosque teenage boys crowded around the arcade waiting their turn on Street Fighter II.  It was the ultimate fighting game, requiring unbelievable speed and muscle memory to enact the combination of moves required to beat your opponent.  All I could do was stand on tiptoes trying to get a view and not be pushed out by the older kids.  The few times that I did manage to get to the front and challenge the winner, my 20p was wasted in a matter of seconds.

 

What’s all of this got to do with the astronaut selection?  The answer is that I wish I had played a few more video games and the reason for this will become apparent a little later on.

It’s now episode 3, and the tests are becoming more difficult.  I couldn't imagine a more nerve wracking test.  A three-time astronaut and former commander of the International Space Station (ISS) sitting next to you, telling you that within ten minutes you have to dock the Soyuz capsule onto the ISS.  It was a dream come true and I was in awe of what we were asked to do.

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Both the Soyuz and the ISS are pinnacles of human endeavours in space.  The ISS is the multi-billion pound product of an incredible collaboration between fifteen countries and has been permanently inhabited since the year 2000.  It is the largest space structure ever built and can easily be seen with the naked eye (there is an app for that) zooming across the night sky.  It orbits Earth every 90 minutes making the inhabitants of the ISS the fastest humans in the world. 

The Russian Soyuz is the most successful human transportation space vehicle ever created and since 2011 when the Space Shuttle retired it is the only crew transportation vehicle to the ISS.  Devised in the 1960s and still flying today it has the longest operational history of any spacecraft and the safest.  There is a Soyuz spacecraft permanently docked to the ISS at all times, serving as an emergency lift raft and if you see any cosmonauts or astronauts arriving or leaving the ISS it would be via a Soyuz.

Thus, docking a Soyuz onto the ISS is one of the most important training tasks an astronaut must become competent at.  Failure to dock would mean that crucial supplies and a changeover of astronauts would not be able to happen.  But that is not as bad as crashing into the ISS, as Chris Hadfield had put it, going too fast at docking could cause a rupture of the ISS killing everyone on board.  But it doesn’t end just there, if the ISS breaks up upon a crash, a cascading amount of orbital debris travelling at 17,000mph could end up making that orbit completely unpassable. 

Hence the deer in the headlights moment.

The German Aerospace Center in Cologne, Germany where the simulator was located is also where the European Astronauts Corp is located (right across the road).  Both Chris Hadfield and Tim Peake have trained there, in fact Tim’s name was still on one of the rooms we were using.  The simulator was the same as that which the astronauts train on and is a replica of the actual Soyuz spacecraft controls.

To dock successfully not only did we have to manoeuvre the Soyuz to the right spot in all three spatial dimensions but also be travelling at the right speed.  Too slow and you’d bounce off, too fast, well, you would crash.  It required a good level of spatial awareness, good hand eye coordination, speed and nerve.  I was so close to docking, but my crosses were ever so slightly misaligned and so I backed up and the time ran out.

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Interestingly, those that did well at this test were either a pilot or gamers. After this test and the Mars rover test I wish I had played more computer games.  The right sort of games can help develop your 3D spatial awareness, memory and hand eye coordination.  The right sort of game can help with strategy and tactics.  Computer games are not just devilish past times that would lead to a lifetime of underachievement as I was brought up to believe but offer valuable skill sets that are becoming increasingly important.  We are living in a technological revolution where human-machine interfaces are becoming commonplace and developing those skill sets are becoming important not just for astronauts but for all manner of jobs:  Airline pilots can become qualified on a simulator alone, surgeons will soon be controlling small operating machines, drone camera operators are already in high demand.

Astronauts:  Do You Have What It Takes?  Episode 4 is on Sunday 10th September at 8pm BBC2.

 

 

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ASTRONAUTS: That Darn Rover!

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**SPOILER ALERT** If you haven’t seen it yet, watch Astronauts:  Do You Have What It Takes?  Episode 2 on iPlayer first.

It’s pretty incredible to think that we have had not one but two rovers on Mars, exploring the surface of the planet, sending us back scientific data like never before.  Both Spirit and Opportunity arrived on the red planet in 2004 and over a decade later Opportunity is still roving!  Controlling the rovers though happens at NASA but the time it takes to send a signal to Mars is an average 13 minutes.  So to send a command to the rover and for it to respond to you would take about half an hour which would be a pretty slow conversation. 

This was the premise of the test where we had to control the rover ‘Bridget’.  The scenario was that at some point in the future we may have a human crew orbiting Mars, just like the International Space Station orbits Earth.  In order to find suitable places to land or to explore before sending astronauts down it makes sense to send a rover, Bridget, to determine which places are the best.  Like NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers, Bridget is also powered by batteries which are charged by solar panels.  Going into a cave is thus incredibly dangerous for a rover because if the batteries deplete whilst still in there the rover is lost forever.  On the flip side, caves are incredibly attractive if humans are to visit Mars as they would offer a natural protection against dangerous solar radiation. 

By controlling the rover from orbit around Mars instead of from Earth it would be possible to control the rovers in close to real time and that is exactly the training that UK astronaut Tim Peake did in 2016.  From the ISS in low earth orbit he controlled Bridget, on Earth, using the same setup as we had.  It is amazing to think that this was exactly what astronauts are training for (click here).

The test was to discover parts of the cave that were of most interest, as it so happened, the most interesting parts of the cave were right at the back, the farthest away from the entrance!  But also, just like in orbit, there will be a delay in the signal, making controlling Bridget somewhat difficult.  I still have my notes from our initial group briefing.

The last point was the basis of my own tactic.  Not knowing how easy it was to control with the lag in the response time and the fact that it was a very slow moving rover, 4cm per minute, I wanted to make sure there was sufficient time to get Bridget out of the cave.  As I soon found out, my strategy of finding the targets was poor but by enacting my retreat at 75% battery I overcame a moment when I really thought I would lose the rover,  and by doing the slowest three point turn in the solar system I got her out of the cave, just in the nick of time.

Everyone that sent Bridget into the cave had to change their plan to what they discovered, especially as not all of the information we were given was accurate.  Those plans that had a lot of manoeuvres suffered the most from dealing with the delayed response.  The best plans though used all of Bridget’s tools to the maximum.  It turned out that the UV light is actually quite powerful and so you didn’t need to get right to the back of the cave to spot the targets!  Both James A and Jackie figured this out quite early on and as a result did extremely well.  James A, though, didn’t even have to worry about hitting any obstacles on the way out as he just followed his own tracks back out.  Genius!

Episode 3 of ‘Astronauts:  Do You Have What It Takes?’ airs BBC 2 at 9pm on Sunday 3rd September. 

 

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ASTRONAUTS: TESTS and PHOBIAS

As we stepped into the pods and sat down cross-legged we found out for the first time what the task was.  A moment later the lids were fitted onto our pods and it went dark.  The test started before we even had time to digest what we were supposed to do.

We had no notice of the tests, no preparation time.  We had to be on point at all times.  We were chaperoned in a minibus, sometimes blindfolded and ushered into a waiting room.  There we could be waiting for 10 minutes or seven hours before it was our turn to do the test.  But there is no point in feeling hard done by if you had to wait for ages for your turn, it will be mixed up for the next test.... and seriously, does anyone really think that an astronaut gets a proper night's sleep right before launch?

The pod test was a two part test:  1) Lace up our boots in the dark, 2) estimate 20 minutes.  What were we being judged on?  That was a question that we had plenty of time to think about.  The real test though was claustrophobia.  As an astronaut you cannot be claustrophobic.  You are in small and tight spaces all the time and for long periods of time.  It's not just for launch or landing.  Even in the vacuum of space, on a space walk, which you might think of as the greatest open space there is, the mask and breathing apparatus can trigger claustrophobia.  For anyone that has been SCUBA diving will surely attest to that.

Interestingly, it was a similar size pod design that NASA were considering as one possible emergency evacuation procedure if damage was found on the space shuttle orbiter post the Colombia disaster in 2003.  In that tragic accident, damage to the heat-shield sustained to the orbiter at launch led to super heated gases penetrating the vehicle upon re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere and tore the vehicle apart.  No one survived.  With these crew escape pods, if damage was found on subsequent flights whilst in orbit, a further shuttle would be deployed and the crew could transfer to the undamaged shuttle via these pods.  Incidentally the pods were never used and the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011.

Whilst in orbit an astronaut's time is like gold dust and that was the object of the next test.  The blood test was an assessment of following a complicated set of procedures where safety and injury is at stake.  The reason why an astronaut must be competent at taking their own blood instead of asking a fellow astronaut to help out is because an astronaut's time is the most valuable commodity there is.  If two astronauts are kept busy to take blood that is a lot of time wasted.  It was also testing for other common fears:  The fear of needles or blood.  None of the candidates shied away from it though and kudos goes to Merritt for persisting and getting it right with her non-dominant hand.

 

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But the hardest test on Episode 1 was piloting the helicopter.  For many of us it was the first time we had ever been in a helicopter, the first time we were piloting an aircraft and they wanted us to hover six feet off the ground! 

If you haven't seen it yet, check out Episode 1 of ASTRONAUTS:  Do You Have What It Takes? 

Episode 2 will be broadcast on Sunday 27th August at 9pm.

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ASTRONAUTS: DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES?

I must admit, as soon as I hear that word, ‘astronaut’, my ears prick up and I’m searching around for whoever said it.   I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut and I’m in awe of those that have managed to leave the confines of our atmosphere and unshackled from the bonds of gravity float freely outside of this world.
 

 Source:  BBC

Source:  BBC

So when I saw an advert from the BBC requesting participants to go through a psuedo-astronaut training and selection programme run by Chris Hadfield, a 20 year veteran of NASA, I jumped at the opportunity.  It could be the closest I ever get to experience being an astronaut and here's why...

Quite literary and within the margins of error everyone that has attempted to be an astronaut fails.  Not only do you have to be in top notch physical shape (in ways that you will have no idea about), but also must have developed over the preceding decade(s) skill sets that are at the forefront of your chosen field and be ones that are of core requirement for the astronaut corp (which may change!).  That requires a lifetime of dedication, hard work and belief.  And then, you have to hope that there will be a selection process during those years when you are at your prime! 

The last ESA selection process was in 2007-8.  During that selection process nearly 10,000 highly skilled applicants from across Europe vied for six places.  The odds were pretty slim of making it into the final six and many exceptional candidates didn't.  It is the hardest selection process that exists.

But imagine achieving that dream.  It would be the ultimate adventure: Imagine seeing the Earth, the most incredible place in the known universe, from the vantage point of orbit.  Just that thought leaves me breathless.  And so, it’s always been a question I’ve asked myself, do I have what it takes to be an astronaut?  Of course, I think I do, but do the experts?  What actually do you have to have to be an astronaut? 

Fortunately I have had the opportunity to find out.  Filming this BBC series putting us through a similar selection process to a real astronaut selection process has been one of the most intense periods of my life. The other candidates are amazing.  The stress you see is real and Chris Hadfield and his team made sure it was as realistic as possible.

Episode 1 of ‘Astronauts:  Do You Have What It Takes?’ airs BBC 2 at 9pm on Sunday 20th August. 

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Key Note Lecture at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology

Key Note Lecture at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology

On the 13th January I gave a key note lecture to an audience of over 700 students and faculty at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia on climate change.  Some of whom are leading figures in climate science. 

This topic is so important that I'm making the transcript of my talk available for all to read.  

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The Importance of being On Course

With the sun high in the sky and visibility for miles it would be easy to become complacent with knowing exactly where you are.

 But out on Dartmoor with few large features to home in on and a more temperamental weather system than a teenager’s mood, such complacency could be disastrous.

 These pictures were taken 12 hours apart.  Our campsite views were obliterated by the mist.  It came down over the night and lasted the entire following day without relent. 

Visibility reduced to mere metres, every direction looking the same.  The difference then between an awesome bank holiday weekend in the hills and what could've been an epic battle for survival was knowing exactly where we made camp and just some quite basic compass skills.

We had the former, an awesome weekend away.

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It’s all about the (H)Air

Now that summer’s coming round with a scorching hot Spring all of my ‘warm’ jackets are being put away, to the back of the wardrobe not to be looked at again for six months.  A question came to mind:  What makes a warm jacket?  Why is it warm?

I know the answer to this question, having thought about a lot over the years, but I was curious as to whether other people did.  Even asking my engineer friends, who pride themselves in knowing how things work, what actually made a jacket warm it did stump them for a few seconds presenting me with a look of bemusement as their minds churned away.

Clothing, be it big, warm jackets in the winter to just a light covering in the summer, is absolutely crucial for our survival.  Think about if clothing was never invented, ignoring the fact that we wouldn’t ever have made it out of Africa and assuming we were all comfortable seeing each other in the nude.  Popping out even on a summer’s day in the buff sends shivers down my spine just thinking about it  and imagine going to a British beach without a wind jacket...brrrr!!

Isn’t it bizarre that despite how crucial clothing is for our survival, for our success in inhabiting large portions of the world, that we rarely give it a second thought about why these materials keep us warm? About why certain materials work better than others?  We just know it.

So why do I know about this topic?  Because I have gotten cold, very cold!  In 2008, during our first attempt to cross the Penny Ice Cap on Canada’s Baffin Island in early spring conditions my feet became so cold they turned blue and were completely numb.  It was apparent that to continue on the expedition was to seriously risk my feet or worse and so with no real choice at hand we had to back off the expedition.  It was a massive blow back then, an expedition a year in the planning, ruined.

 Source:  Antony Jinman

Source:  Antony Jinman

The most curious thing though, was that my team mate, Antony, and I were wearing almost identical clothing.  Everything down to our boots was the same and brand new.   Antony’s feet were fine.  “Warm and toasty” he said.  I had no idea why my feet got cold.

Three years later I figured it out.  It was the simple fact of my boots being too small.  It’s amazing how the best laid plans went awry due to just the simplest of errors.   We went back attempting the crossing again in 2011.  This time, despite the same brand and model of boots, I wore a size bigger.  My feet were fine, more than fine, they were as happy as Larry.

‘Ah, yes of course’ we say to ourselves.  ‘Can’t have boots that are too small.’  But why?  What is the science behind this?  The answer is all around us.  Air.

Air is the best* abundant source of insulating material.  It’s also free, something nature has found out long ago.  Our hair, an animal’s fur and bird’s feathers primary purpose is to trap air.  By trapping a good layer of air between your warm body and the cold harsh world, the smaller the heat transfer, the warmer you will be. 

The polar bear has even gone one step further; each of their hair is actually hollow allowing air to be trapped within each strand as well as between the individual hairs improving the insulating properties.  On top of hollow hairs, the sea otter, with no blubber to keep it warm, relies on the densest fur in the animal kingdom allowing air to be trapped within its fur whilst spending prolonged periods in the water.  It’s all about trapping air.

 Source:  Antony Jinman

Source:  Antony Jinman

That’s why when there is a wind blowing at you; through your hair, or you’ve dunked your head in a bucket of water**, destroying that trapped layer of insulating air; you lose a lot of heat.

That is exactly how our warm jackets work, be it stuffed with goose feathers or high-tech synthetic fibres.  The design of the feathers is optimum to trap as much air in the lightest and smallest structure.  Cover these wonderful feathers/fibres in a windproof or even waterproof shell and you’ve got yourself a jacket to rival nature’s best inventions.

So what happened when my boots were too small?  My toes pressed up against the front of the boot, squashed the fluffy fibres of my socks and destroyed the trapped air that would otherwise have provided a heat barrier.  Instead what I was left with was a direct and solid conduction path to the -35C exterior sucking away my heat.  They had no hope.

Next:  How do wetsuits keep you warm?

 

* - the best actually would be a vacuum such as that you find in your Thermos flask but those are pretty difficult and expensive to create and not very practical to be wearing.

** - water in your hair also creates greater heat transfer by evaporation, but that's something for another day...

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Baffin Island 2011 - The Polar Bear Story

A re-edit of my 2011 short film documenting what should've been a straightforward journey to the start point of our Arctic expedition.  What actually happened blew us away.

A short film showing the start of our Penny Ice Cap crossing in Spring 2011. To get out to our start point we travel by snow mobile over sea ice for about eight hours. During which we came across some local wildlife...

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BAFFIN ISLAND 2011 - SETTING UP CAMP

How to setup home on a remote glacier, a re-edit.

After a full days skiing, our bodies are getting tired. The sun is beginning to set and the temperature will soon plummet. Setting up camp requires everyone to work efficiently and quickly.


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A New Year's Stomp in the Brecon Beacons

Happy New Year from the Brecon Beacons. Enjoy this little video of our first few days of the year!

The Brecon Beacons national park in Wales is one of the UK's foremost national parks. This New Year's we celebrated the calendar reset in these magical hills.  This video was filmed only on an iphone.


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Ski Touring in the Indian Himalayas

During my six month travels through India I saw and experienced many things. I was heading into the Himalayas to partake in a 10 day silent meditation course but as soon as I saw the mountains I yearned to be on them.  Check out my little stint on a pair of skis in my newest short video:

Two stories about the meditation that happened soon after:

After the Vipassana and The Darkness of the Mind.  Find them in the stories section.

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Swimming with seals

What a fantastic couple of weeks of weather we've had.  It reminds me of the time I was a child and the summer's were (a little more) predictable.  We used to have weeks and almost months of pleasant temperatures and when the conditions are just right there is no where else I'd rather be than in the English countryside.

We came to Cornwall on the summer's solstice to swim with Basking Sharks.  Unfortunately we didn't see any but took the next best thing, SEALS! 

They are inquisitive and cute, nipping at our fins as they glide past us.   The young ones stare at us with big brown eyes, twitching their whiskers before sticking their heads out of the water to check us out more thoroughly.

On our way back we came across a pod of Reese's dolphins, jumping and slapping their tail right in front of our boat.  One dolphin was played around with a giant jellyfish pushing him out of the water and back down again.  But no photos of these (camera malfunction).

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The Fish River Canyon

In late 2012 as part of our travels through Southern Africa we sneaked onto the 90km Fish River Canyon hike in Namibia.

The hike took us through some of the most spectacular scenery in Africa.  Check out the film below.  It runs at 9mins 35secs.

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BAFFIN ISLAND CLIMATE CHANGE PROJECT 2010

It's been an incredible winter here in the UK.  It's the wettest winter on record bringing flooding to many parts of southern England.  It has also been surprisingly mild (average of 5.2C), making it one of the warmest winters on record.  This is in stark contrast with Northern America which has been locked in a polar vortex bringing temperatures down to -40C for extended periods of time.  These unprecedented conditions have been linked to climate change.

This reminds me of a video project I conducted a few years ago on our summer expedition to Baffin Island 2010.  For us, climate change has always been a 'hot' topic and I took the opportunity on this expedition to ask the members, in the midst of one of the most beautiful places in the world and undoubtedly one of the places most at risk from changes in the climate, about this topic.  I asked them 'Why should we care if the climate changes?' And in part two I asked them to discuss 'What needs to happen in order for us as a society to live more sustainably?'

See what the members answered in this video below, now edited for 2014:

In August 2010, a team of students, graduates and outdoor instructors spent one month on Baffin Island, trekking over 300km over tundra, morraine and glaciers. During the expedition I asked them: Why should we care if the climate changes?

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The 5 Most Beautiful Secluded Places

Delighted to have some our Baffin Island footage appearing in Buzzfeed's latests video!  I guess I've certainly been to at least one of the most beautiful places in the world!

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EC Bristol Drinks with Vijay Shah: 7th November

I'll be giving a talk at Explorer's Connect: Bristol on the 7th November.  See link below for more details:

EC Drinks with Vijay Shah

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What did you do today?

Sorry for all the wait, but there will be a little more waiting as there is so much footage I need to get through.  But here's a little snippet of things to come...

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