Travel & Science

Published in Global Geneva’s Winter 2018/19 print and e-edition, this article is part of our ongoing coverage on polar regions. Our first Polar Special Focus was published in the Summer, 2018 edition.

OUR MAIN AIM WAS TO UNDERSTAND MORE about the physics of high-energy cosmic rays in the Earth’s Arctic latitudes. Due to the shape of the geomagnetic field, the intensity of the charged cosmic radiation in these northern parts is far higher than in equatorial regions further to the south. Working with CERN, the project also had a strong education and communication dimension, with the involvement of two 20-year-old students in the construction of a cosmic ray detector as well as their participation in onboard collection of data.

As a result, PolarQuest was more than a science experiment; it was a historical one. The expedition included a well-documented attempt to reach the location of the airship Italia, which had crashed into the ice some 120 km northeast of Nordaustlandet, Svalbard (formerly known as Spitsbergen) on its return journey from the first airborne circling of the North Pole in 1928. With one dead, nine survivors were left on the floating ice; another six remained trapped in the still drifting airship shell. Neither the shell nor any of these crew members were ever found.

For the first time in centuries and primarily because of climate change, the area in which the wreck was believed to be located was ice-free. Taking advantage of this unusual situation, PolarQuest searched a wide region for metallic wreckage using an experimental 3D multi-beam sonar from NORBIT Subsea.

Melting ice. (PolarQuest2018)


Imagine if all the ice of the planet, from both the Arctic and Antarctic ice-shelves, melted and flooded the Alps up to their highest summits. This is what the wild east coast of the Svalbard archipelago looks like: an endless ridge of pyramidal pointy peaks sprayed by fresh snow like powder sugar on a Xmas cake, interrupted here and there by tongues of gigantic glaciers dropping down directly into the sea.

And then endless walls of blue ice, like fortresses running for kilometre after kilometre along the coast, often calving huge chunks in thundering “ice-avalanches”, leaving beautiful icebergs and long waves in the sea. This is Austfonna, a single ice cap stretching from Kapp Laura in the Northeast to Vibebukta in the south, with a total length of 190 km, making it the longest glacier front in the Northern hemisphere.

We’re on the 80th parallel and sailing ‘south’ to complete our circumnavigation of the archipelago…alone down this route on the East of Nordaustlandet, a remote and still quite inaccessible island. Even today, its waters are inadequately charted. The second largest island of the archipelago, it still exerts a strong fascination for everyone who has studied its landscapes, wildlife and history. Since the time of whalers, this area was hardly visited. It remained largely unknown because of its harsh climate and difficult ice conditions. For many years and well into the 1990s, it would have been impossible to sail this route with a 60-foot (18.2 m) yacht like Nanuq, closed off as it was by dense drift ice for most of the year.

“The barrenness of the country and the severe weather conditions had attached to North East Land a peculiarly evil reputation, increased by the disappearance of Schroeder Stranz and three other members of the German Arctic Expedition in 1913, and by the Nobile disaster of 1928” — R.A. Glen, Under the Pole Star.

It is hard to imagine anything more remote and wilder than these islands. The surrounding waters are uncharted and it takes some luck to set foot on Svalbard’s northernmost islands: the weather is often bad, or the shore is blocked by ice or the beach is occupied by a polar bear or you can run onto an uncharted rock … It is amazing how many things can go wrong in these remote places, and it is now amazing that we completed our expedition safety, fulfilling close to all of our goals.

NOV 2018

Last August, Nanuq reached the 82nd parallel and completed the circumnavigation of the Svalbard archipelago around the ill-famed East coast of Nordaustlandet, not just thanks to the Arctic expertise, sailing ability and exploration talent of Genevan skipper and yacht builder Peter Gallinelli. We could sail to a latitude as high as 82°07’N, less than 900km from the North Pole, due to completely ice-free sea conditions.

This enabled us to experience directly the effect of climate change. Of course, 2018 has been an exceptionally warm year and dramatic short-term fluctuations from year to year have been known since men started to navigate these waters. But the exceptionally ice-free summer of 2018 is, sadly, more likely not to remain an exception.

This was the main message and one of the “raisons d’être” of our expedition: observing the far-reaching impact of human activities on our planet. At this time of writing, we are waiting to see the results of the analysis of the microplastic samples we collected in the Arctic Ocean by towing a Manta net (small plankton- or microplastics-sampling net) from Nanuq’s stern.

Abandoned Russian coal mine. (Photo: PolaqQuest2018)

Our conclusion, however, won’t be encouraging. Debris were visible to the naked eye throughout our entire trip. At each landing, incredible amounts of plastic rubbish amidst tons of driftwood were lying on these remote beaches, which have rarely seen human feet. Every day, we saw floating plastic in the open sea; even while sampling sea water on the rim of the Arctic ice-shelf (82°07’N), our Manta net caught a piece of blue plastic.

We shouldn’t be surprised as we know that most of the 300 million metric tons of plastic produced annually worldwide is scattered across the environment and, in particular, in the oceans. Plastics can travel huge distances due to their longevity, carried by wind-driven currents and trapped by vortexes and down-wellings, to accumulate in remote areas. One of these currents has supposedly created a gateway for microplastic in the Arctic Ocean, a “garbage patch” also called the “sixth microplastic island”. The other five, as proven by similar samplings, remain scattered across the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

Searching for this sixth island was one of our goals. Data will tell whether we have demonstrated its existence. However, monitoring is just a means to show the scale of the problem, a necessary step towards resolving this problem. And cleaning the oceans from macro-plastic is only a small part of it. As Stefano Aliani, our reference scientist and world expert, put it: “We can’t clean the oceans from plastic if we don’t change the way we use it… If you have a bucket full of water and you want to empty it, the first thing you do is close the tap.”

So, should we eliminate all plastic? Plastic is necessary to our modern technologies. Its production and industry have grown fast and are now a pillar of economics and society. But if we can’t eliminate plastics from our lives, we can at least eliminate its unnecessary mass production, such as single-use plastic, throw-away items – drinking straws, bottles that do not degrade, coffee cups, lids and stirrers, cutlery and takeaway packaging: plastics that take five seconds to produce, five minutes to use and more than 500 years to break down.


Since leaving Iceland on July 22, day and night merge into a continuum that seems out of time. The one-week crossing of the Greenland Sea from south to north is a long leg under a covered sky, except for the Greenland coast which reveals itself under a clear sky and bright sunshine. At 80° latitude North, the sun never sets at this this time of the year. Despite dangers due to poor or incomplete charting, unreliable weather forecasts and potential presence of sea ice… 24h daylight makes sailing in these waters, where visibility is essential, a bit more accessible.

On August 1st the alpine coastline of Spitzbergen pierces the fog. We soon tie up in Longyearbyen, the capital, where a change of crew is planned and the rest of the Polarquest team is ready to embark. Whilst the western coasts of the archipelago are much visited, the eastern territories are much more wild, hostile, cold and inaccessible and one has to be prepared to manage all situations without assistance. No doubt, the fact that these coastlines are usually still packed in impenetrable ice during the summer contributes to it. It was not until 2016 that the passage became completely free of ice in July and 2018 confirms this evolution: this year there was no sea ice at all. We cast off to begin the planned 2,500 km circumnavigation around the archipelago in clockwise direction on August 4.

After serving as a hunting ground for centuries, then a mining field, due to its high latitude and accessibility, Svalbard had become a starting point for the race to the Pole. Many remains that are now protected cultural heritage can be found along its coastline. The earliest attempts to reach the pole by means of aircraft had set up their base camps in Spitzbergen, the biggest island of the archipelago, including the ill-fated balloon flight of Andree in 1897, Amundsen’s successful Norge flight in 1926 and the dramatic Nobile expedition in 1928.

We are now sailing on open waters where Nobile’s airship Italia crashed… revisiting history and commemorating the 90th anniversary of the incident. Of course, there is nothing left to see. But this is the very first visit to the exact position of the SOS launched via a makeshift radio recovered from the crash by the survivors of the Italia airship in early summer 1928. This was the starting point of a two-month odyssey on the drifting ice-shelf and the biggest international rescue effort in polar history.

Major advances in technology, be it vessels, communication, navigation and route planning make it possible to sail these waters with a contemporary standard of safety. A century ago, such expeditions often were one-shot endeavours. Global warming has also made it easier to sail the Arctic waters that would have proved impenetrable by sea-ice only a decade ago, making it possible to reach completely new destinations. Even though, Arctic waters remain fairly unpredictable, and although we know much more about our route and environment, there still is huge room for exploration and discovery.

Our vessel is equipped with a high resolution multi-beamer echo sounder dedicated to the survey of the most likely zone to discover the hypothetical remains of the wrecked airship. Even though the data analysis is still in progress, the most significant contribution to science is the seabed mapping giving unprecedented knowledge on bathymetry to places that have only been incompletely surveyed so far. The use of drones for reconnaissance also make landings safer as encounters with wildlife, especially polar bears, can be potentially dangerous… They are primarily used to map historical sites, nowadays threatened by ever-increasing tourism, and compose detailed 3D models of islands and glaciers, adding unique data to the knowledge of our environment and Google Earth.

After three weeks of navigation and intense field work, Nanuq eventually accomplished the circumnavigation and back to Longyearbyen, in time for a new crew shift.

Being able to conduct these projects on board a relatively small sailing vessel demonstrates that science can be done with modest budgets and low environmental impact. Even though an auxiliary engine cannot be totally avoided, passive design and maximum use of renewable energy, wind and solar, provide comfort without heating. They also offer an efficient platform to travel, work and rest for long periods in remote areas with a minimum impact on the fragile arctic ecosystem.

Although not limited to the Arctic, Nanuq is specifically designed for projects, researchers and journalists. It is particularly useful for environmental science, sailing during the Arctic summer or resting over the winter where the boat is capable of being packed into ice and provides comfort even with temperatures dropping below -35°C.

Doubtlessly sailing is one of the oldest and most future-proof means of transport by making use of wind and sea. Hence one can live with nature by adapting and gaining awareness. Due to massive use of renewables, the sailboat is the only vehicle capable of circumnavigating the planet without re-fuelling. Nevertheless, a boat is also a limited system requiring a collaborative and responsible management of resources. This is exemplary to the management of our planet’s resources given that it, too, represents a limited system.

For those not afraid of loneliness or self-reliance, there is real attraction to sailing in the North. On August 13, Nanuq reached the culminating and freezing point of this summer’s expedition beyond 82° latitude north, less than 900 km from the Pole, only a three-day sailing trip when the Arctic ice shelf eventually vanishes completely.

Paola and Peter on board the Nanuq.

PAOLA CATAPANO is an editor and writer with CERN in Geneva, where she deals with the dissemination of science to the public-at-large.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR POLARQUEST? With several documentaries soon to be aired on French and international TV channels, the Nanuq crew are also sharing their Arctic environment via a photo exhibition and a series of public events. The PolarQuest detector has begun a tour “on the road” of measurements along the Italian peninsula, collecting data at latitudes down to 35 degrees.

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