MARSEILLE, France (Reuters) - A French explorer unveiled plans on Friday to fly over the Arctic in an airship to measure the ice cap amid concern at the pace it is melting.
Jean-Louis Etienne (www.jeanlouisetienne.fr) said his 10,000 kilometer (6,214 mile) journey will serve as a benchmark for monitoring the impact of global warming on the North Pole.
Etienne’s expedition will begin in April 2008 in northern Norway and take him over the Barents Sea to Spitzberg. He will then fly over the magnetic North Pole and Beaufort Sea before heading to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, where he is due to land in May.
“Measurements are being made by ships but ships do not cover the kind of surface that we will cover,” Etienne told Reuters.
“The airship will allow us to fly over vast areas and it will give our measuring equipment the stability that a helicopter cannot give.”
Data will be collected using an electromagnetic probe hanging below the 54-metre-long, 14-metre-wide airship, Etienne told reporters at the inauguration of the Russian-made craft.
Large tracts of Arctic ice have melted at an increasingly rapid pace in recent summers, a trend widely-linked to human emission of greenhouse gases that threatens the livelihood of Arctic peoples and wildlife like polar bears.
Etienne’s expedition will follow the steps of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, the first explorer to fly over the North Pole in an airship in 1926, and comes at a time of growing awareness of global warming’s impact on the environment.
On Friday, former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore and a United Nations’ panel on climate change were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to highlight the issue.
“Today the polar ice cap is seriously threatened by global warming,” Etienne told a news conference attended by Prince Albert of Monaco, who visited the North Pole in April 2006.
The project is being sponsored by French oil group Total. Chief executive Christoph de Margerie rejected criticism its involvement was a publicity stunt.
“The idea that oil companies cannot take part in environmental projects is a falsity that needs to be changed,” De Margerie told reporters.
De Margerie said some of Etienne’s findings may help Total better understand the drift of ice in the Barents Sea, where the French group is looking to make a multi-billion dollar investment in Russia’s Shtokman gas field.
The seabed under the Arctic, shared by Nordic countries, Russia, Canada and the United States, has oil and gas resources which are coveted by international energy groups seeking to meet rising demand for energy.
Russia planted a flag on the seabed below the North Pole in August in a symbolic claim to the territory.
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