Sailing Scientists Investigate Arctic Melt
By Julio Godoy*
expedition sponsored by the United Nations Environment Program aims
to identify the effects of climate change and more accurately predict
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,"
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
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.