Jean-Louis Etienne. © Stéphane Compoint

Interview with Jean-Louis Etienne

Jean-Louis Etienne and his team returned to Paris on April 29 after spending two weeks at Russia’s Barneo ice camp calibrating EM Bird, the electromagnetic device that will measure the thickness of the sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean when the airship makes the world’s first large scale survey in April 2008.

We talked with Jean-Louis Etienne about the expedition’s first mission.

What was the purpose of this mission?

Jean-Louis Etienne – We measured the topography of a 200-meter by 60-meter section of sea ice using a scanner from the French National Geographic Institute for the upper crust and a wire-guided submarine for the underwater surface. By subtracting, we were able to determine the exact thickness of the sea ice. After that, we did measurements in flight using the EM Bird. We compared the two sets of data to calibrate the device.

Are you satisfied with the results?

Jean-Louis Etienne – The most important thing is that we achieved our objective of calibrating the EM Bird. Overall, I’m very satisfied with the technical results. You always worry that something will go wrong at such extreme temperatures, because the equipment is very fragile. This first mission gave us the opportunity to do a whole battery of tests, and we’re now confident that the equipment works at low temperature. There’s also a really good energy among the team members, who were consistently enthusiastic and focused on their task.

Why did you go in April?

Jean-Louis Etienne – It’s the best time, at the end of winter. The sun never goes down and the temperature is good. The ice is compact just before spring. Starting in June, conditions at the North Pole become difficult. Visibility isn’t as good because of the clouds, the snow melts and there are more areas of free-flowing water.

Did the weather meet your expectations?

Jean-Louis Etienne – We had two or three days of nice weather. The rest of the time we had to work in difficult conditions. Everything takes longer when you’ve got wind, blizzards and low visibility.

What’s the next step?

Jean-Louis Etienne – Construction of the airship is coming along nicely in Moscow. The shell and the cabin should be delivered in Russia in late June and then shipped by truck to Marseille, where the airship will be assembled and parked in a hangar. The pilots will perform test flights in Marseille until the airship leaves for the North Pole in mid-March 2008.

Has the North Pole changed since your first expedition?

Jean-Louis Etienne – It seems to me that the compression peaks aren’t as high, which means that the ice pack is thinner. There’s also much more free-flowing water. At the end of April, we had temperatures of -14°C and -12°C, which is higher than 20 years ago. But I don’t want to be categorical—ten days before we got there it was -35°C. In any event, airplane and helicopter pilots systematically ask for a precise measurement of the ice thickness before they land, which is something they didn’t do 20 years ago. That shows that the overall ice pack isn’t as thick.

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