October 2007: en route to polar night number two

Published on 25.11.2007 - Tara Arctic

The French sailing schooner Tara, which continues to drift towards Fram Strait between Greenland and Spitzbergen, is preparing itself to endure a second polar night. Meanwhile, the support team back on land has published the first, rather disturbing data on the current state of the Arctic Ocean. And very revealing it is, too.

On 7th October, the ten members of the current crew aboard Tara (three women and seven men) farewelled the final rays of sunlight before the long polar night set in – an occasion for a celebration if ever there was one. Extracts from the ship's log: "To protect the fireplace alongside our comfortable refuge, the ingenious Audun, assisted by Marion, erected a wall of ice blocks made from compacted snow, along the lines of building an igloo. Cocktails were quite a civilised affair: a few beers, Russian vodka, peanuts and canapés. Huddled around the flames, the magic of the fire was enhanced tenfold by the surrounding landscape of frozen waves as far as the eye could see. A wonderful source of heat in the midst of a frozen desert. Our expedition leader, Grant, then raised his glass and proposed a toast. 'As the coming polar night begins, I have the feeling we're going to be all right. The new crew gave us a real boost before the winter, which is good.' The tent was then filled with the sounds of an improvised jam session, with Sam on the accordion and Hervé "le péchou" on the guitar. The tent rocked on into the night. ..."

Ten days later, plywood sheets were attached to the hull to blank out the portholes. This cranked up the feeling of being enclosed a notch, although maybe not for Grant Redvers (expedition leader) and Hervé Bourmaud (skipper of Tara), who are both beginning their second polar night on board. But it was certainly true for the eight other members of the expedition (who came in to replace the crew from the first winter at the September rotation). They are all experiencing varying degrees of apprehension about being plunged into permanent darkness.

On 30th October, the expedition support team published an interesting account via the European Damocles project about what they called the "Remarkable facts about the current state of the changing Arctic Ocean...". The report confirms what the international scientific community is now saying with ever-increasing conviction:

  • There was a spectacular retreat of the pack-ice by the end of summer 2007. Between September 2005 and September 2007, over 1 million square kilometres of sea-ice disappeared.
  • The acceleration in the rate of transpolar drift from the Bering Straits to Fram Strait was just as spectacular between summer 2006 and summer 2007. This speeding up in the movements of the Arctic transpolar drift is partly responsible for the reduction in the area covered by pack-ice observed at the end of the summer 2007.
  • Tara has covered over 2 000 km as the crow flies. When we take all of the movements made over a period of about 400 days, this is twice as much and at an average speed two times faster than we had anticipated and 3 times faster than the models had predicted. Tara will exit the Arctic Ocean before the end of 2007, instead of during the summer of 2008, which we had forecast.
  • The gradual disappearance of multiyear ice and its replacement by newly formed ice have both been confirmed. It has been found that they are largely the result of the two observations we have just made. It was not possible to release the Russian drifting station NP35 in the heart of the Arctic in September 2007, as initially planned, but instead on the edge, close to Cape Artichevsky at approximately 81°30N and 103°E. This was because there was no multiyear ice to be found, despite searching the Arctic from Siberia to Canada, from 100°E to 130W, and from 80°N to 89°N.
  • During the summer of 2007, there was an accumulation of thick, compacted ice along the coastlines of Greenland and Canada, as well as in Fram Strait. This made operations aboard the various ice-breakers Oden (Sweden), Polarstern (Germany) and Lance (Norway) very difficult, despite the assistance of nuclear-powered Russian ice-breakers.
  • We also observed an increase in pools of melt-water on the surface of the pack-ice, which now covers 50% of the total surface of ice in summer, as well as an increase in rainfall in the sector between Greenland, Spitzbergen and the geographic North Pole associated with the addition of warm, moist air from northern Europe. The temperature readings taken aboard Tara using a tethered balloon between the surface and an altitude of 2 000 m revealed the presence of warm air masses at low altitude (inversion layer between an altitude of 300 m and 800 m).
  • By 15th October 2007, the period during which the pack-ice re-forms had not really begun, despite the arrival of the polar night. The Arctic Ocean was still free of ice between Siberia and Canada.
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