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Spirit of discovery: How Rolex and National Geographic Society are helping scientists tackle environmental challenges

Jasmine Alimin
Jasmine Alimin • 8 min read
Spirit of discovery: How Rolex and National Geographic Society are helping scientists tackle environmental challenges
Deep exploration missions are helping scientists tackle the planet’s most pressing environmental challenges.
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Perpetual Planet Expeditions by Rolex and National Geographic Society draw on insights from deep exploration missions to help scientists tackle the planet’s most pressing environmental challenges

Exploration has always been inextricably linked to Rolex throughout the brand’s history. As early as the 1930s, the brand’s founder Hans Wilsdorf began to test his watches using the world as a living laboratory. Rolex Oyster Perpetual watches have accompanied some of the world’s most notable pioneer explorers to the highest mountains and ocean depths, serving as precise, reliable tools for their missions.

In 1954, this involvement in exploration led Rolex into a partnership with the National Geographic Society, which for over 130 years, has been making valuable contributions to exploration, science and conservation. Their first collaborative endeavour was one for the history books: Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s history-making ascent to Mount Everest, which was featured in an issue of National Geographic.

The shared spirit of discovery drew Rolex and National Geographic together over the years as they continued to support pioneers exploring new realms. The two organisations have been involved in various expeditions to the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the oceans, located in the Pacific.

The first was in 1960 when the bathyscaphe Trieste, piloted by Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh, carried an experimental Rolex Oyster watch, the Deep Sea Special, fixed to its exterior as it descended to a record depth of 10,916 metres (35,800 feet). The watch returned to the surface in perfect working order.

Fifty-two years later in 2012, filmmaker and Rolex testimonee James Cameron completed his solo dive aboard the Deepsea Challenger which carried an experimental diver’s watch, the Rolex Deepsea Challenge, on its robotic manipulator arm. The watch, waterproof to 12,000 metres (39,370 feet), resisted more than 12 tonnes of pressure on its crystal, kept perfect time and emerged from the water unscathed.

The Rolex Perpetual Planet Initiative

For nearly a century, the Swiss watchmaker has supported pioneering explorers, breaking the boundaries of human endeavour. As the 21st century unfolds, Rolex has moved from championing exploration for the sake of discovery to one of protecting the planet.

In 2017, the partnership between Rolex and the National Geographic Society was enhanced to focus on earth’s preservation. This commitment was further reinforced in 2019 with the launch of the Perpetual Planet Initiative. The goal of this programme is to support individuals and organisations to understand the world’s environmental challenges and devise solutions that will restore balance to our ecosystems.

The three areas of focus for Perpetual Planet include: Championing laureates of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise in their endeavours to promote sustainability; supporting Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue initiative to preserve the oceans through a network of marine-protected “Hope Spots”; and understanding climate change through Perpetual Planet Expeditions — a collaboration with National Geographic launched in 2019.

The first of three Perpetual Planet Expeditions was the Everest expedition led by National Geographic and Nepal’s Tribhuvan University to build the world’s highest weather stations

Healing the world one expedition at a time

Perpetual Planet Expeditions explores the planet’s most extreme environments and harnesses scientific expertise and cutting-edge technology to reveal new insights about the impact of climate change on the systems that are vital to life on Earth: mountains as the world’s water towers, rainforests as the planet’s lungs, and the ocean as its cooling system.

Together, National Geographic Society and Rolex have carved out a plan to execute three major trips in five years, of which two have already taken place. The objective is to generate data for indices on each of these three domains, providing information that will help governments and communities understand the changes taking place and offer a scientific basis for solutions to the existential risks now facing all of humanity.

The first expedition supported by this partnership was to Mount Everest from April to June 2019. The Everest expedition team, led by National Geographic and Nepal’s Tribhuvan University, set out to better understand the effects of climate change on the glaciers of the Hindu Kush-Himalaya that provide critical water resources to one billion people downstream.

A team of more than 30, including scientists from the university, successfully set up a network of automated weather stations (with the highest located at 8,400m above sea level) reaching the sub-tropical jet stream — a band of powerful winds that circle the globe at high altitudes and are extremely difficult to track.

This mission definitely made history as the largest scientific expedition ever undertaken to install the two highest weather stations in the world, in addition to collecting the highest ice core ever recorded. The information from the trip, coupled with data sets from the weather stations, will form the basis of a new index to track the health of the Himalayan water system and inform decisions to help protect it.

The installation of a weather station below the summit of Tupungato Volcano offers scientists a window into the atmospheric processes in the Chilean Andes, which provides fresh water to more than six million inhabitants in Santiago

The next expedition was in early 2021, when a National Geographic team of explorers and scientists installed a weather station just below the summit of Tupungato Volcano in the Southern Andes — the highest in the Southern and Western Hemispheres.

With the installation of the weather station, scientists will now have a window into atmospheric processes in the high Chilean Andes. One of the most vulnerable water towers in the world, these mountains provide fresh water to more than six million inhabitants in nearby Santiago.

Located on Tupungato’s summit, one of the loftiest peaks in the Americas at a height of 6,505m, the new weather station will collect data to be used to analyse weather modelling and water resource management. It will also function alongside lower stations that were installed in December 2019 with support from National Geographic — one at 4,400m (at the upper Aconcagua basin 70 km northeast of Santiago) and two on neighbouring volcano Tupungatito at 4,400m and 5,750m.

Co-led by Dr Gino Casassa, a National Geographic Explorer and the Head of the Glaciology and Snow Unit of the Chile Ministry of Public Works, the Tupungato Volcano Expedition began on Feb 19 and ended on March 5.

This project goes to the heart of the commitment Rolex has made to a Perpetual Planet and to future generations, by supporting individuals and organisations in their efforts to preserve the natural world and the systems that sustain life.

Commenting on the significance of the expedition, climate scientist Baker Perry said: “The expedition is contributing to a Perpetual Planet by pushing the limits of scientific discovery and exploration to the highest reaches of the planet.” Perry is a professor at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, and co-lead of the Tupungato Volcano expedition.

A weather station was built on Tupungato’s summit, one of the loftiest peaks in the Americas at a height of 6,505m

Planning for a perpetual future

Rolex and National Geographic’s expeditions to fragile mountain environments such as the Tupungato Volcano are a continuation of the brand’s long-standing links to exploration and to supporting those who find solutions to the challenges confronting our fragile ecosystems.

The hope is that with enough data collected, scientists will find a way to tackle the planet’s most pressing environmental challenges such as global water shortage. And it starts at the mountainous and glacial regions of the world — giant storage tanks and provide fresh water to billions of people.

Nicole Alexiev, vice president of science and innovation at the National Geographic Society, recognises the synergy of the two organisations: “Through our partnership with Rolex to study and explore Earth’s critical life support systems, our ultimate goal is to use the new information and data gathered from the expeditions to support and elevate solutions that will restore balance to our ecosystems,” she said.

The explorer’s companion

In 1926, Hans Wilsdorf launched the world’s first waterproof wristwatch, the Rolex Oyster. Later in 1931, the company added the “perpetual” self-winding mechanism to create the Oyster Perpetual. In the decades since, explorers have been accompanied by this iconic watch, testing it under the most extreme of conditions. It was widely adopted as an instrument of discovery and it led to the evolution of the Explorer watch in 1953, which was launched to mark the first successful ascent of Mount Everest.

Many iterations later, we arrive at the newly-revamped Rolex Oyster Perpetual Explorer II — a performance timepiece worn today by some of the world’s most intrepid explorers, mountaineers and scientists, including members of the recent Tupungato Volcano Expedition.

Launched in April, the Explorer II features the latest in-house calibre 3285 movement with 70-hour power reserve, featuring Chronergy escapement, blue Parachrom balance spring and Paraflex shock absorbers. In short, this movement is more efficient, more accurate, more robust, and lasts longer without the need for winding. In addition, its highly legible dial with a Chromalight display, extremely resistant Oystersteel and waterproofness have made it the watch for the extremes.

Photos: Rolex

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