PARIS--An aimless wanderer usually can't be expected to produce good science. But French physician Jean-Louis Etienne--who in 1986 was the first person to reach the North Pole alone on foot--is wandering with a purpose. He's drifting on the Arctic ice, collecting a wealth of hard-to-obtain data for a half-dozen research teams across France.
On 11 April, a helicopter dropped off the adventurer and his dog Lynet at the North Pole, along with their home until July: The 9-cubic-meter Polar Observer, which resembles the Mercury space capsules from the 1960s. The gas-heated, hydrogen- and solar-powered capsule is fitted with a range of scientific instruments. It's anchored on an ice floe that wind and marine currents are driving across the Arctic Ocean.
For the researchers lucky enough to have equipment along for the $1 million ride--financed by several public and private sponsors--the mission is a unique opportunity. Gérard Brogniez, an expert on atmospheric optics at the University of Lille, and his colleagues have outfitted the capsule with photometers for measuring visible, infrared, and ultraviolet (UV) light. The UV measurements, which scientists use to determine the ozone layer's thickness, are normally made by satellite and verified by ground stations--something that is not generally feasible in the Arctic Ocean. "The ice pack is always moving, and you can't put expensive equipment there," says Brogniez.
The project is also a boon to paleoclimatologist Denis-Didier Rousseau's team at the University of Montpellier. His group has tracked pollen from Mediterranean plants such as grapevines and olive trees several thousand kilometers to Greenland, but has no data from the Arctic Ocean. Filling this gap, he says, should help refine models of global wind patterns. It also should aid work on the distribution of fossil pollen in sediments and at archaeological sites.
At last report, Etienne and his canine companion had covered nearly a quarter of the estimated 500-kilometer journey. In a recent Web dispatch (in French), Etienne describes a typical evening: "The blizzard is blowing this evening at 30 kilometers per hour. It plays the evacuation vents and air intakes of the Polar Observer like an organ. Nice and warm, I am going to be able to sleep peacefully." If the nights and days continue uneventfully, Etienne and Lynet should end up near the coast of Greenland, where a Russian icebreaker plans to pick them up.