A new age of discovery

A new age of discovery

The large-scale expeditions Tara Arctic (2006-2008) and Tara Oceans (2009-2012) were received with great acclaim by the scientific community.

In the science world, data collection is only the tip of the iceberg. Before a scientific article can be written the data is subjected to a long period of analysis, comparison and supplementary research. Much time is required between starting the research and finally making the findings « official » by publishing them. According to Éric Karsenti, research director at the CNRS (France’s National Centre for Research) and at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), this can take several years even for projects with a limited data collection phase. However for such large-scale projects as the Tara expeditions « operations take place on a completely scale », he says.

Tara Oceans gradually unveiling the secrets of plankton

It has been four years since the launch of this last expedition, involving the CNRS, the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission and the EMBL, and already eight scientific articles have been published. This gives an idea of the huge amount of knowledge that it will be possible to draw from Tara Oceans. One of these articles, for example, reveals the relationship between certain viruses and other planktonic organisms. Éric Karsenti is particularly pleased with this work: « It’s the first publication to show how data from the Tara can be employed to explain interactions between different organisms. One of the aspects we were really keen to understand was what interacts with what in the ocean. » These initial results are exciting and concern just one of the many fields of research covered by the Tara Oceans project. Moreover this particular study only focused on seventeen of the samples collected during the expedition. In all, Tara Oceans brought back some 28,000 samples, which provides an indication of the wealth of findings to come. Other publications released in recent months include the explanation of a new method for analysing bacterial diversity in samples and the description of a new species of coral discovered in the Gambier Islands (Pacific Ocean). There is still an enormous amount of data analysis to be done, which explains why such articles have so far been limited to a few highly-specific topics. The sequencing of all of the samples alone is expected to take two to three years. « We are currently working on a publication on global and local diversity in eukaryotes*, how they differ from one region to another » says Éric Karsenti. « Another study due to be published comprises a global catalogue of bacterial genes ».

For the time being though people will have to settle for the preliminary results. Thanks to the Tara Oceans expedition there are now thought to be over a million species of protists**, whereas previous estimates considered there to be around 100,000. Sequencing performed on protist samples from twenty-eight of the 153 sampling stations revealed that eight-five per cent of them had previously unknown DNA sequences. In addition to the studies carried out by the Tara Oceans project teams, a whole host of further research may be started in coming years. One such project called Oceanomics*** is already underway. This project consists of structuring the thousands of samples and data collected during the Tara Oceans expedition to understand the nature and functioning of world the wide planktonic biodiversity and eventually extract certain bioactive planktonic compounds that show promise for, for example, biofuels and pharmaceutical applications.

The first data sets will be made available online to the scientific community by the end of the year. Éric Karsenti says: « It is without doubt the most signif icant achievement of an expedition like this. It is similar to a library where researchers the world over will be able to work on the Tara Oceans samples, and who knows what might be the result. »

Tara Arctic improving understanding for better forecasting

The Tara Arctic Drift of 2006 to 2008 has already led to the publication of over two dozen scientific publications. A substantial quantity of information has already been analysed, according to Jean-Claude Gascard, research director at the CNRS who was in charge of the scientific programme for Tara Arctic and of the DAMOCLES research programme: « The data collected during the expedition will serve as a reference on an Arctic system undergoing profound transformation and I wouldn’t be surprised if people are still publishing works based on this data ten years from now. » The first major result to come out of Tara Arctic concerned the drift process itself and this has led to several publications. The expedition was originally planned to take a thousand days, as the Fram had done over a century before. However the Tara completed the drift in just 500 days, demonstrating the increase in Arctic ice drift speed. Following this initial major finding, several works were published on the interactions of the three Arctic system components: ice, atmosphere and ocean. « The Tara has helped to highlight the formation of ice crystals, called Frazil ice, which rise to the surface », explains Jean-Claude Gascard. « The existence of this phenomenon in Antarctica was already well known, but we managed to show that it is a major phenomenon in the formation of Arctic ice too ». As regards atmosphere, research conducted aboard the polar schooner has helped to achieve a better definition of the lower Arctic atmosphere which is in contact with the ice and which is essential to air-ice interactions. « We had very little information on these lower levels which are difficult to study with satellites and automatic stations » Gascard says. « Indeed, the advantage of Tara Arctic is having people on board to operate instruments that we don’t yet know how to automate ». Finally, several publications have investigated ice sheet movements through the application of seismological techniques. All of the findings from the data collected during the Tara Arctic Drift will help achieve a better understanding of the complex Arctic system, and thus improve forecasting models. These it systems simulate the behaviour of the atmosphere, oceans and ice to provide short-term scenarios, ice charts and weather forecasts, as well as more long-term simulations which are crucial to research on climate change. Within the next few years conclusions drawn from Tara Arctic, in addition to other research, will be integrated into the various digital models to improve forecasting capacity. We are therefore already on track towards the first concrete applications of research conducted aboard the Tara.

Yann Chavance

Read this article on Tara’s 10 years journal

* : Single-celled or multicellular organisms that are characterized by the presence
of a nucleus.
** : Unicellular organisms with nuclei that are the ancestors of all forms of life.
Certain types are photosynthetic, such as diatoms.
*** : The Oceanomics project – wOrld oCEAN biOresources, biotechnology,
and earth-systeM servICeS – won the French government’s ‘Investments

The « date line » off Wrangel

Yesterday the Tara Oceans Polar Circle expedition crossed the famous “date line” as our English friends call it. This official but imaginary line is essential for us to live together on this planet with a single unit for measuring time, no matter where we are. Everyone knows that days are 24 hours long, but when we cross over the line, the day starts over again. Magic !

Today is also yesterday and yesterday we said that tomorrow would be today! Sounds like the beginning of a sketch from the late Raymond Devos. Until now I knew the expression “word counts double” in Scrabble, but not the “day counts double”.

On Monday at precisely midnight, Tara time, we changed time zones. Where we were at UT*+12, or ten hours ahead of Paris time, we went to UT-11 or eleven hours after Paris time. This miracle — a line making us go back in time –  was crossed in an instant. When the GPS arrived at 180° East, it suddenly began to count the minutes in the other direction: 179° 59′ West, 179° 58′ West…

In a split second we were in the west and were starting a new Monday. Many have dreamt about someday going west in this way, but to repeat a Monday – well, that’s debatable.
This is also how Phileas Fogg, Jules Verne’s famous hero, succeeded in finishing his voyage “Around the World in 80 Days”, by crossing over this date line, thus adding up the days that ensured his success, and winning his crazy bet.

This time marvel, the fruit of man’s genius, is just a few miles from Wrangel Island ** which separates the East Siberian Sea from the Chukchi Sea. Immersed in a thick fog, we never saw this jewel of biodiversity, classed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2004. Wrangel Island is the place where the last woolly mammoths survived, and has the highest level of biodiversity in the northern Arctic. 100,000 walruses from the Pacific also gather there.

In fact we are only 600 kilometers from the giant Pacific Ocean, the biggest of all, and also only a few miles from the Bering Strait. At the time of the last ice age about 20,000 years ago, early humans migrating from Asia passed here, also from east to west (like us) but on foot, because the sea level was low enough. This is where Tara is sailing today.

Last Sunday, the new scientific team sampled Russian waters for the last time, but no one knows when and where the next station will take place on this leg of the expedition, ending in Tuktoyaktuk, Canada.
There’s lots of ice here at summer’s end in this region of the Arctic, and we must not lose sight of the Northwest Passage, or risk getting blocked in its white trap.

Vincent Hilaire

· * UT: Universal Time
· ** Book on Wrangel Island: Ada Blackjack by Jennifer Niven. published by Paulsen

Arctic Wind

An icy wind is blowing in the sails with gusts up to 30 knots. The last samples of the long station of Santa Anna were carefully collected and Tara can resume her journey to the north of Novaya Zemlya. In four days, we should reach the position 77° 11 North and 73 ° 37 East, where the fourth scientific station of the transect Dudinka-Murmansk (Russia) will take place. Until then the scientific and maritime adventure continues in the Arctic.

It’s difficult in the bitter cold to leave the underwater gorge of Santa Anna without a thought for the unfortunate Russian ship which gave its name. After leaving St. Petersburg on July 28, 1912, Santa Anna called at Alexandrovsk, near Murmansk, before embarking on the Northern Sea Route. Under the command of the expedition leader, Brusilov and accompanied by the navigation officer Albanov, the crew trekked the Siberian coast, with the intention of discovering new hunting grounds for whales, polar bears, seals and walruses. But in October 1912 off the Yamal Peninsula, the ship and its crew were caught in the ice.

For over two years, they drifted towards the North Pole, prisoners of the ice, even exceeding the longitude of the Franz Joseph Archipelago without sighting land. In April 1914 with food supplies dwindling, Albanov and thirteen volunteers left the three-master to try to escape fate. Equipped with sleds and kayaks, they carried out a long journey to Cape Flora, south of the Franz Josef Archipelago in the most extreme conditions: cold and starvation. From this trip “In the land of white death *” only Albanov and his companion Konrad survived. No trace of Santa Anna and the crew were ever found.

Amidst an ice-free sea, Tara is under full sail. Occasionally only a small chunk of ice is seen on the horizon. However, a few hundred nautical miles away, a white wall of ice still hinders the access to Dudinka. “The ice conditions have rapidly changed in the past few days and in a week, the area should be accessible,” says a confident Samuel Audrain, the Captain. Our arrival at the mouth of the Yenisei, the river which flows through Dudinka, is scheduled for July 22. Until then, the mission will continue to collect scientific data over the water masses travelled. To ensure a continuous record of measurements on salinity, temperature, etc.., the scientists have set up a “science round.” After a sailor has verified the machinery during his watch, the co-mate will take a tour in the dry lab to check that all instruments are working properly. In total, we’re controlling twenty items ranging from electrical power for machines, freezer temperatures, and correct functioning of software. In case of doubt or failure, Marc Picheral, oceanographic engineer, has earned the right to be woken up. This is also part of the scientific adventure!

Anna Deniaud Garcia

* In the Land of White Death by Valerian Albanov, Random House, Inc.

The spade and the beast

Should there be two indissociable friends in the « Land of Arctic » they would be the beast (the storm) and the spade. After a week of reduced activities because of a wind gust, Taranautes are happy to begin their outdoor activities again. The post-storm programme was written ahead of time.  

First, the scientific activities, at the heart of Tara’s vocation, have started again except for the EM 31 (measure of the ice thickness). Then, there is the digging.

Indeed, the wind moves impressive quantities of snow around. In a week, the total hull of Tara, except for the boat’s back has been covered by a gigantic white compact wave. The nose of the schooner barely stuck out from the snow.

This morning as of 9 o’clock, the first diggers, started working to release Tara from her thick white cover. Finally, a single day will not be sufficient and more digging will be necessary tomorrow and after tomorrow to free the hull’s sides.

The spade and the beast have not ended running after each other, even if the weather forecast is calm. In any case, this exercise is beneficial for everybody. We are getting fresh air. The wind, the storm are fun at first but after a while, one gets tired of running in circles inside the boat. Thank goodness, calm weather follows a storm.. Calm weather before the return of the beast and the spades.   

Taranauts and Taradogs

On board Tara, there are presently twelve living creatures: ten bipeds and two quadrupeds. Zagrey and Tiksi are two Laïka Yakouts dogs. Hervé Bourmaud, captain of the polar schooner is their master. This is no coincidence.

Outside of Tara, Hervé is a fisherman on the island of Yeu in Vendée. He has been passionate about dogs for ever. He had dogs onboard of his previous boats. He is nostalgic about “his tramp” with who he crossed the Atlantic several times. His tramp, sea companion of many nautical miles was a sea griffon that was capable of tying relations with humans, whether disabled or not, sometimes better than humans themselves.

It is the same spirit that ties Zagrey, Tiksi and Hervé together here on the ice. They are pack ice comrades of long nights and days. “The first job of the dogs is surveillance. A dog is worth a gun when it comes to watching out for bears”. Their attributions are not limited to this. They are also expected to yap if the pack ice moves. Hervé skips the details on the long cuddles and the fuss these two ice dogs regularly make over their “boss” and the crew.

But it took time to come to this. Patience, firmness and attention also. When he set foot on Tara for the first time, Zagrey the oldest of the two dogs was already nine years old. Tiksi was a puppy of two months barely weaned. Once Tara was in high sea, Zagrey had trouble getting accustomed to life on sea. According to Hervé, he was even sick. One has to say that Zagrey is originally a hunter, a toundra dog, tracking polar bears so not really a sailor.

After the sea, the ice also was a new stage in the adventure of the “taradogs”. Zagrey very much at ease did not want to climb back on the deck after having walked on the pack ice. Tiksi on the other hand was very fearful and panicked after his first ocean bath. Temperature: -30°. Little by little, Hervé has defined their personalities. “Zagrey is White Fang, a wolf who follows men. Very independent, tempted by long breakaways. We tamed each other slowly. Tiksi, more of a homebody at first, is becoming a real ice dog. Agile, brave. Standing up now to the bears. He has proven to be a very good draught dog which is not the case for Zagrey. But Tiksi has his pet peeve. Every thing that flies : bird, plane, helicopter”.

With all this accumulated experience, canalized and trained by Hervé, Tiksi and Zagrey are starting their second polar night onboard Tara; Soon, they will let themselves be covered by snow so as to surprise the bear. Hidden in the night. Theirs two eyes glimmering through darkness. “In contrast with expeditions like Nansen, the dogs are insured of their survival except in the case of a major incident. Today with freezers, the dogs are no longer considered as a meat reserve.”

What will the future hold for the two dogs after the drift? Hervé thinks that Zagrey will not be able to adapt himself to other latitudes; he will remain on the Spitzberg islands for reproduction. This race of Yakouts is much sought after. And Tiksi? Hervé cannot bring himself to leave him. “I shall take him with to France” It is sentimental between us. Belle, the bitch that Hervé still has on his island “the widow of tramp” can thus start a new life… of a dog.

Vincent Hilaire

Return of a summer crew member on land

With the end of the summer, rotations have started once again between Longyearbeyen and Tara.

This to renew supplies and change the crew before the polar night. The polar night is expected on the 6th of october. A first rotation took place on Wednesday. A second one is planned for Friday. Interview of a returning summer crew member.
He is Charles Terrin, is 23 years old from Monaco. With the spirit that characterizes his young age, he is at first sight a jolly fellow. Gone on Tara last April, he has come back five months later with very precise first sensations of this polar odyssey. A total discovery.
“The pack ice?” Magnificient, colourful. One often says that there are no colours in the Arctic. That is not true. They are many but all very subtle. Shades of blue, pink and white. Each time different”.
Charles thinks again “But I also discovered new sensations. For instance, silence. I believe it is the first time that I heard silence several times. Looking toward the outdoors from the room where we are talking, he adds “silence is back there” refering to Tara.
Charles then talks about the human aspect. It will also be for him an unforgettable memory. Despite the squabbles, difficult moments, he speaks with pride about how he has succeeded in building relations with the other nine persons with whom he shared daily life on Tara. But also of what was accomplished as a team. What has struck him also is the combination of skills on board. “A quantity of skills, experience and passion out of the ordinary” ” It is people who make this expedition, at sea and on land” he insists.
Off course, there is the cold. For a Monegasque who is not sensitive to the cold, it does require a certain adaptation. “Pack ice, ice, I discovered a hostile environment, but Tara is like a cosy home. We did not lack of anything. And the Mediterranean adds “I was not cold, the temperature never went beyond minus 20°… I had never thought that one day  I would be saying these words!”
Another polar expedition? “I have to take in this adventure and after I must decide if I am really a man of the cold!”

On Friday, the second rotation should take place with Tara. Two new crew members will return from the boat with other memories in their luggage.

Longyearbyen…first rotation launch

Last wednesday morning, the good news came out. The first rotation with Tara was going to take place.

Since yesterday, the Twin Otter was waiting on the Longyearbyen airport runway. The tanks had been filled and all the refueling, a total of 340 kg, was well distributed in the cabin. But the weather conditions were not statisfactory. Fog, wind, rain, Troy, the pilot had decided to postpone the take-off.
That morning, everybody had woken up at seven. Silently, the ten people around the table with their coffee were awaiting the verdict. Romain, the logistics director first called Grant Redvers, the chief of base. “Hello Grant, what is the weather this morning?”. “Minus eight degrees on the ground” “Right, I’ll put you through to the pilote”. After this short conversation between Grant and Romain, Troy politely carried out a true cross examination.
 He isolated himself in a corner of the living room with a notebook “Mornin’ Grant” and Troy reviewed all the weather parameters of the day. Temperature, pressure, wind, visibility, state of the runway… End of the conversation. With one bit of interesting information: Troy had just asked Grant to set up plastic bags to mark out the runway. The weather of the day even offered a fallback position to land on station North in Greenland. In case things got bad on Tara.
A last call to the tower and the green light was given. For the five chosen of the day, a scientist, a photographer, two cameramen and a film maker, the count down had started. After several days spent at a rather slow pace, one had to to regain ones’ spirits quickly and forget nothing. Everybody rushed joyfully towards their rooms, each one finishing up their packing in just a few minutes. But with this morning electrochoc, there was a new perspective in view : unless a counter order came out, they would be walking on pack ice three hours later. Some for the first time. At 9H40, the Twin Otter took off.

Vincent Hilaire

Directions on how to land on Pack ice

Directions on how to land on Pack ice

New record: we have crossed this Wednesday the 88°degree latitude north. We are getting closer to the Pole (less than 300 km away) and it is quite possible that Tara may make Nansen’s dream come true: to drift on pack ice on the earths’ highest geographic point. For the moment however, one has to accomplish the planned observation missions for April and to do so, it was necessary to bring men and equipment with the DC3. To land a plane on pack ice is never an easy deed, especially when visibility is restricted. Today, everything was white on Tara. Off course, one could see a little. But all the perspectives, the landscapes were merged: sky, horizon, ground, everything was white!

For Brian Crocker and Louis-Eric Bellanger, the DC3 pilots, the job was not simple. It is hard to measure at eyesight the ground distance (if one can see the ground), it is hard to estimate the lateral wind speed during the landing, it is even hard to spot the boat sunk deeply into the snow or even to distinguish the runway, barely marked out with little red flags and empty kerosene barrels. It is in fact the Twin Otter crew that took in charge the DC3 landing, playing the role of a control tower.

Jim Hattew and Mathew Colistro are the pilots of this little plane that usually accomplishes the scientific missions pour the Damocles team. For instance, they have just finished the air-dropping of 16 weather buoys for Michael Offermann of the Hamburg University, that will transmit for a year the atmospheric pressure and temperature over a square of 500 km per side. In the past three days, the Twin Otter and his crew camp on the Tara base.

To help their colleagues land, the Twin pilots have had to first size up the vertical visibility ie the ceiling “At least 1000 feet” has estimated Jim Hattew, the head pilot at the beginning of the afternoon. This was confirmed by the weather balloon that Timo Palo has let go in the polar atmosphere for the Geography institute of the Tartu University (Estonia). The modern Zeppelin, that measures 4,5 meters long and 2 meters wide is bright orange and perfectly visible. One can spot it clearly up to 400 meters high which indicates the ceiling. From the runway that is located 800 meters from there, on can still see it. This gives us a good estimate of the ground visibility: 900 meters. The DC3 can land.

This information is communicated to Brian Crocker who is still 25 minutes away from Tara. From the cockpit of the Twin Otter, Jim informs his colleague that the balloon will be lowered to 30 meters at his approach and that a distress rocket will be lit at the beginning of the runway where the Twin Otter will position itself.

Matching his actions to his words, Jim is moving the throttle and makes the plane spin on its skis. The Twin Otter as well as the DC3 are not equipped with directional landing gear; To move these planes on the ground, the engines need to be activated to anticipate exactly the resulting sideslip. Precise manoeuvring, delicate but accomplished with mastery by the head pilot who drives his throttles to the tip of his fingers makes the plane slide to its spot. It is most probably visible from the sky because of its colour orange. On the ground, one does not have the impression that visibility exceeds 100 meters. Everything is still so white.

In front of us, the runway is marked out with barrels and some flags.
The strip is in fact just made of snow that has been packed down, slightly more flat than the surrounding pack ice. From the sky anyway, the lack of relief prevents one from distinguishing it from the rest of the landscape. Some meters behind the plane, Guillaume, Taras’ mechanic is about to light the distress rocket that is used as a signal buoy. The DC3 is now tree minutes away from his first approach: he must fist pretend to land, by flying as close to the ground as possible to identify the runway before turning around and land at his second passage. The landing without being dangerous is nevertheless perilous.

It is at this particular moment that Brian Hattew and Mathew Colistro his co-pilot in the Twin notice two fluorescent figures, right in front of them on the runway. Two members of the Tara expedition (we will not disclose their names) were heading right where the DC3 is supposed to touch down the ice. It is likely that they were convinced that the plane would land in the other direction and that they found themselves at the end of the runway…
Mathew then opens the door of the Twin, sets foot on the snow and runs to warn the two reckless persons not to remain there. The figures scatter off to the sides.

With engines roaring, the oblong shape of the DC3 passes over the Twin, flies over the runway a few meters above the ground in a cotton cloud. The plane turns on his left wing, rises up again to turn around and aligns itself with the Twin. Brian Crocker informs his colleague Jim that the runway is well visible and that he is ready to land. In a renewed white roar, the DC3 flies closely over the Twin, maybe 10 meters over, goes down slowly… stable on his landing strip and touches down. In his seat, the Twin co-pilot, Mathew approves the performance by applauding: “great landing”.