Senior living: Retiree moves into mobile home – for a year on the Arctic sea ice

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Think of Yngve Kristoffersen, 73, as just another retiree living in shabby mobile home – if you fill it with space-age equipment and drop it on the ice where it’s 50 below zero.

The former University of Bergen professor spent the past year in those confined quarters as he, along with fellow researcher Audun Tholfsen, drifted roughly 2,200 kilometers on the Arctic Ocean ice in a hovercraft studying the geological makeup of the seafloor.

Kristoffersen arrived alone in Longyearbyen on Saturday evening, with Tholfsen departing the Sabvabaa craft a month earlier, where he was greeted by a small group of well-wishers bearing champagne. But it turned out what he really craved was a glass of fresh milk.

Yngve Kristoffersen passes out champaign presented by a visitor after arriving in Longyearbyen on Saturday night. He spent the final month of a year-long  expedition on the sea ice alone after research partner Audun Tholfsen left the vessel. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Yngve Kristoffersen passes out champaign presented by a visitor after arriving in Longyearbyen on Saturday night. He spent the final month of a year-long expedition on the sea ice alone after research partner Audun Tholfsen left the vessel. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

“At first we were drinking that UHT stuff and when that ran out we had to switch to powdered,” he said.

He indulged in a welcome-back meal in town, but didn’t bother booking a hotel room, figuring his home for the past year on the ice with its primitive furnishings and fuel-scented air was still sufficient for his needs.

The expedition’s main purpose was collecting seismic data, primarily from the Lomonosov Ridge, in areas normally inaccessible to vessels gathering such data. The hovercraft was brought to the East Siberian coast by the German icebreaker Polarstern on Aug. 30 of last year and eventually drifted to the Fram Strait, where it was picked up by the seal-hunting vessel Havsel on Aug. 18 for the journey to Longyearbyen.

Kristoffersen said one of the most important lessons from the expedition is demonstrating hovercrafts are ideal for such research, putting him at odds with officials who have placed limits on their use in the Arctic.

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A map shows the drift path of the Sabvabaa hovercraft during its one-year voyage on the Arctic Ocean ice. It was the first such voyage since Fridtjof Nansen’s Fram expedition 118 years ago. Map courtesty of the Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Center.

He said they’re less intrusive than icebreakers and don’t require the thick ice necessary to support fixed long-term field camps, since the hovercraft can be repositioned if cracks develop. The high-tech equipment means it’s easy to stay in contact with the outside world if assistance is needed, such as providing a replacement generator for one that was lost.

And while the craft itself might be tight – meaning “there is a lot of simple psychology you have to be aware of in how you express your discontent” with your partner – he said the work itself was hardly confining.

“The thing is, this is sort of like a mobile home,” Kristoffersen said. “You have to have your workplace outside.”

“There is plenty of room on the ice, but I didn’t want to move too far away from the hovercraft just in case.”

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Yngve Kristoffersen drills through sea ice near the Sabvabaa hovercraft. Photo courtesy of The University in Bergen.

One of the biggest challenges was protecting tents and equipment deployed on the ice during the harsh Arctic winter, especially since the hovercraft was forced to establish its camp on first-year ice rather than the thicker and more stable multiyear ice that has largely vanished from the region.

“Next time I would put more effort into designing work tents that could withstand the cold, and be easily put up and taken down,” Kristoffersen said. He said they also lost a windmill and a generator, forcing them to request a replacement generator be dropped by an aircraft onto the floe.

He said he is generally satisfied with data they collected, although they weren’t able to gather as many sentiment samplings as hoped.

“The fact that we were only two people puts constraints on you,” he said.

Among the more unusual moments was when a Russian sub surfaced nearby on Oct. 16, prompting some media to speculate the pair was being spied on.

“We saw all these floodlights not too far away,” Kristoffersen said “We thought that was strange,” but he shrugged off the suggestion it was an deliberate attempt to spy on them.

 

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