The Arctic Arc: beyond certainties

Published on 26.02.2007 - The Arctic Arc

Alain and Dixie

Alain and Dixie

© International Polar Foundation

As we still have to wait for another few days before the Dansercoer-Hubert twosome reach Cape Arktichevski for the big departure of their expedition, let us dwell for a moment on the difficulties that await the two Belgians out there on the ice. Both the difficulties which are obvious as well as those which may not be.

Before venturing out across the terrain, we should take into consideration and perhaps repeat that which has become an important fact: not much time from now, in a few years at most, human beings will no longer be able to cross the Arctic Ocean by their own means. Whether global warming is actually happening or not, what is certain is that the ice is melting., a phenomenon agravated each year, and that it is slowly dissolving forever. In fact, the latest scientific reports tell us that the thickness of the Arctic pack ice has reduced by 15% over the past twenty years, shrinking from an average thickness of 6 metres to about 5 metres; over the same period, the Arctic pack ice has lost some 615 000 km2 of its area, representing approximately 3% of its total area with every passing decade (we will return to these scientific observations in detail). Hence the importance of the 'The Arctic Arc' expedition, which may remain in our collective memory as the last great crossing of the Arctic Ocean.

What in front of Arktichewski Cape?

As a matter of fact, one of the main difficulties standing in the way of this expedition is contained within this first certainty - that the ice is melting. The way in which the first two weeks of the expedition unfold is of vital importance to the remainder part of the trek. This is because, as Alain Hubert reminded us at the press conference, the first 200 kilometres out from Cape Arktichevski will cover the most dangerous ice conditions the two will encounter throughout their entire journey. In recent years, by following the polar expeditions which have opted to set out from Siberia, and therefore from Cape Arktichevski, we have seen that once the land has been left behind, open leads of water predominate rather than icy wastes of pack ice. And should there still be any ice hanging about in the area, it tends to be of the worst kind and virtually impossible to recognize – not to mention the way the Arctic pack ice drifts, which has so often made expeditions turn back. This makes it an extraordinarily dangerous place to be – a place which took the life of the Franco-Finnish explorer Dominick Harduin during her trek back in 2004. Just how many expeditions have been dropped off a hundred or so kilometres from Cape Arktichevski so as to not loose too much time and in order to avoid the dangers they didn't want to face? Of course, Alain and Dixie are well acquainted with the nasty traps that this first part of the ice can lay; but we also shouldn't forget that ,on their attempt in 2002, it was the treacherous ice conditions they encountered at the beginning of their trek which got them down and forced them, in the end, to abandon their expedition after 53 days.

The psychological pressure exerted on the minds of the two men in overcoming this first difficulty constitutes another unavoidable obstacle pertaining to this expedition. As we also saw during the press conference at the Conrad on February 13th, Alain and Dixie were able to make the journalists understand that they didn't want to be disturbed too much by outside contacts during the vital first two weeks. They need to stay extremely focussed. With this type of adventure, we know that the days leading up to the big departure clearly generate intense stress; often, explorers take this fact for granted, because they know that once they have finally set out, once they are out there on the actual grounds of adventure, they will have all the time they need to relax and work up the energy they require. This time, though, Alain and Dixie won't have this luxury; the fact that the first part of the expedition will take place in the great Arctic night, is not exactly a recipe for reducing stress.

When approaching the shore...

Another certainty, another danger, comes with the second half of the second part of the expedition. When they will have left the North Pole and been on the march for a couple of weeks, the two men will approach an area of ice which has the worst reputation ever! This will be when they are approaching the coast of Canada and Greenland. So, what can one say about this area based on the observations of recent explorers having travelled this way? The jury is unanimous: a succession of compression zones await the two explorers, each one more terrifying than the previous (with hummocks soaring over 10 metres high), with countless open leads, an unpredictability of movement in the pack ice, which can break up without warning and cause uncrossable seas to open up amid the pack ice, and then, of course, there is the extreme fragility of the ice. Let us also not forget that just last spring, the two expeditions attempting to make this great crossing (the ones by Bettina Aller and David de Rothschild), which had both reached 86 degrees latitude and had only about 300 km left to go before reaching the coast, decided to abandon the quest. It must be said that on this side of the pack ice, expeditions sometimes have to modify their rescue arrangements. So by the time they get as far as this, it is no longer the Russians and their famous red helicopters, the MI8s, that come to their aid, as it is the case between Cape Arktichevski and the geographical pole, but the Canadians working for the Ken Borek company, based at Resolute Bay, and who use the longer version of the Twin Otter to land out on the ice.

Stop press:

Based on what we learned a few hours ago, satellite photos appear to indicate that the ocean has closed over Cape Arktichevski. There is an enormous stationary anticyclone over the departure zone and the weather is extremely cold (minus 40°C) at the moment in northern Siberia. This is fairly encouraging news for the departure of the two Belgian explorers.

The team left St Petersburg for Norilsk on Sunday night. From Norilsk, they took a van to cover the 100 km or so separating Norilsk from Dudinka. They are now waiting for their helicopter ride and the green light to send them out across the ice. Alain thinks the departure should take place either on Thursday 1st or Friday 2nd March.

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