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How do you pack for a summer trip to the end of the Earth (for science)?

Scientists dig for fossils at Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic.
Scientists dig for fossils at Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic.

“Ice. Rock. Water. That’s what’s there,” Ted Daeschler said, discussing his upcoming field research expedition to Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic.

And that’s about all that’s there. No trees to cut down for firewood. No roads, houses, stores, or built civilization, apart from one small town on the far southern end of the island. Ellesmere, which sits above the Arctic Circle and is more northerly than any part of Alaska, is not exactly an ideal spot for a summer camping trip. There isn’t even much soil to sink tent stakes into.

But Daeschler, a paleontologist at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, will depart this week to spend most of the month of July at this remote destination with a small team of colleagues who include Neil Shubin of the University of Chicago. It will be the team’s eighth trip there since 1999.

Surrounded by all that ice, rock and water, the scientists are very interested in the rock part of things – specifically, Devonian-age rocks, about 375 million years old. These rocks have yielded some of the best fossil evidence of the evolutionary transition of vertebrate life from water to land.

But getting to Ellesmere, and sustaining themselves through the expedition, means the scientists need to pack every single thing they will need for that trip (and preferably not one thing more than that). Ever forgotten something when packing for vacation? That’s not an option for this trip. Overpacking is also not ideal; Daeschler said they have to be very efficient because flying the supplies out via helicopter is expensive. Any extra supplies could cost extra – for shipping there and back. An extra pound of rice could cost $20 when shipping is factored in, he said.

After seven previous expeditions, they finally have the packing list worked out. Here’s a selection of what they’ve assembled this year in two tubs, two big boxes and a duffel bag – 355 pounds of essentials to fuel their digging:

Are four pounds of coffee enough to sustain eight scientists through three weeks of rock-breaking efforts to unlock mysteries of the evolution of life? They’ll have to hope so. The supplies are already on their way.

A preview of the journey

Tiktaalik roseae discovery site. By Ellesmere_Island.svg:Kennonv at en.wikipedia Ellesmere_TiktaalikSite_L7_2000-06-16.jpg: created by derivative work: ErgoSum88 GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0

When we spoke last week, Daeschler said he is hopeful that a few members of the team will become the first in over a century to dig up fossils in the Goose Fiord section of the island (where the first, and so far only other Devonian fossils were collected by a Norwegian expedition in 1898-1902). Goose Fiord sits at the center of the arc of exposed Devonian rock layers that drew Daeschler, Shubin and colleagues to Ellesmere in the first place. The availability of logistical support will determine whether they can get a helicopter ride to Goose Fiord when the time comes, after the team spends the first ten days of their expedition at the site where they discovered the famous fossil fish Tiktaalik.

Daeschler departs this Thursday, June 27.

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