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United Nations Development Programme
United Nations Environment Programme

Sailing Scientists Investigate Arctic Melt

By Julio Godoy*

The expedition sponsored by the United Nations Environment Program aims to identify the effects of climate change and more accurately predict future impacts.

PARIS - Over the next two years a team of scientists aboard the French schooner "Tara" will sail the Arctic Ocean to study the consequences of global climate change in the polar ice.

The Tara set sail July 11 from the northeastern French port of Lorient towards the North Sea. After visits to Oslo and the northern Russian terminal of Murmansk, the vessel made its last continental stop in the Siberian port of Tiksi, some 1,600 km from the North Pole.

The crew is made up of 15 ecologists, experts in Arctic fauna and flora, sailors and medical personnel.

"Our purpose is to identify as precisely as possible the climate changes that are currently occurring in the glaciers, the atmosphere and the ocean at the North Pole as a consequence of the warming of the atmosphere, in order to improve the scientific capacity to simulate future changes," Etienne Burgeois, Tara's owner and co-director of the expedition, told Tierramérica.

"We believe our research will permit a more exact assessment of the different impacts that the melting in the Arctic Ocean will have on the polar environment and, as a result of that, on the entire northern hemisphere," Burgeois added.

The expedition, officially known as Arctic Damocles, is part of the fourth International Polar Year, which, under the sponsorship of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), beginning in March 2007 will coordinate international multidisciplinary studies in polar oceanography, sociology, economy and ecology.

The polar year also marks the 125 years since the first event of this kind, which took place in 1882-1883 under the initiative of Austrian sailor and explorer Karl Weyprecht.

Tara's voyage to the Arctic also is part of the European polar research program, Damocles, focused on studying the phenomenon of receding ice in the region.

Burgeois told Tierramérica that "satellite observation of the North Pole has established a decline in the Arctic ice of between eight and 10 percent during the summer in the last 30 years."

Observations made by U.S. submarines in the late 1990s suggest a reduction of up to 40 percent in the thickness of the glaciers in the same period, he added.

"These changes in the Arctic Ocean provide an early indication of the future climate and social consequences of the greenhouse effect," said Burgeois.

If the ice melt in the Arctic continues at this pace, in a few decades its glaciers will disappear during the summer, creating serious climate and ecological disorder, including a dramatic rise in sea levels and the likely disappearance of thousands of species.

To study these phenomena, Tara is set up with the latest electronic equipment, so the scientists can collect and analyze ice, air and water samples over the next two years.

The ship, with an enormous sail made of aluminum, also has wind turbines to generate clean energy and can carry up to 200 tons of equipment, medical supplies and food.

Despite the summer melt, the Arctic Ocean does freeze during the northern hemisphere winter. This will trap the Tara in the ice, so the vessel and her crew will travel the region's natural currents for several frigid months.

During the two winters the Tara will spend in the ice, the ship will become a platform for observation and research about the degradation of the Arctic environment. There will be regular visits by scientists and medical teams, and the crew will maintain contact with UNEP, Damocles and other European scientific research programs.

Says UNEP executive director Achim Steiner: Tara Expeditions is contributing to greater understanding of the climate changes that are happening in the Arctic region today, and "are helping relay the message that what happens at the poles should be of utmost concern to us all."

The Tara is a polar schooner built especially to let it be carried by the ocean currents. It belonged to the legendary New Zealander sailor Robert Blake. With the name "Seamaster", the vessel served Blake, a special representative of the United Nations, who was murdered by pirates in December 2001 during an expedition on the Amazon River.

Following Blake's tragic death, Burgeois, a passionate sailor of 45 years, acquired the vessel in 2003 to use it for scientific expeditions like the one now under way. During the southern hemisphere summer of 2005, for example, Burgeois spent several weeks in the seas around Antarctica, joined by world renowned Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado, aboard the Tara.

This time, Burgeois is accompanied by French sailor and activist Bernard Buigues, 51, who has organized numerous expeditions to the North Pole and in Siberia over the past two decades, and Christian de Marliave, 53, author of several books on the ecology of the Arctic Ocean and of Antarctica, and is considered one of the world's leading experts on the polar regions.

The expedition chief is New Zealander Grant Redvers, 33, who holds a doctorate in environmental sciences. Despite his youth, he has a long history in scientific marine exploration, whether in his home country, Antarctica, Patagonia and South Georgia and the South Atlantic.

Other members of Tara's science crew are marine environmentalists Hervé Le Goff, of Damocles, Sergey Pisarev, of the Russian Oceanology Institute, and the Russian journalist Svetlana Murashkina.

* Julio Godoy is an IPS correspondent.

Copyright © 2007 Tierramérica. All Rights Reserved


External Links

Tara Arctic Expedition

International Polar Year

United Nations Environment Program


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