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An usual polar hero

Prof. Yngve Kristoffersen (73) has spent a whole year in the polar ice with his hovedcraft "Sabvabaa". FOTO: Geir Barstein

An usual polar hero

A retired Alta professor is back on land after a year on the sea ice and what he wants most of all is a glass of milk

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29.08.2015 kl 11:01

Yngve Kristoffersen, 73, was recently picked up by the Havsel seal-hunting vessel and brought to Longyearbyen on Saturday evening.

"Come in, come in," the longtime polar researcher and professor says opening the door to the Sabvabaa hovercraft. "There are a few things here and there, but you can sit down."
After enduring the weather and wind while drifting 2,200 kilometers on the frozen Arctic Ocean, the vessel resembling the outlandish racing car in "The Pinchcliffe Grand Prix" is finally back in civilization.

Kristoffersen and Audun Tholfsen, 42, are the first Norwegians to undertake such a voyage since Fridtjof Nansen's Fram expedition 118 years ago.

"It's good to be done," he says while clearing away some pots and pans. "The ice floe was beginning to get low and miserable toward the end."

"Hotel? Why should I? I have lived on this boat for a year"

A few extra nights

Tholfsen returned to Norway more than a month ago, but Kristoffersen has not seen another person since they were left alone beyond 89 degrees latitude north by the German icebreaker Polarstern on Aug. 30 of last year.

On this Saturday, it's rainy and windy, and the coal pier is a muddy, chilly place after the champaign stops flowing and the sing-along with people gathering to congratulate him dies down.

Why didn't he indulge in a hotel?

"Hotel?" the retired professor from The University of Bergen says as he smiles and closes the door to the elements. "Why should I? I have lived on this boat for a year, so I might as well sleep here a few more nights."

Inside the boat there's merely a short, narrow corridor with a few square meters of floor space. At the rear is the toilet and a bed space.

Along one wall there are racks with equipment and clothing; along the other there is a bench with scientific apparatus, tools, gadgets, computers and some CDs.

"Look here," he says, sitting down and turning on a laptop. "This is our lifeline."

"We could communicate from a small boat in the middle of nowhere," he exclaims enthusiastically. "It's amazing!"

White spots on the map

Coordinated by the Nansen Center in Bergen, the "Fram 2014/15" expedition investigated the underwater Lomonosov Ridge. It was formed about 50 million years ago as part of the continental shelf north of Svalbard.

"What essentially were the conditions at that time?" he asks, pointing at the screen.
"Nobody has been able to do proper research before us."
"Especially here between the North Pole and Canada, there is much unknown territory."

In addition to the geology, the two men studied water, weather, wind, ice and even wildlife deep in the ocean.

Their discoveries will be shared with a variety of environmental research entities.
"We have some small bombs in the scientific material, not that I can go into that now," he chuckles.

He has envisioned the idea of using a hovercraft in the Arctic for 30 years, ever since he saw such a vehicle in the 1980s TV series "Miami Vice." 

The concept is simple: the vessel can move across the ice – and away from cracks and hazards – in addition to providing a warm and comfortable home after a long day's work in extreme conditions. Kristoffersen says that from an economic standpoint it is also much cheaper than thundering into an area with an icebreaker to do research.

"I've found that this is viable – a hovercraft is ideal for this work," he says. "The Russians have said they will stop with the traditional stations on the ice because there is not enough good ice. They you have to think like us."

"The only thing was that I had a hint of a toothache for a few weeks recently"

Doubling rewarding

But the Sabvabaa, which in Inuktitut means" flowing quickly over," also has its obvious limitations. Most obvious is the lack of elbow room and, by extension, the danger of conflicts when two people are living so closely and in such isolation over time.

"But it went very well," Kristoffersen says. "Audun and I complemented each other very well."

Polar explorers are not necessarily known for modesty about their own achievements in the ice, but 73-year-old's description of the expedition is modest and factual. He also says he is mostly just glad there were no serious accidents or illnesses.

"The only thing was that I had a hint of a toothache for a few weeks recently," he says. "That's not bad for someone my age."

Never afraid

The trip was still not without drama. The ice repeatedly cracked up and they had to scramble around to save several tons of equipment at their camp. Storms, failing generators and a Russian submarine that suddenly poked its nose out of the ice added spice as well.

Was he ever afraid?

"Scared?" he says. "Nah. Never. The reason is that all processes in the ice go so slowly. You have time to get away from the cracks. And even if we had lost the boat, we would have tents and equipment to get along for a long time."

Criticisms

The expedition was planned and executed without assistance from the Norwegian Polar Institute, Kristoffersen's employer at the end of the 1970s.

He is critical of how Norway's polar research has evolved.

"The Polar Institute should have a role as a facilitator for national research and not be an introverted imperial empire," he says.

He refers to Sweden, among others, saying their Arctic research reaches out to a wider international audience than Norway's.

"We organize the Norwegian research totally wrong," Kristoffersen says emphatically. "In Sweden the polar secretary goes out and asks researchers to provide input on projects. Then the wise heads get together and come up with the best proposals. Here in Norway that is not so. We must exploit the potentiality in all of the Norwegian research and allow them to compete for access to polar logistics, and not only centralize and build up in Tromsø, as is done now."

The budget for the year-long expedition was about five million kroner.

"And you know what? That is the same amount as when (Norwegian Polar Institute Director) Jan-Gunnar Winther took Vegard Ulvang and himself to Antarctica to ski in Amundsen's footsteps in 2011," Kristoffersen says as he laughs and shakes his head.

EU control

The professor's dream for more than three decades has literally come into port.
Any new adventures – beyond having to rush home Monday to Bergen to deliver his vehicle to EU control ("I did not get a reprieve") - are not on the schedule.

"We have worked so long and hard toward this," he says with a smile. "It went far beyond retirement age, but now we have done it. We just have to be happy and satisfied. At a time it must come to an end."


Translated by Mark Sabbatini

Nøkkelord

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Kristoffersen had daily contact with the outside world via the internet during his stay. FOTO: Geir Barstein

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A hovercraft, Kristoffersen says, is a perfect foundation for an ice station. FOTO: Geir Barstein

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Kristoffersen celebrated his return with champagne. FOTO: Geir Barstein

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The drift route. FOTO: FRAM 2014/15 / NERSC

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