The man who listened to creaking ice

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15 July 2013

Sergey Pisarev is often introduced as Russia’s official representative but on board he is primarily a scientist, an Arctic specialist! So we can talk about Sergey, emeritus researcher in physical oceanography, or Sergey, the Arctic adventurer without forgetting to mention the man who likes listening to the noisy pack ice.

If we had to paint Sergey’s portrait with a few brush strokes, it would suffice to say that the researcher has to his credit more than twenty Arctic ice drifts and thirty expeditions worldwide. From this you would add the following qualifiers: traveler, fearless, and passionate. But we have time so let’s go back some years to 1958. Sergey Pisarev was born in the city of Kharkov in the Soviet Union, now Ukraine. He barely had time to look around his neighborhood when he left for the East of the USSR, then China and then Latvia. His father was an officer in the army. Setting up house, leaving, starting again and leaving…

In a way, this is what Sergey still does every spring on the ice. But at that time, for a child, it was not so simple. “It’s hard to change schools all the time, but it teaches you to be strong, independent and communicative.” Let’s add these adjectives to the man’s portrait. He was a good student, and dreamt of becoming a sailor. But a few years later, Cousteau’s films transformed his ambitions. At seventeen, the young man began studying geography at the illustrious Moscow State University.

After a year in geography followed by four in oceanography, he graduated. Sergey then enrolled at the “Moscow Institute of Acoustics” and left for a first polar expedition in the Barents Sea. “I studied for a month the dynamics of the polar front at exactly the same position as with Tara!” The following year in 1982, he accomplished his first ice drift above the gorge of Santa Anna — our location a few days ago. Tara Oceans Polar Circle looks surprisingly like a pilgrimage for our polar explorer! During the 10 years that followed, besides becoming a parent, the dedicated scientist took part every spring in 3-month Arctic drifts off the Russian Franz Joseph archipelago. “At the time, I built my own temperature sensor. It was a 50-foot cable that I positioned under the ice to study the large vertical water movements — internal waves.” At 27, the young Russian was promoted to head of the camp and was in charge of the security for the entire team and equipment. In this very dynamic region, movements of the ice are common which obliges constant shifting of tents and instruments. For 10 years scientific data flowed with generous funding. In the space of 3 or 4 months, Sergey could pocket the annual salary of an engineer. But suddenly, like a piece of ice, the Soviet bloc collapsed, resulting in the fall of the economy. Funding for science dried up, and Sergey began a string of odd jobs. “From generation to generation, we always had to adapt in my country, so I also had to react, rather than mope. And a crisis is better than war! “

Fortunately in 1994 things got better. Sergey participated in a trans-Arctic study on the propagation of sound under the sea, which is hailed as the best scientific collaboration of the year between the United States and Russia. For the Russian researcher, international projects blossomed. In 2006, he sailed for the first time on Tara for the scientific Damocles project. He continued studies on the economic and social consequences of global warming in the Arctic by participating in the European ACCESS program. At the same time, he was consultant to a company planning to extract gas in the Barents Sea. When asked about the dangers of such an activity, the scientist replied, “Any industrial activity is harmful to nature but I hope we’ll organize that one as best we can!” Let’s hope that Sergey and his colleagues succeed in protecting this beautiful part of the world, so that other people in the future can enjoy the great pleasure of treading virgin territory and listening to the strange songs of the ice.

Anna Deniaud Garcia