It’s all up in the air

Prof pitches scheme to test airships in Arctic



What is it about airships and the Arctic that academics at the University of Manitoba find so fascinating?

Last year, Barry Prentice, a professor and director of the Transport Institute at the university in Winnipeg floated the idea of using enormous airships — cigar-shaped and up to six stories high — as cheap, reliable transportation for people and cargo in Nunavut and other inaccessible parts of the North.

In fact, so captivated was Prentice with the notion that he hosted a conference last June in Winnipeg called Airships to the Arctic, which attracted delegates from all over the North, including Nunavut.

Now Terry Dick, a professor of zoology at the University, has jumped on the airship bandwagon with a $2.5 million grant proposal to test airships as “alternate scientific vehicles” in a series of journeys across the North, from Alaska to Nunavut. He hopes to get most of the money from the federal government, which is funding various International Polar Year projects. Fittingly for Dick, whose area of expertise embraces aquatic ecosystems, his proposal has a strong environmental pitch.

If he gets the grant money, he will rent airships from a manufacturer in Mississauga, Ont., using them to as “mobile transport infrastructure for short term flights such as caching scientific supplies, dropping off and picking up research crews in isolated areas, accessing hunting areas and testing scientific equipment.”

As well, he says, he wants to determine “if airships could have a role in mitigating some of the effects of a warming Arctic.”

Dick’s interested in airships was piqued by a scientific expedition he undertook in the Arctic in 2004. During his trip in the Northwest Territories, he said he traveled by jet and several other types of aircraft as well as all-terrain vehicles and motorboat.

By the end of it, he said, he was struck by the huge impact all of these machines had on the environment in terms of fuel consumption, pollution and disrupting wildlife and their habitat. “I said to myself, ‘There’s gotta be a better way,’” he recalled in an interview from Winnipeg.

Later he found that Prentice, a colleague at University of Manitoba, was already exploring the notion of using airships in the Arctic. The more Dick looked at airships, the more sense they seemed to make as a mode of northern transport, he said.

One of his first steps, he said, was to launch an evaluation of weather “which found that airships could operate much of the year in the Canadian north.” However, he said, navigation systems that would allow night flying “would be essential to maximize airship use, especially in the winter months.”

Dick also launched his own academic trial balloon in the form of an article on airships for the December 2005 issue of Meridian, the journal of the Canadian Polar Commission.

He wrote that if travel for subsistence and conservation hunting could be combined with resource management and ecotourism, “airships could make vast areas of the north much more accessible year round, and at the same time cause little environmental perturbation.”

To make airships a reality in the North, he wrote, “we need to demonstrate that airships can transport goods and people on a regular basis, support cold weather testing and certification and develop airships with greater lift capacity.”

Perhaps, he said, “some of the royalties generated from oil and gas and mining could be used to develop a new and innovative transportation system for the north, or at the very least, test the concept of airship technology in the Canadian North.”

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