Time to start something new and trust the magic of new beginnings

Big changes are happening in my little life, and I’m trying my best to keep it all under control.

Next week I will be leaving the University of St Andrews where I have been working intermittently for the past year and a half. I am leaving first because my original contract is coming to an end, and because I have voluntarily not looked for any means to prolong it. After months and months of reflexion I have decided to leave academia, at least for a little while.

So what has made me come to this decision? Several things that became so huge I could not ignore them any longer. First of all, I want to say that glaciology is and will always remain my biggest passion. I have deeply enjoyed doing research in this field, collaborating with talented and ingenious individuals, and the experiences I have had the chance to live during my academic career have been nothing short of incredible.

Beside my work in St Andrews, I spent quite a large part of this year, and last year, doing a lot of science outreach, communicating to various audiences about our work, and the consequences of climate change on the cryosphere. And I truly believe that communicating our science today is more important than ever. The problem is, not everybody wants to do it, not everybody has time to do it, and not everybody can make science accessible. And this for me is what really tipped me to address these enormous elephants in the room: science outreach and science policy.

I am taking a break from academia to learn how our science is being communicated to politicians, to the civil society, and to businesses. And I am willing to work very hard to improve it!

One step in the right direction has been the publication yesterday of our work on surging glaciers in the magazine Science. I could not be prouder to see the research we’ve been focusing on for the past 6 years making the cover and a lengthy feature in the magazine. This is a fantastic example of how science can be explained in a super cool way. Check out the article here: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/358/6367/1120.full

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Let winter break. Let it burn ’til I see you again

Long time no speak! 2016 was a great year, but 2017 has been extraordinary! And the best part is that it’s not over yet. This year has been filled with new experiences, encounters, and travels. I feel luckier than ever to be able to do things I have always been dreaming of.

Among all the new adventures I got involved in this year, here are the most memorable/interesting/adventurous ones:

I started volunteering for the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative in March/April. The ICCI does science policy related to.. glaciers! I have been learning a huge amount by working with the so welcoming and caring ICCI team. Currently we are working on a project funded by the Climate and Clear Air Coalition of the UN, aiming to reduce emissions of short-lived climate forcers, and specifically black carbon through the use of wood stove. Check out our progress here.

During my time in Svalbard I was always so happy to welcome visitors to our beautiful university UNIS and tell them about the impact of climate change to my dear glaciers. At this day and age, science communication is more important than ever. It is our duty to be more approachable and to understand that publishing papers is not enough. I have never cared more about outreach and never more believed in its powers that today.

And when I got contacted by the high school of La Rochelle in France, and heard about their very ambitious scientific projects this year, I was more than happy to be their “skype scientist”, calling them every other week to challenge them to new and exciting experiments. The best part is their goal to travel to Svalbard next April, and I will have the great honor to accompany them, and tell them all about this place so dear to me.

Another awesome adventure took me to Pennsylvania this autumn! Last winter, while on Sea Spirit in Antarctica I met someone who really inspired me. Her name is Professor Hilde Binford. I had rarely met someone so driven, curious and who can make big things happen. Hilde is a Professor of Musicology at the Moravian College in PA, and started  with Dean Diane Husic, a course about climate change when none existed. And this September I got the great honor to be invited to give a series of lectures on my work as a glaciologist at the Moravian College, and also at the Moravian Academy. I had the best time the Lehigh county, met such motivated, smart and kind students and professors I which I had had during my studies! Thank you all for the fantastic time.

Finally, and I feel so proud to announce that I got the extraordinary chance to participate to two scientific documentaries for French national TV France 5! The documentaries will come out on the 12th of December, it’s all in French but tune in!! These have been such whirlwind experiences. We filmed the documentaries in two of the most beautiful, extreme and mysterious countries on Earth, Chile and Iceland. The theme is how populations have adapted to deeply challenging environments, and how scientists develop new techniques and technologies to make the most of the local conditions, no matter how hard they might be. Beyond the jaw dropping landscapes, filming the documentaries has been an extraordinary human experience, and I often think about those we met along the way, and the life lessons they shared with us. Thank you to the dream teams working on the documentaries, and congratulations for such a beautiful work.

How to train for Aconcagua?

Aha! I wish I had the perfect answer to this question. I’ve been hiking for pretty much all my life, but this challenge is on a whole new level.

Speaking on level I have a BIG problem. Sea level that is. The altitude of my apartment must be 6 m at most, my office might be at +10m with a push. This really does not help for a bid to climb almost 7000 m. But I do have a plan.

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Where I currently live, in St Andrews, Scotland. Pic taken last week.

Climbing Aconcagua is facing two challenges at the same time. First it’s a long hike. 21 days on average, hiking pretty much every day, carrying between 10 to 15 kg on our back (that is if you can pack light!). Second, it’s extremely high. So I have to take these two aspects into account for my training.

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The normal route day by day. From Aconcagua Trek Expeditions.

Cardio is the answer to the first challenge. There are many ways to increase your cardio capacity, and I found that cycling and running works well for me. I cycle every day to work, and run typically three times per week. I am hoping to run my first marathon this year in preparation for Aconcagua. As recommended by my brother, I joined my local Crossfit Box. They’re called Functional Fitness St Andrews and they’re amazing! I have survived to 9 sessions so far and am looking forward to doing a lot more in the months to come.

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My new addiction! Crossfit.

The second challenge is a lot trickier to address. In Scotland where I live, the highest mountain is Ben Nevis, culminating at a mere 1345 m… I miss my Alpine peaks! So over the summer I am hoping to spend more weekend bagging some munros (hills higher than 1000 m) and to organise one or two weekends in the French Alps to test myself at much higher altitudes.

Hiking Ben Macdui about a month ago.

But there are cheap ways to simulate high altitude. I’ve been a pretty big fan of the Elevation mask over the past few years. I used it in the weeks before climbing Kilimanjaro, wearing it while hiking in the French Alps. It looks like you’re wearing a gas mask, but all it does is restricting how much air you breathe. Pretty efficient especially because I only have the valves stimulating 16 000 ft, go big or go home!

Training in the Alps was definitely easier.

Aconcagua: normal or Polish?

Finding the next challenge, the next mountain you want to climb is only a very small part of expedition planning. Once the “goal” has been agreed upon, the real work begins. With this kind of mountains you can’t really freestyle it and intuitively follow random paths that seem to be going up. First, you have to decide on the route. I’m always tempted not to take on the normal route but I also don’t want to bite more than I can chew.

The route matters enormously. It is like choosing a friend to go on an adventure. There’s the friend you know well,  who is quite predictable, and there’s that more mysterious, erratic friend that is picking your curiosity, and that you know will make the trip more exciting.

On Aconcagua, trips with local companies are offered along two main routes: the normal route, and the polish route, with small variations of both. Let’s take a look at their pros and cons.

 

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Normal route:

Also called the North West route, is typically done is 18-20 days. The normal route is composed of three to four camps in total: base camp (plaza de Mulas), plaza Canada, nido de Condores and Berlin/Colera.

The pros:

  • Medical services: staying at base camp has numerous advantages. And one that is significant is the presence of a doctor. At this kind of altitude, this is certainly something not to take lightly!
  • Rescue patrol: due to the popularity of the route, a rescue team is always available.
  • Not technical: the normal route is the most popular one due to the fact that the distance between the camps is manageable, and the routes does not require any technical abilities.
  • Porters, mules and helicopter: if your bag is too heavy you can easily find an array of services to help you along the way!

The cons:

  • Packed: it’s a popular route, therefore expect crowds and traffic jams along the way!
  • Wind: the high camps are known to be very exposed to wind storms
  • Approach: long and not particularly scenic (although opinions differ on that!)
  • Going up and down the same route

Take a tour along the normal route HERE

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Fake polish route:

The fake polish route is actually composed of three different itineraries: the direct polish glacier route, the polish traverse route (also called fake polish or 360), and the guanacos route. So far, the tour operators I have contacted did not propose the direct polish glacier route, which is quite technical and requires special guides. No matter the itinerary, the polish route rejoins the normal route for the last kilometre to the summit.

Pros:

  • Scenic: the polish route is known for its impressive landscape, especially on the way to the first camp.
  • Less crowded: because it is a little more technical, the polish route is rarely as congested as the normal route.
  • A loop: the ascent crosses the polish glacier, and the descent follows the normal route. This route is best to see two different sides of the mountain!
  • Easier start: the approach start at a lower altitude than the normal route, and the ascent is more gradual.

Cons:

  • More technical: this route is not recommended to those who have never walked in crampons or used ice axes. The fake polish route avoids the steepest portions, but some sections are steep (40-50 degres).
  • Less medical services: as the route is not as popular as the normal route, rescue services and medical assistance isn’t quite on the same level.
  • Difficulty: the distance between the camps is greater and steeper.
  • Rivers: it takes 5 river crossing to reach the first camp, which can be a great challenge after heavy rainfalls.

Take a tour along the polish traverse route HERE

The Sentinel of Stone

As we are progressing in the organisation of our expedition to Aconcagua, let’s take a look at some fun – and less fun – facts about our next challenge.

The origin of its name is contested. Aconca-Hue from the Mapuche language refers to the Aconcagua River. If we look at the Quechua language, Ackon Cahuak means Sentinel of Stone, or Anco Cahuak the White Sentinel. Quite romantic.

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First ascents

The first known attempt to climb Aconcagua was made in 1883 by German mountaineer Paul Gussfeldt. He managed to hired some local guides by telling them about a treasure at the top of the mountain. Way to go! He made it to 6560 m.

Many Europeans attempted to reach the summit in the late 19th century. The British Mountaineer Edward FitzGerald tried 8 times between 1896 and 1897 but eventually his main guide Matthias Zurbriggen made it to the top before everyone else, on January 14th 1897. The route they took is the normal route that most use today.

The east side of Aconcagua was conquered by a Polish expedition on March 9th 1934 following what is now known as the Polish glacier route. And cocorico the south face (known to be the most difficult one) was climbed by a French expedition in 1954.

Geography

Aconcagua is located in the Southern Hemisphere, in the Andes, in Argentina. It is just one degree of latitude further north than Cape Town.

Contrarily to what is usually thought Aconcagua is not a volcano. The mountain is covered by a few glaciers, the largest one being Ventisquero Horcones Inferior, a surging glacier! The Polish Glacier on the way to the summit was first crossed in 1934.

Weather

Aconcagua is constantly lashed by strong winds from the West. Many many videos show tents being blown away, crazy winds hitting the high camps https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=crIz-KBGTYw . In the summer, the temperature at night at 5000 m high can be down to -20c (-0.4F). At the summit -30 is the norm. But that’s in good weather. The conditions can be a lot, lot tougher. Unexpected blizzards are not a rarity on the mountain.

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Altitude

At sea level, we breath about 20.9% of oxygen. At the top of Aconcagua this number will fall to 8.7%, which is a considerable difference. I have never been above 5895 m, the altitude of Kilimanjaro. Aconcagua is in a completely different category.

Natural Hazards

Beside the challenges caused by the weather or the altitude, Aconcagua often makes the news because of the accidents related to natural hazards. The first challenge hikers face are the rivers. A couple of rivers have to be crossed to reach Base Camp on the normal route, while a total of 5 rivers must be crossed for the Fake Polish/Direct Polish Route. Having crossed many many glacial rivers in Iceland with a heavy pack a few years ago, this is not something I particularly enjoy, but this time I won’t be on my own.

No matter the route, rockfalls and landslides are the biggest danger. This video is one of the examples frequently seen on the mountain: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owTaxmaoVR4

For those who decide to go up the technical Direct Polish Route, crevasses often cause their share of trouble…

Fast, Faster

The youngest climber was 9, oldest was 87 years old. While a typical trek up and down Aconcagua takes about 17-19 days, Kilian Jornet did everything in 12h49min. But two months later Karl Egloff broke the record with 11h52min.

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Statistics

The odds are against us. About +3000 attempt the summit every year between December and March. About 2/3 to ¾ of them fail, either from bad weather, exhaustion or altitude sickness… Aconcagua is not to be taken lightly and on average 3-4 people die every year on the mountain. As it is a non-technical mountain, many underestimate how dangerous the mountain can be.  It is said to have the highest death rate of any south American mountain.

My next adventure!

“The biggest adventure you can take is to live the life of your dreams” said 21st century philosopher Oprah Winfrey.

And going up mountains has always been my biggest dream. When people ask me what make me become a glaciologist, it’s always been because it would bring me closer to the peaks, closer to the mountains.

After a very adventurous 2016 I found 2017 looking rather dull and empty. It’s kinda hard to top Kilimanjaro, the Arctic, the North Pole, Svalbard, and Antarctica but it’s not about making 2017 better, it is about discovering new places, experiencing new regions and travelling with friends.

I like mountains, but I like tall mountains even more. Kilimanjaro last year was “just” one step among many to keep testing my body at higher and higher elevations. And I remember at the end of the hike telling my brother (who had summited with me) that in 2017 we had to try even harder, and go even higher. And that’s what we’re going to do!

We’re going to try to climb Aconcagua, 6961 m above sea level (that’s 22 838 ft) in December 2017/January 2018!!

Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the world outside of Asia. It is the top of “the Americas” and even more interestingly it is one of the seven summits.

I’ve always dreamt of hiking in the Andes so there we are. Now I have about 9 months to train, find money/sponsors and all the equipment needed for the climb! Watch this space, I will update you on my progress on a regular basis!

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The beast by Matan Sagi.

 

Two months on the Larsen C ice shelf

 

About 14 months ago, I got the incredible chance to take part in the MIDAS project, focusing on the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica. After four years in Svalbard and my PhD diploma in the pocket, it was time to follow the path of the terns and migrate south.

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A field campaign in Antarctica is not to be organised lightly. Luckily, I was joining a greatly experienced team, among which scientists who had already been down to Antarctica several times. Before heading to the southernmost continent, the British Antarctic Survey, an organisation that was in charge of all the logistics of our project, led an Antarctic Survival Course in Cambridge.

Spending 6 days in Girton college was already quite an exotic experience for a cold Svalbardian like me. We learnt more about BAS’ role and structure, as well as the ins and outs of polar photography, and the essential first aid. Team building and good communication was also a key part of the course.

Finally, by October 2015 I met with the rest of the team in London Heathrow. We were five glaciologists, two from Aberystwyth, one from Swansea. They were not hard to find, we were the only ones wearing huge boots and holding our massive down jackets at the airport.

The journey to Antarctica is a long one, obviously. After a flight to Madrid, we reached Santiago in Chile, and finally Punta Arenas. A few other members of BAS were travelling alongside, some electrician, bulldozer drivers, cook, etc. It felt so surreal that travelling to Antarctica seemed so normal to them. In Punta, we were briefed about the final flight to the white continent. The dash 7 was ready, and the weather for the next day looked good.

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Today, most people travel to Antarctica by ship. To be, this feels more natural, more gradual, than taking a 5h flight from South America to the Peninsula. In the air, you barely blink and boom you are already on another planet. The first sight of the Peninsula hit me like a slap in my face. He pilot told us to look on the port side to see our destination, the British station of Rothera. A dot lost in a tower of glaciers, sea ice and mountains. The adventure begins.

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We were the first scientific team going to Rothera that year after the overwintering. We felt extremely welcome. Our schedule was busy, a week of organising and testing the equipment that we would take with us, and some training for the newbies like me. Time flew by, and finally we got the green light to fly to the Larsen C ice shelf. This is the largest ice shelf remaining on the Antarctic Peninsula, and it only takes about one hour to reach it using a twin otter. In total, we needed eight flights to take all of our equipment and us to the ice.

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Luckily, we had to badass and extremely experienced and skilled GA’s (for General Assistants) to look after our logistics, safety, and camp organisation. This is a luxury for scientists like us. We can totally focus our attention on the science, while we are in absolute trust of the decisions of our GA’s.

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Like on the ice shelf was busy! Of course, you want to make the absolute most of every minute of good weather Antarctica gives you. We were dropped on the shelf on the 29th of October, the earliest anyone had been there before. It was early, the winter was ending, and hence the conditions were cold. This caused some trouble for us who were working with liquid water. However, a field campaign is not a race it is a marathon. Moreover, we always waited for the weather to be in our favour do use certain field techniques and prevent any loss of equipment which would be disastrous so far from anything.

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On the shelf, we collected an array of geophysical techniques. I was mostly helping with the radar data collection, along with Dr. Adam Booth and Dr. Suzanne Bevan. Ground Penetrating Radar measurements allow us to investigate the structure of the shelf, have an idea of the ice temperature and water content, and of the density of the ice/firn. Most days we would relay each other driving a skidoo to which the equipment was attached. The name of the game is to drive very slowly over long distances.

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We established four different camps on the shelf. We spent about 2 weeks at the first one. We needed time to get into a routine, but most importantly, we needed time to calibrate our instruments, and make sure everything was ready to rock and roll. The cold delayed our drilling operations but patience was key.

Our camp was very well organised thanks to our amazing GA’s. We had one 3-person tent, and two two-person tents for sleeping. One large mess tent was erected to store equipment and occasionally cook for the group (but it was always too cold inside), and finally we had the toilet tent that we broke 3 times. We slept in what BAS calls Scott tent, an almost identical replica of what our great hero was using on his trip. These tents weight a ton and are extremely resistant to wind. I was sharing my tent with fellow scientist Suzanne, and our sleeping quarters were super nicely arranged. Suzanne had already been to Antarctica with BAS the previous year, so she guided me through the BAS’ ways to do everything. And indeed it is very specific and precise.

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Every day we would wake up around 630 and try to be ready by eight or nine. It takes a little while to boil water for our breakfast, to have a little “wash” with thawed wet wipes and get ready to face the day. Food was surprisingly ok. Most of what we ate had to be rehydrated with boiling water. In the morning we would usually have muesli, coffee, and boil at least 3 litres of water to survive the day. For lunch, the French person that I discovered in horror that all we had was biscuit, peanut butter and jam, but actually it tasted amazing was was quite filling. We also had plenty of snacks, chocolate bars, to compensate for all these calories burnt by the cold. Dinner would always be a calorie heavy pack of dehydrated food. Thai chicken curry was my favourite. After a few days of eating pretty much the same thing every day you learn how to pimp your food. I ended up adding either raisins or mash to everything, with pickles and lots of spices carefully brought with our scientific equipment. Halfway into our field campaign we got a resupply flight, which meant freshies! Fresh food is a luxury in the field and we sent to BAS a long list of goodies such as: more booze, more raisins, bread, pickles, cheese and fresh vegetables. It was better than Christmas!

When not helping with the radar we would join the other group in charge of the drilling operations or the seismics array. The day would end whenever what we set out to do was complete, or when the weather was turning bad. It could be early or very late. One day as I was returning to camp with our GA Al, after having collected a few dozens of km of radar data, we literally had 3 min to unpack our equipment before being hit by a full blast blizzard that lasted for 3 days. Lucky we had made it back just in time.

As the weeks were progressing, we were becoming more and more efficient, in our work and camp relocations. The data was pouring in, and the weather was becoming easier and easier on us. The clock was ticking, and we decided to make one last migration to camp D to try to get as much data as possible. I only got to spend two nights at this scenic camp as Rothera had decided to evacuate us because a strong storm was coming, but most importantly, the 6 weeks budgeted for the field campaign was coming to an end. The team did a splendid job of collecting data until the very last minute on the shelf.

In all fairness, none of us were excited at the thought of going back to civilisation. After 6 weeks without a shower, you can just keep going for another few weeks. The equipment was still in perfect order, the data was becoming more and more interesting, but we had to go back. I was the first one of the team flying back to Rothera. How surreal. The snow and the ice around the station had melted quite a bit, and the station was buzzing! Its population went from 20 to 200 in only two months. After three or four showers, I felt ready to make my way to the canteen, and finally after 6 weeks of dehydrated food, eat the most scrumptious food of Rothera. My teammates came back the next day, I was already missing them!

Although we had planned for two weeks in Rothera, we got the chance to leave after only 4 days. Our tired bodies kept going hard to finish packing and saving the data right in time for the plane to take us to Punta Areas. And there marked the end of two amazing months studying the Larsen C ice shelf.

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The carbon footprint of my trip to Antarctica

No joke, these trips to the other side of the world have a significant impact on our planet. As a glaciologist, I thought it was only fair to calculate the carbon cost of my voyage to Antarctica, as well as the emissions of our ship.

The idea does not come from me, it actually come from one of the most inspiring person I met on the ship last year. This person has been “carbon neutral” for a few years now. Way to go. So my plan for 2017 is to embark on the same journey. I’ve always found it a bit ironic to teach about the impacts of climate change on glaciers while flying around the world, driving snow scooters and taking helicopter trips. But it’s never too late to act!

Back to my calculations. Today, all the tools are available to calculate roughly how much CO2 are emitted by cars, busses, planes, …  For this little exercise, I’ve used the following websites:

http://www.carbonbalanced.org/calculator/flights.asp for the flights

https://www.google.co.uk/maps for the distances by bus

Things got a little more complicated when it came to calculate the emissions from our ship. Turns out that the ship burns about 6.5 to 7 tons of fuel per day. CO2 equivalence depends of course on the type of fuel. MGO (Marine Gas Oil) is what our ship uses, and the calculation is quite simple, 1 ton of MGO corresponds to 3.082 tons of CO2. Why do carbon emissions weight more than the original fuel you ask? Well it’s fairly simple. During combustion, each carbon atom in the fuel combines with two oxygen atoms in the air to make CO2 (source: https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=82&t=11) .

Here is the final result: The carbon footprint of travelling to Antarctica and spending 52 days on a cruise ship:

CO2 (tons)
Busses 0.01
Flights 6.42
Ship 5.69
Total 12.13

So 12.13 tons of carbon dioxide. Is this big or small? Just to give you an idea, the emissions for one full year of an average person in the UK amount to 7.13 tons (Data: world bank). So emitting this in two months is definitely a lot.

What really surprised me is how much the ship emitted over these two months. The ship burnt about 364 tons of MGO, making a total of 1200 tons of CO2. This is equivalent to what an average car would emit in…. 188 years. A recent study from UCL (http://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2016/11/02/science.aag2345) showed that for every ton of carbon dioxide we emit, 3 square meters of arctic sea ice melt. Glup.

What can we learn from this?

Well it is no surprises that tourism in the polar regions has a significant cost on the environment. And I am “only” talking about CO2 emissions. I do strongly believe in the role that these cruises play in communicating and informing the guests about the impacts in climate change in these fragile environments. We can only hope that once our guests return to their home country, that they would themselves become the ambassadors of these regions, spreading the word on climate change and its impacts to their families and friends.

What is the future of tourism in Antarctica?

No matter how exclusive and remote this region is, the tourism industry is investing massively in the region. A total of 52 cruise ships (registered by IAATO: https://iaato.org/documents/10157/1444539/Tourism+Summary+by+Expedition/ef1ed708-ff6d-40f8-9ef4-bbafd5908112 ) travelled to Antarctica in the summer 2015-2016. A whole new fleet of ships is currently being built especially for gaining access to these challenging and icy places (eg: http://www.travelandleisure.com/cruises/new-cruise-ships)

Some silver lining in this, the norwegian company Hurtigruten will get the first hybrid cruise ships travelling to the polar regions: http://www.cntraveler.com/story/how-rolls-royce-is-helping-hurtigruten-make-eco-friendly-cruise-ships but this is not going to solve the problem of guests travelling to the port of call, and the increasing emissions coming from an increasing number of ships going to these regions.

 So what are the solutions?

Before booking a cruise you can actually check which ships are the least polluting (in terms of water and air pollution among other things): http://www.foe.org/cruise-report-card although most of the small cruise ships we met in Antarctica (

In general, cruises are more polluting per kilometre than flying on a large aircrafts. So if you’re looking into sustainable tourism, cruises are probably not the way to go.

What can we improve? Well I believe that putting a price on the carbon emissions is essential. Just like airlines are working hard on reducing carbon emissions, or on including the carbon emissions of their flights in the price of their tickets, cruise operators should follow suit.

Is reducing tourism in the polar regions a solution? Tourism is already regulated in the region by IAATO. Cruise ships with more than 500 passengers for example cannot do landing. But in addition to limiting the number of people who can go on land, limiting at the base the number of ships allowed to travel on the Antarctic Peninsula would be a much stronger, and much more efficient move.

There is a lot we can learn from another fragile place, namely the Galapagos Islands. There, the number of tourists is highly regulated, and tourism helps to fund research. Tourism could help funding research in Antarctica, how cool would that be?!

These are just some ideas, but if we want to combine sustainability and tourism in Antarctica, we have to act now.

To the end of the world

I’ve just come back from two extraordinary months in Antarctica, and I want to tell you all about it. I was working on the M/V Sea Spirit as a lecturer in glaciology and a guide. The plan was to join a total of 4 back-to-back cruises, from the beginning of November to the end of December. Lucky me!

It all started in Ushuaia, often regarded as the southernmost city in the world. There, I met with the rest of the dream team, and together we spent two days exploring the Tierra Del Fuego and the Arakur Hotel. Fun fact, this is where Leonardo Dicaprio finished shooting The Revenant. Pilgrimage.

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After these two fun filled days it was time to begin the big adventure, and embark on what will be our home for the next two months. Sea Spirit has a crew of 69 people, and can welcome a total of 115 guests. The first cruise was 21 days, sailing to the Falklands (!), South Georgia (!!) and finally the Antarctic Peninsula (!!!). All subsequent cruises focused on the Antarctic Peninsula.

So first off, the beautiful Falkland islands. The Falklands are true birders’ paradise. We spent two days on the Malvinas, the first day on West Point, and the second day in “Little Britain” aka the capital Stanley.

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After a few sea sick days, we made it to South Georgia. I’ve always dreamt of going there, and my expectations got more than exceeded! We spent a total of 8 days there. What I remember from it is a lot of early early landings, ever changing weather and a lot of swell. But most importantly I remember the steep mountains, the colors, the fast shifting clouds, and of course the out of wordly wildlife.

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Fortuna Bay, St Andrews, Drygalski fjord, Grytviken, Stromness, all these names still resonate in my dreams. As we left magical South Georgia we made a surprise stop at Elephant Island. ELEPHANT ISLAND! I couldn’t believe it. This is where Shackleton’s men stayed for four months waiting to be rescued. What a place. Hell of an island. It looks like someone had vertically stretched the mountains. Fortunately for us, the weather was blissful.

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And eventually we made it to the imposing, the magnificent, the astonishing Antarctic Peninsula. As I saw these icebergs, these mountains covered from head to toe by huge glaciers I knew I was back in my dreamland.

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There’s nothing like it on earth. No matter where you look your eyes get stuck on the scale and the beauty of this landscape. There wasn’t a day I didn’t have to pick up my jaw that fell on the floor.

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At the beginning of the season, the conditions were every changing, and we rarely got to see the blue of the sky. But as December came, the weather only got better, the wildlife got happier and richer, and Antarctica was truly blossoming.

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The penguin chicks started to hatch

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The Whales migrated further and further south

Antarctica is not populated by the Antarcticans or the South Polians, but by researchers. We got the chance to visit three different research stations over these two months.

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Over these four cruises, all of us in the expedition team started to find their favorite sites. And for me, above and beyond all these stunning landscapes was one that stole my heart. And that is the Antarctic Sound. The Sound is a location at the very northern tip of the Peninsula. The waters there, in between tiny islands, are quite shallow. This is the place where the huge tabular icebergs become grounded. A temple for glaciologists.

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And sadly all these amazing adventures had to come to an end. After 52 days on the ship, 8 drake passagers and a huge number of icebergs, I had to greet goodbye to these frozen lands. And greet goodbye to all the inspiring people who travelled with us across the Peninsula. Thank you Poseidon for the fantastic experience, I’ll be back (I hope!) 🙂

And hop another picture of the tabulars 😉

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90N

Never in a million years would I have ever thought that I would go to the geographic North Pole. Not this year, not next year, not ever.

Well, this actually happened on the 16th of July 2016!

This crazy adventure started from a crazy email I received from Poseidon Expeditions, a german/russian cruise operator specializing in polar expedition cruising. I had just come back to France after screwing up a very important job interview, and my moral was lower than low. But there it was, the golden ticket that Charlie never expected to find, in my mailbox. An invitation to join a cruise to the North Pole. It took a few pinches of my skins, and about 10 re-reads to realize that Jan, the Expedition Leader, wasn’t joking. I would actually go to the Pole.

How can we get to the North Pole in 2016 you ask? Well there are a few options.

In the winter/spring, the Russians build a little airstrip on the sea ice, called Barneo, and flights from Svalbard connect the base to the rest of the world. From Barneo, weather permitting, you can take a helicopter that will take you to the pole. The other B.A. option is of course to ski to the North Pole, fighting wind/cold/and drifting sea ice, not to mention the bears.

But this time, we won’t be skiing or flying, we will get there by sea. The only problem to reach the North Pole by sea is obviously sea ice. In the summer the sea ice shrink to an area of about 9 million km2 (the size of Canada), and can be up to a few meters thick. It takes a mighty beast of a ship to be able to plough through this sheet of ice, fortunately, we have the largest, and most powerful beast to take us there: the Russian nuclear powered icebreaker 50 years of Victory.

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Image from http://www.motaen.com 

After a few hiccups, the construction of the ship was finished in 2007 in St Petersburg. She is one of the few Arktika class nuclear powered icebreakers, and can generate 75000 horsepower and crush up to 3m of sea ice without even slowing down. Pretty amazing.

The 50 years of Victory carries a team of 140 crew, and can take up to 128 passengers. The ship is first and foremost an icebreaker design to break ice for other ships operating in the Arctic. Only recently has it started to carry passengers to the pole during the summer months. 6 cruises are organised every year.

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The main characters of this adventure: MMK (Murmansk), FJL (Franz Josef Land) and of course, the Pole.

The trip started off from Murmansk, along the Kola fjord, right against the Norwegian border.

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MMK from the Azimuth Hotel, the tallest building North of the Arctic Circle! 

Murmansk is celebrating its 100 year anniversary this year! What a city. It was my first time in Russia, and I was mesmerized by its atmosphere, its soul. And on the 11th of July, we welcomed our first passengers aboard the 50 years of Victory, ready for the trip of a lifetime.

 

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Top right: first sight of Franz Josef Land. Lower right: Fog bow in the Arctic Ocean.

It took a few days for all of us to find our bearings and get into the swing of things. The days are busy and exciting, even during the sea crossings! This is the opportunity for us the lecturers to give our fist talks, and to get to know our passengers.

After two days at sea we reached the mysterious russian archipelago of Franz Josef Land. Found East of Svalbard, I’ve always dreamt of visiting this remote and inaccessible place. And there we were! Mountains were drapped by a dancing sea of clouds, and the huge glaciers gracefully kissing the Arctic ocean. What a place!

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The 50 years of Victory is unlike any other ship, and it never ceased to amazed us. Everyday brought its load of surprises, and having our first helicopter flight in Franz Josef Land was one of many, but not one we will quickly forget.

We continued sailing North of the archipelago, and finally met what is the 50 years of Victory’s natural environment: The Arctic Sea Ice. We awaited the first ice floes with trepidation, anxious and excited to see how the ship would react. And believe me, you don’t have to be a glaciologist to be fascinated by sea ice breaking under the 26250 tons of metal.

14188397_10154448678299876_751871322109629704_oThe first ice also brought its first inhabitants! I was amazed by how delicately the crew would maneuver the ship when bears were in the vicinity. The ship would become so quiet, stop, and almost become invisible.

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This female bear sat in front of the ship, 2 m from the hull, and had decided that we would not move until she had decided so!

It wasn’t just the passing landscape that was rapidly changing, the atmosphere on board was full of excitement and every degree of latitude crossed meant the pole was only getting closer.

But sadly as we were ploughing through the 80th degrees, the weather turned particularly cloudy, foggy, and huge polynyas (areas of open water surrounded by sea ice) made a dent in our excitation. What will the Pole be like? will there be water there? There were a few worried faces among us.

But even more than ever, luck was on our side. We got awoken early, on the morning of the 16th of July. The word was that we were only a few minutes, then a few seconds from the Geographic North Pole. Almost there!! Never have I seen a happier group of people, preparing cameras, GPS’, flags, and looking forward over the horizon. Of course there’s no sign to expect at the North Pole. The sea ice continuously drifts across the ocean, and only a good GPS will tell you where the pole actually is, in this changing landscape. And the Arctic fought hard to prevent us from reaching it! We had to cross and break several pressure ridges to reach our ultimate destination. But at 6am, the ship’s alarm rang. We were at the North Pole! Hugs, kisses, prayers, and a million pictures later, we could still barely believe we had made it.

The gods of the Arctic had reserved the best weather for this exceptional day. After reaching the pole the ship was “parked” in a stronger ice floe about a kilometer away, and a plethora of activities were organised out on the sea ice. Among them, the most popular one: taking a picture pulling the ship with one of the guide ropes.

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What an amazing day it was. One of my highlights of the day was when we made a heart, and held a minute of silence, all holding hands.

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Photo from the amazing Anthony Smith

It was hard to leave the North Pole after such an incredible day. Will I ever get back to the Pole? What will it be like in a year? In ten years? I’m just so grateful to have had the chance to go there.

And there we were, sailing south with a lighter heart, and tons of new memories that we cannot wait to share with the rest of the world.

So long North Pole, hope to see you again!

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Some links:

Poseidon Expeditions

The 50 years of Victory

Amateur documentary about the 50 years of Victory