Flows swiftly over it

24.06.2016
Fridtjof Nansen’s heirs are weaklings with insufficient scientific curiosity, says Norwegian Arctic veteran Yngve Kristoffersen. So he maintains Norway is lagging behind as a Polar nation.

| Bjørn Rasen

Special ice conditions mean that certain parts of the Arctic Ocean are inaccessible even to icebreakers.

Inaccessible.
Special ice conditions mean that certain parts of the Arctic Ocean are inaccessible even to icebreakers. Yngve Kristoffersen and Audun Tholfsen accordingly used the Sabvabaa hovercraft – whose name means “flows swiftly over it” – to explore the area between Canada and Greenland.
(Photo: Audun Tholfsen)

 

Tis 74-year-old has recently put his money where his mouth is by spending a whole year collecting seismic data from a hovercraft out on the Arctic ice.

A greater contrast to such a life under endless starry skies would be hard to find when entering the brutal concrete colossus known as the Science Building in Bergen.

I find the nation’s least conventional Polar explorer in a tiny office filled to the overflowing on the first floor. He has retained this modest cubicle despite having ceased to lecture as a professor of geophysics or to advise students.

But Kristoffersen remains committed to sharing his knowledge and data – a unique fund of information he has personally collected on long field trips right up to the North Pole.

At the University of Bergen on Norway’s west coast, far from the Arctic, he seems happy to be squeezed in among all the rolled maps, books, piles of paper and computer screens.

He is used to living and working in confined spaces from his time on expeditions, of course. That includes the year he spent with a single colleague on the little hovercraft.

“Arctic Ocean data are in great demand internationally,” the professor explains. “So it’s paradoxical that Norway isn’t making a bigger commitment up there.

 

Yngve Kristoffersen, professor of geophysics, in his office at the University of Bergen.

Inquisitive.
Yngve Kristoffersen, professor of geophysics, in his office at the University of Bergen. At 74, he is still collecting as much information as possible – even from remote ice-covered regions – to understand how the planet is put together.
(Photo: Arvid Steen)

 

“It’s too naive to concentrate solely on Svalbard. That puts you at the entrance to a sea twice as big as the Mediterranean – without knowing what goes on there. You’ve got to get in.”

Kristoffersen feels it is obvious that people need to learn as much as possible about how the planet is put together, what it looked like millions of years ago, and how it has developed.

And since most of the globe lies beneath wide oceans, the only way to find the answers is to strike out into the unknown.

A covering of ice should be no obstacle. All you need is practical solutions.

Kristoffersen spent his first Norwegian programme at an ice station in 1979. Since then, he has sought to get the country to play an active part in the Arctic Ocean.

He has worked at five different ice stations, living on the frozen sea for more than 18 months, and has participated in four icebreaker expeditions.

These journeys have taken him to the Pole four times, whether he wanted to or not.

“Geologically, it’s completely uninteresting. The Pole’s on a turbidite plain.”

Simply being somewhere is not his style. He is very committed to his discipline, which helps him to tackle longer spells on the ice than many others could manage.

An interest in geology, rather than mechanics or electronics, was sparked in the 1950s via a local unemployed person taken on by the Norwegian Geological Survey (NGU).

His job was to look for erratic rocks on the Finnmark plateau in northern Norway to see whether they contained ores and where they originated.

Kristoffersen then studied geophysics at the University of Oslo. During the summer, he borrowed instruments and returned to the plateau. As he puts it, “things just snowballed”.

Graduating from Oslo in the early 1970s, he secured a one-year grant in the USA from the geotraverse project led by Knut Heier to study a 200-kilometre corridor running across southern Norway and on towards Jan Mayen.

“I couldn’t go home without taking a PhD, and my thesis described how the Labrador Sea between Canada and Greenland originated,” he explains.

While a doctoral student, he was allowed to use a vessel for two months. “Get into the box and don’t get out until you know the story,” ordered Manik Talwani, his supervisor.

Two job offers were on the table when he came home in 1977 – one from Canada and the other from the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI). Taking the latter, he worked on the Barents Sea project.

The NPI wanted to become active in marine geology, and fights developed over funding and research posts. Kristoffersen’s critical views of the institute’s role in the far north have subsequently been an open secret.

“It doesn’t understand that it’s a national institution intended to help realise the potential of the whole Norwegian scientific community for the benefit of Norway,” he maintains.

“Facilitation is important. But what we find is a tragically introverted institution. The latest survey by the Research Council of Norway shows that 86 per cent of work-years on Arctic research is done by other bodies.”

He says that Norway as a nation needs the whole scientific community to compete freely, with the best projects being automatically supported by reasonable Arctic logistics.

“The icebreakers enter the Arctic Ocean two-three times a years, but Norway and the NPI don’t participate. That seems a willed inaction. Our national problem sits in our heads, and has less to do with resources.”

Sweden uses a different model, Kristoffersen notes. Its Polar Research Secretariat facilitates the institutions, and the best proposals get help with logistics and funding. The USA has a similar system.

But he praises the NPD for appreciating the significance of regional geological understanding and for supporting Arctic Ocean research. Like all other physical parameters in the environment, geology knows no national boundaries.

Findings

So what does Kristoffersen want to achieve in the Arctic Ocean? And what are his findings. The geologist harks back to 1963 and a proposal by Canada’s Tuzo Wilson.

This concerned the 1 700-kilometre Lomonosov Ridge, a mountain chain in 1 000 metres of water which extends from Canada towards the North Pole and the New Siberian Islands.

Wilson suggested that it was probably a “splinter” of continental margin from north of Svalbard and Franz Joseph Land, shifted to its present position by plate movements.

Sailing with German icebreaker Polarstern in 1991, Kristoffersen was able to acquire the first seismic profile of this feature.

“If Wilson was right, we’d find inclined layers building out on the slope facing Alaska and only vertical faults on the Svalbard side,” he explains.

“As the data appeared on the monitor, that’s exactly what we saw – an incredibly powerful scientific experience.

“We know that the Norwegian Sea was created over the past 56 million years, and that the area between the Pole and Svalbard has emerged in the same period. I think it’s important that we understand these relationships.”

Scientific drilling was carried out in 2004, and penetrated a 420-metre-thick layer atop this continental ridge to reach Eocene rocks.

From there, the bit went straight into a layer which was 85 million years old. This means that the ridge was elevated above sea level during the breakup phase.

Its top was eroded down to a flat plain which sank beneath the waves again 56 million years ago, and the uppermost sediments were then deposited.

“I regard that first trip over the ridge as one of my greatest scientific experiences,” says Kristoffersen. “The ingredients were there – a bold hypothesis and its test. We wrote the paper on our voyage home.”

 

Yngve Kristoffersen deploys hydrophones to pick up seismic signals.

Data acquisition.
Yngve Kristoffersen deploys hydrophones to pick up seismic signals.
About 1 000 kilometres of such data were acquired during the expedition.
(Photo: Audun Tholfsen)

 

Inaccessible

Parts of the Arctic Ocean are inaccessible to icebreakers, including half the flat-topped Lomonosov Ridge. This has the same length as Norway’s north-south extent and rises 3 000 metres – higher than the Alps.

The easiest way to access this area is to establish a station on an ice floe which simply drifts into it – or a hovercraft can be used instead.

Kristoffersen had pursued the idea of deploying a hovercraft in this region for 25 years before he finally got to fulfil his ambition.

The Germans had planned an expedition to the Alpha Ridge, where sediments dating back 50-70 million years had been found in the seabed.

Kristoffersen and colleagues published a hypothesis in 2007 which suggested this was the result of a pressure wave from the impact of asteroid fragments about 2.5 million years ago.

They struck a deal with the Germans to drop off Kristoffersen and colleague Audun Tholfsen, along with the hovercraft, to conduct a Norwegian expedition of their own.

A condition was that plans were submitted for rescue and for storing 20 tonnes of diesel oil on the ice. The solution for the latter was to use cushioned tanks.

The rescue plan was approved. In 2011, the coastal states in the Arctic Council agreed that the nation which had the equipment would be asked to respond to a possible emergency.

When the expedition began in the American sector in the autumn of 2014, the camp was 1 000 kilometres from the nearest outpost of civilisation.

The two men then spent a year crammed together in the freezing darkness. Their office and quarters were on a vessel measuring just 12 by six metres.

Its cabin provided only 3.6 square metres, but was good and warm. With a top speed of 35 knots, the hovercraft had been named Sabvabaa, an Inuit term meaning “flows swiftly over it”.

“So we collaborated with the Germans, who eventually gained confidence in us,” says Kristoffersen. “They saw we delivered the goods from areas where even nuclear icebreakers couldn’t get through because of the difficult conditions.

“It was win-win. We got a free lift into the area, and they received a copy of everything – but we have the first right to publish.”

He estimates the value of the partnership at several tens of millions of kroner.

 

The central Arctic Ocean with the expedition route marked in red and the first day of each month indicated by yellow points.

One-year journey.
The central Arctic Ocean with the expedition route marked in red and the first day of each month indicated by yellow points.

 

Acquired

Sabvabaa crossed the Lomonosov Ridge and then the Morris Jesup Plateau north of Greenland no less than five times, and acquired 1 000 kilometres of seismic data from an unexplored sea area.

The surveys were conducted with a simple airgun as the sound source in the water, which obtained its air pressure in turn from a small diving compressor.

Echoes from the seabed and underlying strata were registered by a simple hydrophone. Despite the unsophisticated equipment, results were good because of low noise levels in the water.

Kristoffersen is very pleased with the data he and Tholfsen collected – and he avows that the pair are still friends.

“Such expeditions aren’t for everyone. There’s not much room. But we’re experienced and knew what awaited us. Most people ask about the 24-hour darkness, but we both feel it passed surprisingly quickly.”

He admits that such an experience can be a trial even for experienced Arctic explorers. Something happens to you after three months, and you begin to get frayed after half a year.

“You’ve just got to avoid starting to quarrel. That calls for strict mental control over everything you say. You need to think before you speak.”

Kristoffersen feels this is easier for somebody like him, who has a scientific interest, than for a person only concerned with logistics.

“There are limits to how inspirational it is to fill the day tank with diesel oil in darkness and a snowstorm, while I’m entering new information and know what it means. But Audun managed well, and was always asking about the significance of the data.”

A natural question to ask is what drives him – what gets him to devote a whole year to such a special expedition. His spontaneous response is that he likes stillness.

“I enjoy reflecting over things, and you have plenty of time to think up there.”

He also finds the scientific problems interesting. “When you work a lot and see the data coming in, it feels fantastically rewarding. You can carry on for ever then.”

Lyrical

Being alone on the ice provides a strong sense of the natural world, and Kristoffersen waxes lyrical about the white landscape under the stars and a full moon. “A fantastic experience which pierces you to the marrow – it’s really powerful.”

It must also be said that the weather is often grey and boring in those parts. And the ice does not stay still. A lot of people want to know how the pair killed time, but Kristoffersen says this is a silly question.

Just living and surviving is a full-time job. They had their most wearisome periods when their base camp – a temporary structure – was destroyed because the ice broke up.

This hangar contained a work bench, with tools neatly hung up. “When you’ve got to start again four times in -30°C, it eventually gets tiring,” admits Kristoffersen.

The cold can be tolerated, even though he feels that the few days when the thermometer crept below -40°C were a bit excessive. But the seismic surveying continued every day, whatever the temperature.

They had few visitors, but saw Polar bear tracks once and the animals themselves after 10 months. For a time, the bears visited the camp daily. The most interesting guest was an Arctic fox who circled around for 14 days in December.

Their equipment also included an underwater camera, which they lowered in 15 locations and obtained images of unknown species. These were passed to marine biologists.

“They really woke up when they heard about this,” says Kristoffersen. “We saw tusk 1 400 metres down, and other fish as deep at 2 000 metres. Twenty hours of footage have been sent to the biologists.”

Changes

Looking back on his own 37 years of experience at ice stations, he observes that it is difficult to detect changes in the Arctic Ocean.

“But measurements show that the ice is thinning. The problem lies with people who come up, see an open channel and some water, and claim the ice is disappearing. That’s misleading. Open channels come and go all the time.”

He points out that the atmosphere and the ice form a dynamic system. “But we seem to expect that nothing alters. Every geologist knows that dramatic events have occurred earlier which far exceed what we’re seeing now.”

New measurement systems help to dramatise the position “because we can document changes. The discussion suddenly gets out of proportion. Our data aren’t actually good enough to say that developments today are unique. At least for the moment.”

Climate change is high on the agenda in the international Polar research community. The ice is thinner, and that is creating concern.

But Kristoffersen argues that warm periods have occurred before. “Temperatures were higher than today 6-8 000 years ago, and it was even hotter 120 000 years back.

“If we go back 50-70 million years, the temperature of the Arctic Ocean was 10°C. Crocodiles lived on Ellesmere Island, and the redwood trees were 30 metres high.”

Sabvabaa is now in Svalbard. Kristoffersen is planning to devote a couple of months this summer to maintaining and repairing it. That counts as a holiday for him.

 

In their year on the ice, Yngve Kristoffersen and Audun Tholfsen saw Polar bear tracks and received daily visits from these animals for a time. And an Arctic fox hung around their camp for a couple of weeks.

Fauna.
In their year on the ice, Yngve Kristoffersen and Audun Tholfsen saw Polar bear tracks and received daily visits from these animals for a time. And an Arctic fox hung around their camp for a couple of weeks.

(Photo: Audun Tholfsen)