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A long night in the Arctic.

A group of hardy men and women endure the dangers and hardships of a winter trapped in the Arctic sea ice, in the name of science

Spitsbergen, an island of the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, lies about 700 kilometres north of Norway. It is a bleak landscape of deserted shores and sparse vegetation, accompanied by a very eerie silence.

As October approaches, ice floes, freezing temperatures and permanent darkness converge. Ships flee the area at this time of year for fear of being trapped, or crushed, in the vice-like grip of the ice.

However, veteran polar explorer Jean-Louis Etienne and his hardy expedition team are planning to drop anchor and spend up to seven months in total isolation, trapped in the sea ice of Spitsbergen. Their task will be to investigate the Arctic Ocean currents, beneath the sea ice, during a polar winter.

The ship, Antarctica, will be the crew's life support machine and the expedition's technical operations base. It boasts a hull with rounded sides, a flat bottom and retractable centre-board and rudder blade so that the ice floes forming around it can slide beneath the hull and push the ship upwards rather than crush it. Although the ship has notched up a distance equivalent to five round-the-world voyages, this will be Antarctica's first serious winter test.

Two weeks into the expedition, crew members are finding the absence of daylight unsettling. Meals at regular times helps to give the them some perspective of time.

By December, the ice floes are beginning to break up. Over a period of 48 hours, temperatures jum from minus 30 [degrees] Celsius to one degree Celsius. Condensation, which has-frozen on the ship's ceilings, begins to melt.

The crew of Antarctica have become accustomed to the months of endless nights, and a lifestyle that revolves around a small number of repetitive activities. Polar bear visits are frequent. Whenever anyone ventures outside, the bears lurk a few hundred metres from the ship, drawn by the cooking smells from the ship's galley. By January, the mountain peaks are visible for just a few minutes each day around noon. As the days pass, a little bit more of the surrounding landscape emerges from the darkness.

By February, the days begin to lengthen at an astonishingly fast rate, an extra 30 minutes of daylight are gained every 24 hours. It is strange to think that within two months, the sun will not set at all.

As the sun reveals more of the breathtaking landscape, it becomes impossible to stay on the ship. The increasing hours of sunlight also mean that scientists are able to venture further afield to carry out their investigations.

When sea water freezes into solid ice, the salt within becomes concentrated forming a cold, heavy brine that permeates the ice floe sinking to the bottom of the sea. This belt of dense, cold water edges its way towards the Equator, while warm currents on the ocean's surface run in the opposite direction towards the polar regions. This great loop of thermal exchanges beneath the ice maintains climatic equilibrium.

Readings taken by the scientists on the brine production in the waters of Spitsbergen will be fed into a huge database which will help to better understand how ocean currents regulate the world's climate. It will also help establish how emissions of greenhouse gases are affecting climate.

As the Arctic winter ends, the midnight sun lends a surreal touch to the landscape of Spitsbergen. Etienne's team now have to sleep when their bodies say they should be awake. Nevertheless, the endless days gives the scientists enormous scope for work and much progress is made.

The scientific programme is almost complete. Soundings have been taken from different points on the ice floes, 600 litres of water have been collected from various ocean depths and thousands of coppoda (small crustaceans) have been captured and classified according to size and sex. Samples of data are ready to be sent to laboratories for analysis in France and Germany.

Antarctica has thankfully resisted the pressures from the ice. With the mild temperatures and accompanying thaw, the crews' thoughts turn to their return home. Then suddenly, at the beginning of May, the weather changes and temperatures plummet to minus 30 [degrees] Celsius. They are trapped in ice again. The sun is a permanent fixture but its bleak rays cast a cold light. Weakened by their long journey through the atmosphere, they are immediately reflected by the region's white ice deposits. As a result, their calorific power is low and winter extends into the daylight months.

"If you look at photographs of polar expeditions in books, you always see pictures of men trying to break the ice as winter ends," says Etienne. "They dream up ingenious methods of speeding up the job. We are carrying on that tradition by trying to hurry things along.

"You learn from experience that you can't leave until nature says you can and the sun returns. At the end of the day, there is nothing you can do, you just have to learn to wait."

By June, the ice floe, weakened by the summer temperatures, finally begins to break up. Now all that remains is to finish up the work and Antarctica can start its journey home.

"The first polar explorers were treated like lunar astronauts; they were entering uncharted territory; a place of darkness that was full of ghosts," says Etienne. "People were worried by how the human body would tolerate the absence of light and being immobile in such a harsh climate in the middle of an ice desert.

"I've been visiting polar regions for about 15 years and coming to the North Pole for about 10 years. I still don't know what the attraction is ... I can only guess that it puts you in touch with yourself. You have to get into the rhythm of the region and accept it for what it is. You get used to the cold, that's the bottom line. It is part of the landscape, it protects you. Once I'm into the rhythm of the region, a feeling of well being takes over."

The story of the Spitsbergen expedition features in a mini series, Ice Stories, broadcast this month on Discovery Channel. There will also be programmes on an expedition to a Danish glacier and the experiences of Everest climbers, who relive their experiences. Ice Stories goes out on Sunday 13 at 9pm.
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Geographic Code:8ANTA
Date:Dec 1, 1998
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