“Aboard the Polarstern”, polar research drawn and chronicled | Polarjournal
Cover of the book À bord du Polarstern published in French by Delachaux et Niestlé (there is currently no english version). Image: Katharina Weiss-Tuider / Christian Schneider / Delachaux et Niestlé

A book about a major scientific expedition to the Arctic Ocean, a well-illustrated groundbreaking experience in the study of the ocean, ice and climate of the polar regions, aimed at a wide audience.

At the One Planet – Polar Summit, in response to the alarming report that the cryosphere is disappearing, Emmanuel Macron did not announce any measures to mitigate global warming, but he did encourage researchers to do more work at the poles. In particular, he announced the construction of an oceanographic vessel capable of venturing close to the ice. A vessel similar to the German Polarstern, but incapable of breaking through the ice.

In fact, À bord du Polarstern (On board the Polarstern), a book published in French last month, tells the epic story of a scientific ice-breaking ship crossing the Arctic ice pack in the polar night of 2019 to 2020. Highly illustrated and published by Delachaux et Niestlé, it gives a clear idea of this kind of scientific and human experience.

France’s polar scientific community has been waiting a long time to be able to work in icy waters with a ship managed by public funds. Michel Rocard will be its name once it is built. This came as a surprise to Laurent Mayet, who found out about the tribute in the press, even though he has always worked to preserve the memory of Michel Rocard’s diplomatic work on the poles as Prime Minister under François Mitterrand.

Michel Rocard will replace Antea, a 35-metre oceanographic vessel based in Nouvelle-Calédonie, which has reached the end of its career. It was already scheduled for renewal before 2030. But there will be no question of working with a 35-metre vessel so close to Antarctica. Michel Rocard will be at least 65 metres long, which is still a long way from the Polarstern‘s 118 metres.

What the French are about to write is still hard to fathom, as the adventure has only just begun. Until it is launched, scientists will continue to embark on ships from the European and international fleets, such as the German icebreaker.

Illustration of the drift of the ship caught in the ice at the heart of the Arctic Ocean. Image: Christian Schneider / Delachaux et Niestlé

À bord du Polarstern provides a detailed account of the scientific use of an ice-breaking ship in the Arctic. It offers young readers (aged 9 and over), the uninitiated and those curious about the Polarstern an experience in images, text and drawings of the study of the ocean, ice and climate. “This story enables us not only to grasp facts cognitively, but also to understand them emotionally. I think that this is the key to good, “sustainable” science communication, whether for children or adults.” explains Katharina Weiss-Tuider, author and doctor of literature. She was the communications officer at the Alfred Wegener Institute during the MOSAiC expedition.

First published in March 2021(Expedition Polarstern – Dem Klimawandel auf der Spur) by CBJ Verlag in Germany, the book now arrives in its French version. “I wanted to give an exciting example to young readers how everything on our planet, especially the global climate system, is connected. she explains. I am delighted that the French translation of the book now also gives children and young people from French-speaking countries the opportunity to learn more about MOSAiC.”

The graphics are delicate, with Christian Schneider drawing in pencil and his colours slightly dull, but the result is striking at dusk. The work immerses us in the polar night, in the drifting ice, accompanied by marine flora and fauna. Among this biodiversity, a clown fish has managed to slip between the pages, but the emblematic animal with black skin that camouflages very well on a white background (the polar bear) often appears drawn or photographed.

There are also “logbook” chapters in which we follow the evolution of the expedition over time. Image: Katharina Weiss-Tuider / Christian Schneider / Delachaux et Niestlé

This is a highly visual book, with maps of the Arctic Ocean, historical images and photos of the expedition. The ship drifted for 3,400 kilometres, supplied by other icebreakers such as the Kapitan Dranitsyn. The book does not go into all the technical details of such navigation, but between the logbooks and a plan of the ship’s anatomy, we discover some of the issues involved in its slow drift of 25 kilometres a day.

A book that is both instructive and entertaining. We learn all about the jet stream, the greenhouse effect and the climate, from the formation of ice crystals to cracks in the ice pack. A simple vocabulary takes us by the hand and a few technical notions enhance the story. “I believe that if you want to write a good science book, you need both: fascination, enthusiasm for the subject, as well as sobriety and precision, which in the end is nothing other than a love of facts.” explains Katharina Weiss-Tuider.

Very clear didactic diagrams punctuate the book, which is interspersed with anecdotes. Key figures are sprinkled throughout: 6,000 kilograms of potatoes to feed the 442 people who came on board from 37 countries. We discover the trades, the equipment, the night-time atmosphere with cracking ice, bears on the prowl and icy gusts.

An example of a time jump between different types of equipment needed to survive in the Arctic. Image: Katharina Weiss-Tuider / Christian Schneider / Delachaux et Niestlé

Scientists are depicted with a salvo of measuring tools, underwater robots, cameras, rosettes, aircraft, balloons, etc. There are no portrait of researchers or crew members, either because of lack of space or to not overwhelm the team spirit that is so prevalent in such an adventure. “I am truly grateful for this experience because it shows: When on a shared mission, the world can stand together – and the most important mission we share as humankind is to fight two of the major crises of our times, climate change and biodiversity loss.” she adds. The mysteries of the Arctic Ocean have pride of place, brought into focus by the lights of the Polarstern in 131 pages.

The book is aimed at those who are wondering about the future of the climate and those who would like to be carried away by one of the most ambitious expeditions that currently provides ample fodder for scientific literature. It raises awareness of eco-responsible actions in everyday life. “Children have a right to know that it is their future that is at stake when we as adults are deciding on climate protection measures today.” the author comments. It’s a book that could inspire young people to take up environmental challenges and, who knows, even take a young reader as far as the Michel Rocard in Hobart, heading for Antarctica in 10 years’ time.

À bord du Polarstern, Katharina Weiss-Tuider, Christian Schneider and Stephanie Roderer, Éditions Delachaux et Niestlé, 131 pages, 21.90 euros (there is currently no english version).

Camille Lin, PolarJournal

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