Jean-Louis Etienne has spent more than two decades getting to know the North Pole. The explorer and adventurer has crossed the Arctic on foot, sailed in the Arctic Ocean and spent one winter living alone in a hut on the pack ice. He insists he's the last person to be imagining things when he observes changes taking place in the region. "It's clear as day," he says, "the ice has changed, there's no getting around it." Satellite images aren't necessary to see that, he says. "Shall I give you an example?"
This spring, he says, temperatures in the Arctic were much warmer than normal. In April 2007, when Etienne was at a location near the North Pole, the thermometer there read -15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit). "Just 15 below, can you believe it?" In other words, it was clearly unseasonably warm.
The weather used to be different, says Etienne, and he experienced it in an up close and personal way when he crossed the Arctic on foot for the first time in 1986. It was Etienne's first major expedition, the one that made him famous. He spent 63 days walking across the ice, alone, to reach the North Pole. It was so cold that the pilot who dropped Etienne off on the edge of the polar ice cap in far northern Canada was afraid to shut off his engine, fearing that the propeller would freeze if he did.
The icy landscape was spectacular in those days, says Etienne. He describes the way the distorted ice looks when ice floes collide -- they splinter, crack and are pushed up to form ridges. The bizarre formations, known as compressed ice ridges, were much higher in the past -- so high, in fact, that it was impossible to cross them with a sled. Etienne swears that he remembers these formations correctly. He also insists that 20 years ago, the North Pole was truly a different place: there was more ice; it was colder; and the obstacles were taller.
Jean-Louis Etienne is now 60. He has lost most of his hair and liver spots dot his bald head. He could have slowed down long ago, giving talks about polar bears and autographing coffee-table books. But standing across from him in his Paris office, with a view of Montmartre, one quickly senses that a slower pace is not his style.
Every Frenchman knows Etienne, their short, wiry Arctic hero, more famous in France than even mountain-climbing legend Reinhold Messner is in Germany. When Etienne embarks on an expedition, it's front-page news in the French papers.
Earlier this year, Etienne met with executives at French oil company Total, and told them what the Arctic was once like and how the ice is shrinking today. He also asked them for the €7 million ($9.6 million) he needed for his next spectacular adventure.
Total, the world's sixth-largest oil company, is worth €143 billion, employs 95,000 people worldwide and produces 2.36 million barrels of oil and natural gas a day. Total made the internal decision long ago to become as environmentally friendly as possible, although many see these kinds of voluntary commitments as less than convincing, especially coming from an oil company.
When the oil tanker "Erika" broke apart off the coast of Brittany in 1999, it wreaked environmental havoc, sending thousands of tons of Total oil into the Atlantic, polluting beaches and killing wildlife. The case was recently brought before a French court, prompting television networks to re-broadcast the ugly images from the freighter disaster. Yves-Marie Dalibard, Total's director of public relations, immediately recognized the value of Etienne's proposal. A polar expedition could create a new image for Total, where pictures of oil-covered seals and struggling sea birds would be replaced by photographs of breathtakingly pristine landscapes of ice.
Dalibard receives two or three meticulously prepared requests for financial backing per day. An energy savings project here, an art exhibition there -- he turns down almost every one of them. But when the celebrated Etienne showed up in his office with his stories of vanishing ice and slides to illustrate his point, Dalibard was immediately convinced that the project made sense. It would benefit Etienne, help scientists and perhaps even be of value to the globe. And it would certainly be good for Total.
With the help of Total, Etienne is now planning his return to the Arctic. He wants to make one last trip, because he believes that the world is changing at the pole, and because he wants to understand exactly what's happening there.
There is no shortage of observations that agree with Etienne's own that the pole isn't what it used to be. According to researchers from Greenland, spring arrives earlier each year and the warm period lasts longer. Canadian companies that operate polar expeditions say that crossing the North Pole from Siberia to Canada is now almost impossible because the ice has become too brittle.
Although it is clear that some kind of process is underway, scientists still don't understand exactly what it is causing it.
Some hope that the polar changes are merely coincidental. Critics say that Etienne could well be confusing personal impressions with the global situation. Here is an old man telling stories about his past, they say, a man who is likely to play up his adventures and exaggerate the hardships he faced. Who knows, they conjecture, if he had ventured out onto the ice 10 days earlier in April 2007 or had been dropped off at a point 100 kilometers away, perhaps everything would have looked different -- possibly the way it looked in the past. Besides, thin, brittle sections of ice existed 20 years ago, which could suggest that what is now taking place is a completely natural, and normal, phenomenon.
These are valid considerations, especially in light of observations that appear to demonstrate precisely the opposite of what Etienne has seen. For example, it is not getting warmer everywhere. This year boats carrying about 500 seal hunters got stuck in the pack ice. Even though seamen have known the dangers of the Arctic for centuries, they were taken by surprise by the severity of this winter. Supplies had to be brought in by air for weeks until the ice had melted enough to release the hunters and their boats.
And contrary to popular belief, the polar ice cap is not melting everywhere. In fact, the ice cover appears to be the thickest in places where it is relatively warm, namely off the coasts of Alaska and Canada. Surprisingly enough, the sea off the coast of Siberia, the Arctic's ice chest, contains relatively little ice. The problem is a scarcity of data on the weather at the pole. Scientists are observing changes and documenting what is clearly some form of climate change, and yet they are unable to predict it.
Satellite photos show that the surface of the ice is shrinking. But whether the North Pole will be ice-free in 40 years, 60 years or never is mere speculation. To this day, scientists are still unable to determine exactly how thick -- or thin -- the ice in the Arctic actually is.
That is why Etienne is crossing the North Pole once again. He will fly several thousand kilometers across the polar ice cap next spring in an airship and collect data. This time, he says, the purpose of the adventure is not to set any records. In fact, Etienne won't be the first to make such a journey in an airship. That pioneer was Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who made the trip in 1926.
Flying across the North Pole
For Etienne's flight, a measuring device using state-of-the-art technology to measure ice thickness will be suspended from his dirigible. The device works best from an altitude of about 20 meters (65 feet) and while moving at a leisurely pace. The airship is the ideal craft, because an airplane cannot fly as slowly and a helicopter lacks the necessary range.
The inventor of the measuring device is Christian Haas, a German scientist with the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, Germany's leading authority on polar research based in the northern port city of Bremerhaven.
This marriage of convenience -- a French explorer recreating a famous voyage, a German scientist interested in ice masses, and a global oil company looking for an image makeover -- might not save the world, but it might provide the sort of information that contributes to our understanding of what is happening to the planet.
Etienne has been planning this flight across the North Pole for more than a year now. Completion of the airship, which is being built near Moscow, will soon be completed. Etienne and two pilots will spend the autumn and winter practicing flying the craft, training the ground crew and working out the logistics before the spring launch.
Etienne has established a company to manage his expedition. Called "The Seventh Continent," it will organize his trips, recruit and hire fellow adventurers, handle the marketing of video and photos and look for sponsors. These are tasks that co-workers of Etienne say come naturally to the man: getting people excited about his projects and raising money. That's important, since the 2008 North Pole expedition comes with a price tag of about €7 million, a sum that couldn't be drummed up by selling coffee-table books alone.
Etienne first wanted to get the entire French energy sector involved, including electric utilities, the nuclear power industry and oil and gas companies -- in other words, those parties responsible for CO2 emissions and the resulting environmental problems.
"Well, we're all responsible, of course, not just industry," says Etienne. But his idea made sense: collect the funds needed to research the consequences of energy consumption from those who make their living selling energy.
Companies were enthusiastic about the project.
Even oil giant BP, which wasn't on Etienne's list, wanted to know whether it could sign on as a sponsor. But the British firm was out of the question for Etienne, who, after all, is French.
Instead of struggling to scrape together enough money for his venture, Etienne found himself picking and choosing among a field of players who had lined up to get on board. But the energy companies, as it turned out, weren't interested in a joint venture. Each of them wanted an exclusive deal.
Total won out in the end, and will provide €3.5 million euros for logistics and another €3.5 million for the airship. After the trip, Etienne will sell the airship and pay back Total's investment. The company is already footing the bill for the preparatory work.
This last spring, Etienne left his Paris office and headed north, all the way to Camp Borneo, a small tent city near the North Pole operated by a Russian expedition company and probably the most unusual place in the Arctic. It serves as a base camp for all kinds of polar wanderers, including researchers, members of expeditions, tourists and record-seekers, and for wealthy people looking to fulfill a dream.
Decked out in a snowsuit donated by Total, Etienne met there with Christian Haas, the German scientist from Bremerhaven, and German student Julian von Blücher, 25, who is being sponsored by the American ice cream company Ben & Jerry's to serve as a "climate ambassador" and assist Haas in collecting data.
Other temporary residents of the camp included a group of Malaysian extreme parachutists who were there to parachute onto a target at the North Pole, a group of inebriated Russians and 75-year-old Barbara Hillary, who wanted to be the first African-American woman to reach the North Pole on foot.
The champagne tourists, the oddballs and the Russians constantly shouting "Moscow, Moscow" from their kitchen tent, were par for the course and even a necessary presence -- the camp depends on the income they generate. Indeed, perhaps the only way to save the pole is to market it.
For the tourists, life at the camp is relatively cozy. They sleep in blue tents lined up on the ice, which are well insulated and heated to a toasty 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit) by oil burners. The heat cannot be regulated, so to cool things down one has to open the tent's door.
A lake of melted ice quickly forms under the tent floors, so that walking inside them is akin to strolling across a waterbed. If the heated tents stayed in place long enough, they would eventually sink through the polar ice.
For tourists the trip, which runs them about €20,000 euros ($27,410) apiece, begins in the northern Norwegian city of Spitzbergen, where they board a massive Antonov cargo aircraft for the trip to Camp Barneo. From Camp Barneo, a Russian helicopter takes them to the North Pole, where they are guaranteed a landing directly on the pole. The price includes room and board.
"As a scientist you're always forced to make compromises," says Haas, the German scientist. He is well aware that his tent, set apart from the regular sleeping tents, is merely part of the scenery for the polar tourists. He also knows that he and his measurements provide solid justification for Etienne's adventure trips, and that Total, for its part, benefits from Etienne's heroic image.
Camp Barneo is located about 80 to 100 kilometers (50 to 62 miles) from the North Pole, or at least it was. In late spring the Russians took down their tents and moved on to another site, because the ice was melting beneath them.
This is the biggest difference between the South Pole and North Pole. The Antarctic, the home of the South Pole, is a continent -- a land mass covered with an ice shield several thousand meters thick. But at the North Pole, on the other side of the globe, there is no land under the frozen water. The Arctic ice floats on the ocean, 4,000 meters (about 13,000 feet) deep at the pole, and submarines can travel underneath the ice cap.
The Arctic ice is also constantly changing. Currents and winds are constantly pushing ice floes around the ocean. The edges of the cap routinely melt away in the summer, while new ice forms in the winter, sometimes in different places than during the previous year. This variability is one of the reasons it is so difficult to tell how severely climate change is affecting the Arctic. It can also be difficult to tell where Camp Barneo is at any particular time, since it drifts along with the ice, which can travel several dozen kilometers per day. The only way to determine the camp's exact coordinates is by using a GPS device.
The Arctic ice is less than two meters (about 6.5 feet) thick in many places, and it can be measured by simply pushing a rod into it until water is reached. That's the way Christian Haas, the German scientist, went about determining ice thickness for many years.
'A Thickness of Zero in 40 Years'
Haas measured the Arctic ice for the first time in 1991, but his measurements were always made in random locations. A large-scale study has never been conducted. Now 40 years old, Haas is a level-headed man with a personality that is almost a mirror image of his partner in the venture, Etienne.
While Etienne tells his stories about the ice with élan, attempting to pull his listeners into his adventure with every sentence, Haas is cool and unemotional when he describes the results of his research. "We measured a thickness of about two-and-a-half meters in 1991, two meters in 2001. This spring it was down to 1.7 meters." He adds: "If the same trend continues, we'll have a thickness of zero in 40 years."
In 2000, a tourist on board a Russian icebreaker took a picture, only 10 kilometers from the North Pole, that ended up being printed and broadcast around the world. The photo depicted a vast expanse of blue water in a place where one would expect to see a large field of ice. It was widely interpreted as tangible evidence of climate change. Germany's tabloid Bild printed the photo with the headline: "Is the North Pole gone?"
"But that's completely normal," says Haas. "The ice breaks up in the summer, leaving large expanses of water. But the whole thing can look completely different the next day, when the ice has migrated again. When that happens, a ship probably wouldn't even come close to the pole."
Haas is in a tough spot. On the one hand, he is familiar with the alarming data: his own measurements that document the thinning of the ice as well as satellite images and other scientists' calculations on the rate of the ice melt. He is careful not to downplay any of this information. On the other hand, the level of hysteria around the climate has risen to such heights that he prefers to keep an objective frame of mind.
In fact, if the ice around the North Pole were to completely disappear, Haas says the rise in sea level would be almost imperceptible. That is because the ice at the North Pole is floating on the ocean; it's already in the water. For sea levels to rise appreciably, additional water would have to flow into the ocean -- from Greenland's glaciers or the Antarctic, for example.
But, scientists have found, the ice cap at the South Pole is even becoming slightly thicker, making it appear at first glance that global warming is causing ice to melt on one side of the earth, but not on the other.
"We don't completely understand the relationships yet," says Haas. But a probable explanation goes something like this: The air at the South Pole is normally colder and drier than it is at the North Pole. Although global warming does extend to the South Pole, temperatures are not rising sufficiently to melt the ice. Nevertheless, the warmer air is now capable of absorbing more moisture. As a result, snowfall levels rise, even causing the ice cap to grow in some places. Therefore, climate change is also affecting the south, but the consequences are different.
This spring, back on the other side of the earth, at Camp Barneo, Haas and Etienne tested the "EM Bird" -- the device they will use on the airship to measure the thickness of the ice. The 3.4-meter (11-foot) device packed with sophisticated electronics is shaped like a torpedo and was developed at Bremerhaven's Wegener Institute.
Haas and Etienne attached the EM Bird to the bottom of their red Russian helicopter and took off. Their task was to calibrate the device so that the data it will bring in next year when it's dangling from the airship will be exact.
The EM Bird uses a laser to scan the ice surface. At the same time, an electromagnetic sensor determines the distance from the device to the bottom of the ice. The difference between the two measurements equals the ice's thickness.
To calibrate the instrument, each measurement it made had to be repeated manually. That task fell to student Blücher, who wasn't decked out in a Total parka, but one sporting the Ben & Jerry's logo.
After winning a contest sponsored by the ice cream company, Blücher was given the title of "climate ambassador" -- and the chance to assist on the ice.
To complete the manual measurements, Blücher used a standard commercial drill, but one with a meter-long drill bit and an extension rod. He walked a predetermined route -- a gun always at hand to protect against polar bears, a Web cam in his pocket and drilled into the ice at 100-meter (329-foot) intervals. The results were later compared with the readings Haas obtained with the EM Bird.
Like Haas and Etienne, Blücher believes that the work he is doing is important. The three men were a bit disdainful of the party-like atmosphere at Camp Barneo, even though they were part of it. After returning from one of his drilling trips, Blücher found himself in the midst of a barbeque. The Russians had dumped charcoal onto the ice and were grilling kebabs for the entire camp. Even as their grill pit gradually melted its way through the ice, the Russians were thrilled to be part of the world's northernmost barbeque party.
Entertainment will also be part of the mix next year, when the airship finally takes to the skies. The cabin holds four passengers, normally the two pilots, one scientist and a cameraman. Occasionally the cameraman will have to make way for a guest of honor -- Total's CEO, for instance. Prince Albert of Monaco has apparently also expressed an interest in taking a spin in the airship.
The mission will be called the "Total Pole Airship." The airship itself will be 50 meters (164 feet) long and 17 meters (56 feet) tall. It will cross the polar ice cap in three stages, which means that there will be three base camps, three landing masts to which the airship will be tethered, and three ground crews.
Potential problems on the ground will pose the greatest risk to the mission, says Etienne. The airship itself, he adds, is extremely safe, as long as the crew takes a few precautions. A lightning rod must be attached to the airship at all times, otherwise electrostatic charges could easily build up on the shell in the dry air. Even an adventurer like Etienne prefers to avoid the nightmare scenario of sparks circling around the airship's fragile shell.
Ice, of course, poses another danger. If snow crystals were to adhere to the shell and form layers of ice, the airship would soon become too heavy.
Etienne plans to avert the problem by tying a cable around the shell, which will be attached to a volunteer assistant. During flight, the assistant will walk back and forth across the surface of the balloon, perhaps even jumping up and down occasionally to produce vibrations to dislodge the ice. Etienne himself prefers not to perform this task. "That's something for younger people," he says.
There is a model of the airship on a shelf in Etienne's office in Paris, where one wall is covered with framed photographs from his various missions. The model already sports Total's colors, yellow, blue and red, which will also be featured on the real thing.
A second model sits in the executive office of Total's press chief Dalibard, on the 43rd floor of a glass skyscraper on the outskirts of Paris. He is clearly pleased that Etienne will be delivering pictures featuring Total's logo high above the polar ice.
Some might wonder why an oil company is so committed to saving the polar ice cap, or if it even really is.
'A Company Like Ours Must Live up to Its Responsibilities'
Part of the reason might be on display right outside Dalibard's office window. His view potentially encompasses all of Paris, but today the city is shrouded in smog, and one can see only about as far as one or two bridges across the Seine River.
When he begins to speak, his words are what one would expect to hear from a PR director at a major corporation. "Naturally, a company like ours must live up to its responsibilities," he says, promptly pointing out Total's "diverse activities" and adding: "We aren't exactly the first ones to discover the issue of the environment."
He goes on to describe his company's commitment to minimizing its CO2 emissions. For example, he says, Total no longer burns off natural gas, a by-product of oil production, but pumps it back into the oil fields.
According to Dalibard, there could also be advantages to an Arctic ice melt. Trade routes to Asia, for example, would be shortened significantly since ships could sail quickly through the Arctic Sea instead of having to take the longer route through the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean. "So much less CO2!" he exclaims.
On the other hand, Etienne has told him that the absence of large expanses of white Arctic ice would mean less solar radiation would be reflected back into space. The earth would become even warmer, and the new route to Asia could become impassable as storms become more severe following substantial temperature change.
A few years ago, says Dalibard, Total and other major corporations came to the conclusion that focusing on short-term benefits is ultimately counterproductive. They have realized that the future of the industry, for example, does not depend on selling customers large amounts of energy within a short period of time, but instead on making that time window last as long as possible. Because resources are finite, it makes sense to invest in alternative energy sources, promote energy conservation and pay more attention to the environment. "This is also something our customers are demanding from us," he says.
Coming from a company, that sort of language sounds like propaganda straight from the corporate communications office. But having someone like Jean-Louis Etienne flying under the Total logo automatically raises the company's credibility.
This isn't the first time Etienne has received funding from the oil industry. During his first polar expedition 20 years ago, he wore the logo of French oil company Elf on his parka. The company apparently figured that consumers would identify the adventurer's strength and vigor with its gasoline brand. Elf, part of Total today, is involved in Formula 1 car racing. "Not particularly CO2-friendly," says Dalibard, laughing.
Total, the parent company, prefers to benefit from Etienne's image as a protector of the environment. The Total Pole Airship will deliver images of his company's logo suspended above a pristine, white, exotic and endangered landscape. The images promise to be as spectacular as they are effective.
"You can't possibly believe," says Dalibard, "that we're doing this for purely philanthropic reasons." In fact, Total supports a large number of smaller projects through its own foundation.
"This here," he says, pointing to the airship model, "this here is a carefully planned partnership. It's an investment."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan