From thick pack-ice to blue sea

Jan-Gunnar Winther is deeply worried about the impact climate changes have on the Arctic.

KARA SEA: Only blue sea in sight for Jan-Gunnar Winther, Head of the Norwegian Polar Institute, as he sails across the very same position where Fridtjof Nansen’s voyage sailed into severe ice conditions in August 1913.


The Nansen Memorial Expedition is like a voyage in the history of climate changes. On August 9th 1913, Fridtjof Nansen and his companions gave up their planned route through the Kara Sea and turned their vessel “Correct” southeast towards the coast of the Yamal Peninsula. The ice was simply too thick for them. They later found an opening with drift-ice through which they managed to navigate further north towards Dikson on the northern tip of the Taimyr Peninsula.

A lot has changed in hundred years. Or, to be precise; very much has changed over the last 10 years regarding sea ice in the Arctic.

Today, we sail straight ahead. No need to look for ice. There isn’t any. The two officers on duty on the bridge of “Professor Molchanov” are both relaxed. Not a single drifting ice-flake anywhere on the horizon.

Jan-Gunnar Winther is not relaxed. He is deeply concerned about the lack of ice. Not necessarily because we on our voyage have no sea-ice; the ice conditions in this part of the Kara Sea have been easy to navigate through in mid-August before. The polar scientist is concerned about the rapid loss of Arctic sea-ice in general.

He is not the only one who is worried. On September 27, Jan-Gunnar will deliver the 5th Assessment Report on climate changes on behalf of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The Head of the Norwegian Polar Institute is the lead author of, to which climate scientists from around the globe have contributed.

“The Arctic is warming at almost twice the rate compared with the rest of the world,” says Jan-Gunnar Winther.

That should not only concern people like me, living in the northernmost corner of Europe. When humans change the climate in a way that affects the Arctic as badly as it does today, we also change the climate in the rest of Europe. Temperatures, winds, rain - or lack of rain - in central Europe are highly dependent on what is happening with the climate here on the top of the world.

“What we have seen is that today’s realities are worse than predicted in the models for the decline of Arctic sea-ice presented by scientists in the 2007 version of the IPPC climate report,” explains Jan-Gunnar.

“If I had said 10 years ago that we in 2013 would see so little ice as we do today, others would not have taken me seriously,” says Jan-Gunnar Winther.

He is convinced that Fridtjof Nansen would have been fighting climate changes if he was alive today and could see what we are experiencing on our voyage across Russia’s Kara Sea.

Today, we have sailed the same entrance way to the Kara Sea as Nansen did; through the Yugorsky strait. The narrow strait divides the island of Vaigach and the mainland. It also divides the Pechora Sea from the Kara Sea.

Commercial traffic entering the Northern Sea Route, however, sails the much wider Kara strait in between Vaigach and Novaya Zemlya. We tried that one too yesterday night. In dark-yellow sunset.

Sailing towards Novaya Zemlya in sunset is something mysterious. Towards this island where the Soviet Union between 1955 and 1990 detonated 224 nuclear bombs. In the atmosphere, under water, on the surface and in tunnels deep inside the mountains.

The island is still a highly restricted area.

We just sailed close to the shore near the abandoned polar station at Cape Menshikova. 

The distance from Novaya Zemlya over the Kara strait to Vaigach is 80 kilometers. The strait also mark the border between Europe and Asia. How cool isn’t it to sail from Europe to Asia and back again several times during 24 hours?

We sailed in from Vaigach in the southeast, crossed the “border” on our journey over to Novaya Zemlya, then sailed to the southernmost point and turned east again. During the night “Professor Molchanov” made her way to the Yugorsky strait where we in the early morning hours crossed into Asia again.

Busy days on the Northern Sea Route? Well, during our voyages back and forth at this entrance- and exit point to the new so-called maritime highway to Asia we could only see one vessel far out in the horizon.

The lack of vessels was, however, compensated with another and much more fascinating sight; minke whale. And not only one, but several. At one spot just south of the Kara strait I could see a group of four or five animals.  Depending on age and sex, the minke whale can be six to ten meters long and up to ten tons. For me (and my camera) it is not much of the whale that is visible at surface when it comes up and breathes three to five times at short intervals before diving for a longer period.

You can see photo of the minke whale in my slide show below this article.

While we sail further north, I sign up to the Czarist proverb: “Russia is not a state, but a world.”