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22/05/2012 This summer, a hovercraft will embark upon a research voyage from Svalbard to the North Pole. This will be the first and the northernmost polar expedition undertaken with such a vessel.
From the ice over the Yermak plateau north of Svalbard in 2011. The Sabvabaa hovercraft will deploy special buoys for recording seismic data (white box) and water depth (black box).
Photo: Yngve Kristoffersen
”Never before has there been a Norwegian scientific expedition so far north. Not even Nansen or Amundsen made it this far,” says senior geologist Harald Brekke in the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate (NPD).
For four summers, the 12-metre long and 6-metre wide hovercraft Sabvabaa (Greenlandic for ”floats quickly over”) has acquired data in the areas north of the ice edge near Svalbard. Between July and September this year, the vessel will engage in activities such as mapping the geology in the submarine Lomonosov Ridge in the far north of the Arctic Ocean. This structure extends across the entire Arctic Ocean from Russia to Greenland and Canada, and was formed 65 million years ago.
The NPD is providing financial support for the expedition, while the University of Bergen and the independent research institute, the Nansen Centre, are contributing equipment and personnel. The expedition, christened ”Fram 2012”, will be led by Professor Yngve Kristoffersen.
The Arctic Ocean is composed of the two deepwater basins known as the Amerasia basin and the Eurasia basin, which are separated by the Lomonosov Ridge. The area for this year’s data acquisition with the Sabvabaa is marked with a white frame.
In addition to measuring the thickness of the sea ice, the Sabvabaa will acquire seismic data and take geological samples from the seabed. According to Brekke, much of the bedrock on the northernmost edge of the Barents Sea shelf has eroded over time. However, it is assumed that these rocks have been preserved in the Lomonosov Ridge.
”If we are to understand what was once there, we have to know as much as possible. Geological samples from the Lomonosov Ridge can therefore tell us what happened in the Barents Sea,” he says.
It is also interesting for the NPD to test the equipment, with a view towards using it on other mapping assignments in the north, he adds. Previously, only icebreakers could be used so close to the North Pole.
”Chartering an icebreaker costs about a half million NOK a day. A hovercraft costs far less than a tenth of that,” says Brekke. For example, the icebreaker consumes as much diesel during the course of a day as the hovercraft consumes over five months.
Moreover, the icebreaker largely has to follow the channels in the ice, while a hovercraft can move freely over the ice surface. This gives the researchers much greater freedom to explore the areas in the north.
The mapping of the Lomonosov Ridge is also interesting in terms of maritime law. The UN’s Law of the Sea Convention gives coastal states the right to demand extension of their economic zone, based on geological criteria, to delimit the individual countries’ continental shelves. All such demands for expansion must be documented with geological or geophysical data.
In 2001 and 2005, the NPD chartered the Swedish icebreaker Oden to acquire documentation for the Norwegian demand to set the border of the continental shelf outside 200 nautical miles north of Svalbard. This border was recommended by the UN’s Continental Shelf Commission in 2009.
This summer, Oden has been chartered by the Danish authorities to map the areas north of Greenland. It will also supply the hovercraft with fuel.