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Six months alone on the ice

Some days, the weather is rather comfortable. But open water and changing ice conditions are a constant challenge. FOTO: Sabvabaa Expedition

Six months alone on the ice

Researcher Yngve Kristoffersen, 73, and photographer/adventurer Audun Tholfsen, 43, from Longyearbyen are drifting about in the Arctic Ocean, and have not seen other people since last August.

The German icebreaker Polarstern dropped off the two Norwegian researchers somewhere between Canada's northern tip and the North Pole on Aug. 30 of last year. With them was the hovercraft Sabvabaa, which in Inuktitut means "quickly floating over." The two have definitely been in a situation where they are "floating over" their location on the sea ice.

Interesting seabed

The expeditioners are exploring the seabed on their journey, with a particular interest in an area where rocks were formed 50 million years ago that is exposed to the water masses.

Kristoffersen, a professor emeritus at the Institute for Geosciences at the University of Bergen, notes the location of the rocks of interest is due to an asteroid impact in the Arctic Ocean a few million years ago. That is giving the scientists a gold mine of opportunities for researching ancient polar climate.

"In the area we can easily extract ancient rocks without costly scientific drilling," Kristoffersen told Aftenposten before the journey started.

Documenting environmental changes requires the researchers to collect lengthy measurement ranges. Icebreakers are very costly to operate and therefore Kristoffersen came upon the idea of ​​using a hovercraft. He has developed and patented scientific measuring equipment that is lightweight and suitable for taking samples from the seabed.

Following the ice

The expedition sets up on ice masses, and walls of snow and ice are built up around the vessel and other equipment that offer protection against wind and weather. One base was built on an ice floe about 200 meters from a large crack. This fissure opened and closed several times during the fall, but in the middle of November the situation became critical.

According to the website geoforskning.no, a new crack arose right up to the men's camp. That created meter-high ice mounds due to shearing movements as well as various minor cracks in different directions, including under their base. A fast-moving operation ensued, where they used the hovercraft, a hydraulic winch and a home-crafted sleigh to salvage the expedition.

The plan is to follow ice going from northern Canada to the North Pole and turn around, and reach the ice edge in the south again sometime this summer. Then hope Tholfsen, having accumulated much valuable material, can say something about the North Pole's climate development.

Hard life

The blog of the men allows outsiders to read about discoveries made and daily life on the ice floe in the icy wilderness. In a contribution from the latter part of February, they noted temperatures were between minus 26 and minus 40 degrees Celsius In addition, winds were in excess of 16 knots.

Keeping the wheels turning is challenging. As an example, the two mention the problems they've had with the power supply at the camp.

"We considered two 4.5 kW diesel generators, two small gasoline generators (0.8 and 1.2 kW) and two wind mills (1 kW) to be a sufficient safety margin," they wrote. "Both diesel generators have suffered the same fatal mechanical failure after over 3.000 hours and 2 hours, respectively. One gasoline generator and one wind mill was lost in the ice when the camp broke up in October, and the last wind mill is now out. The only item left is the 800 W generator which does not hold a load."

Half-year celebration

The most recent report from the Sabvabaa came on Wednesday. Kristoffersen and Tholfsen note they have drifted 13 nautical miles during the past week, and are now located southeast of the Lomonosov Ridge, north of Ellesmere Island in Canada. The men have spent a half a year on the ice and celebrated the occasion with a dinner of ribs.

"The menu was spare ribs and a Radeberger beer courtesy of Capt. Swartze, [of the] Polarstern, with apple cake for dessert," they wrote. "Unfortunately, the seismic data acquisition stopped in the middle of the meal – the air gun would not fire. Since we were drifting over a large submarine channel on the seabed not portrayed on any official bathymetric maps, we had to attend to the air gun problem immediately. It took several attempts and work through the whole night until 1000 hours the next day, before we were back in operation again."

Many things are being improvised along the way and not everything is going as planned. The kitchen is excellent, however, the guys disclose with relish.

"The capacity of our freezer is overwhelming."


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Audun Tholfsen by the controls in the hovercraft. A lot of technology, some of it invented by the researchers themselves, is in use during the expedition. The guys write about their findings in their blog. FOTO: Sabvabaa Expedition

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Yngve Kristoffersen working with equipment that is used to research the seabed. The two men on the ice concentrate mostly on what is under the ice. FOTO: Sabvabaa Expedition

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This picture was taken in September last year, when the camp was built. SInce then it has been broken up several times by changing ice conditions. FOTO: Sabvabaa Expedition

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Drifting on ice the last week. The plan is to drift out of the polar ice masses some time this coming summer.

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