Voyage to the Arctic

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Laura Millan's Climate Report

Humans have probably been obsessing over the Arctic for as long as we have been on this planet. In the beginning it was furs and whales, then minerals, oil, gas, scientific knowledge, and of course, always the sheer thrill of adventure. The King's Mirror, or Konungs Skuggsjá, a Scandinavian manual for young princes from the 13th century, sums things up nicely: "People that explore the land and the sea are driven by three things. The first is the pleasure in combat and fame, the second is the will to know, and the third is the lure of the gains."

I must confess I have been obsessing over the Arctic during the past few weeks for my own completely selfish reasons. The suffocating heat of my Madrid apartment and the traveling restrictions imposed by the pandemic made thinking about the ice the next best thing to being there.

An Arctic obsession from a suffocating Madrid apartment

Photographer: Laura Millan/Bloomberg

You, too, may have found your mind lingering on the Arctic of late. The drip of news has been constant the last few weeks: a catastrophic diesel spillrecord heatshrinking sea icezombie firesmethane leaks; and polar bear extinction. Nearly every dramatic, headline-grabbing effect of climate change is already happening in the Arctic, quickly and at scale.

Today, we're publishing a feature about the tug of war playing out in the Arctic right now. It's a tale of two ships, the Polarstern, a German polar research ship, and the Christophe de Margerie, a liquefied natural gas tanker. One is looking for clues to climate change, and the other is racing to exploit that change for financial profit. Both have broken very different records.

The Polarstern is the first modern vessel to have spent a full winter close to the North Pole and the flagship of MOSAiC, the largest polar expedition in history. The Christophe de Margerie made the earliest departure for a cargo ship sailing the Northern Sea Route to China when it departed from the Russian port of Sabetta on May 18. 

Both journeys are now part of the Arctic's long list of legendary missions. By one tally, there were 500 expeditions between 860 and 1939. Many explorers never made it back; others survived only after deploying extraordinary courage and ingenuity. 

The crews on modern vessels have epic tales, too. In a modern version of the old seamen's diaries, the captain of a ship that made the Northeastern Sea Route this spring wrote on LinkedIn: "10 days of some of the most challenging navigation I've experienced — certainly some of the most interesting!" Sea-ice scientist Stefanie Arndt smiled as she told me about the sound of giant blocks of ice squeezing the Polarstern's hull while she read about that exact same phenomenon in the memoirs of Fridtjof Nansen, who led a similar expedition 127 years ago.

The fates of the voyages described in our story come down both to money and to the quest for knowledge. 

The Christophe de Margerie moored safely in the Chinese port of Yangkou less than three weeks after its departure, saving time and possibly money for Russian gas producer Novatek. 

The Polarstern will return to port in September. The data that scientists have gathered over the course of the year will probably change our understanding of the Arctic, and of climate change forever. And if you're finding yourself wondering why should you care about the thickness of ice in remote northern seas, well, here's what Arctic veteran and permafrost expert Guido Grosse told me:

"Things that we will experience over the next couple of decades are already happening in the Arctic. Because it is very remote, people have a hard time understanding how it might affect our life in more temperate regions. But it will."

Laura Millan Lombrana writes the Climate Report newsletter about the impact of global warming.

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