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Wednesday, 10 January, 2001, 13:34 GMT
Taking the web to the wilderness
Scott of the Antarctic AP
Captain Scott and his fellow South Pole explorers
By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward

Schoolchildren are being invited to travel by mouse to the Arctic.

The British Schools Exploring Society is teaming up with IBM to equip an expedition to the high Arctic with technology that will let schools follow the progress and scientific experiments of the group.

The expedition will spend a year exploring the Norwegian island of Svalbard - an Arctic wilderness that supports millions of sea birds and thousands of polar bears but is coming under threat from tourism and pollution.

Schools will be able to follow the expedition via the web and communicate with the expedition members as they explore the icy waste and study its ecology.

Arctic adventures

For 12 months the British Schools Exploring Society will be establishing a base on the high Arctic island of Svalbard, which lies only 500 miles from the North Pole, and it is inviting Britain's schoolchildren to visit via the web.

The Arctic is very beautiful but it is also very vulnerable and is facing greater threats than ever before

Mark Evans, expedition leader
The team will use laptops, digital cameras and the like to help them record their experiences while on Svalbard.

In April this year, the equipment will be tested by being put into freezers to ensure it can withstand Arctic conditions.

Every member of the expedition team will maintain a web diary of their experiences and how they are adapting to an environment that sees no sun for five months and temperatures far below zero.

"Despite the technology life at -30 is as hard today as it always was," said Mark Evans, who teaches geography at the British School in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, when he is not exploring wildernesses.

Student explorers

The first group of 12 students will leave for Svalbard in August - to coincide with the start of the academic year - and will spend four months on the island studying its geography and wildlife.

Over the winter months a small team will maintain the base and prepare for the arrival of a further 24 students in April who will continue the expedition's scientific work.

The data collected by the student explorers, many of the photographs they take and news about their exploration of the frozen wilderness will be posted on the Arctic Year and Arctic Village websites for schools to use in projects or course work.

Project partner Rainford High Technology College on Merseyside will be turning the scientific data into lesson plans for teachers or a format that pupils can use in projects.

Mr Evans said currently there were very few materials for teachers about the Arctic and few people knew about the threats to its existence. The expedition wants to get across the message that this icy wilderness is suffering from pollution, petroleum exploration, overfishing and tourism.

The levels of some pollutants in Svalbard polar bears is 20 times higher than in Alaskan bears and some seabird populations are shrinking because over-fishing has reduced the stocks they usually feed on.

"The Arctic is very beautiful but it is also very vulnerable and is facing greater threats than ever before," said Mr Evans.

Arctic wastes

Svalbard is the size of Scotland but has a human population of only 2500 which is outnumbered by the 3000 polar bears on the island and dwarfed by the millions of seabirds that make it their home. About 60% of the island is covered by ice.

The island's position at 80 degrees North means that there is constant daylight between April and October but none between late October and early February.

The British Schools Exploring Society was founded in 1932 by Surgeon Commander Murray Levick who was medical officer on Robert Scott's Antarctic expedition of 1910.

Commander Levick and five others stayed at the Antarctic coast when Scott left on his ill-fated journey to the South Pole.

The six men were equipped for only seven weeks, but had to eke out their existence for nearly nine months by eating seals killed with a pocket knife and keeping out the cold by smearing themselves with blubber.

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