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The mission of the Tara Polar Station 

With more than two decades of experience in marine exploration and research, the French foundation Tara Océan has embarked on an unprecedented feat. The Tara Polar Station will allow scientists to study the ecosystems and climate of the Arctic Ocean throughout all seasons. We discussed it with the Foundation’s executive director, Romain Troublé. 

A drifting station with (almost) no impact

The construction site of Tara Polar Station was inaugurated in April 2023 in Cherbourg, in the north of France, and entrusted to the expert workers of Constructions Mécaniques de Normandie (CMN). The project bears the signature of Olivier Petit, already involved in the design of the iconic Goélette Tara, the heroine of the Foundation which was christened in 2003 and completed an arctic drift 3 years later. 

3D model of the Tara Polar Station. © Fondation Tara Océan

The design of the Tara Polar Station represents a leap in ambition and complexity.  Constraints of different natures had to be dealt with. Physical constraints such as the pressure of the ice and the prohibitive temperatures of the polar night (ranging from -20°C to -52°C) played a huge role in shaping the design of the station. Regulatory constraints imposed by the Polar Code of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) followed suit. And, of course, finances represented a constraint too. The costs of construction and annual maintenance had to be kept within a sustainable range.   

There is more. Arctic research is also faced with environmental constraints

You have to find a way to study the impacts of climate change further amplified in this region of the world – without exacerbating it in the process. “We wanted to make a small project in terms of size and in terms of the number of people on board to have a rather low human footprint“, says Mr. Romain Troublé, executive director of Tara Océan. Various measures have been adopted to ensure optimal waste management, the correct treatment of sewage, and the reduction of light pollution.  

We will have an impact, it’s obvious”, Mr. Troublé points out, “but we did everything we could to minimize it.” 

The essential is invisible to the eye, but not to microscopes

In 2026 the Tara Polar Station will host the first of ten expeditions lasting approximately 18 months each involving scientists and experts from all over the world. Among the main research axes that will be explored on board are biodiversity, the migration of organisms towards new latitudes and their evolution, the adaptation of life in extreme conditions, and, of course, the fil rouge of climate change

© Fondation Tara Océan

Biological diversity particularly the one invisible to the human eye such as viruses, bacteria, and phytoplankton – is a priority research field in the Tara Océan Foundation’s activities worldwide. In the Arctic, if possible, even more. Sympagic ecosystems  (those that develop in ice) host life forms capable of adapting to extreme conditions, a priceless genetic heritage that risks disappearing over the next twenty years due to the melting of his house. 

Arctic biodiversity is important for biomass stocks, to extend the moratorium on fishing in the Arctic Ocean, it is important in itself because it is unique”, affirmed Romain Troublé.

Yet, to date, this incredible diversity is not only in danger but also largely unknown.

According to the executive director of Tara Océan, the problem is that to be able to study it “one must stay”. Vessels that venture into the Arctic rarely stay long enough to allow sampling and studies such as those that will be carried out on the Tara Station. “Neither MOSAiC (an ambitious mission that lasted about a year, ed.), which was focused on atmospheric physics, did it on this scale,” says Romain Troublé, “this project is unique because it will allow scientists to remain on-site”.  

© Fondation Tara Océan

The drift of the station, which will remain stuck in the ice 90% of the time, will follow that of the ice pack for approximately two decades, allowing scientists to study arctic biodiversity, as well as its interaction with the atmosphere during the three phases of frost, polar night and thaw. 

A synergy between public and private

This ambitious project took a whole decade to conceive and an incredible synergy of public and private entities to develop. The search for partners and sponsors is still open.  

Alongside some prominent private partners, the project benefits from co-financing by the French state as part of the investment plan France 2030 and from the funds allocated to the country within the European program Next Generation EU. Massive state support is part of the ambitious goal of the first national Polar Strategy, which is to balance French investment and presence between the Arctic and the Antarctic.  

Tara assembly plant in Cherbourg, Normandy. © Fondation Tara Océan

On the technical level, the three main partners alongside the Tara Océan Foundation are the CNRS, Laval University through the Takuvik laboratory, and the University of Maine. Overall, however, around thirty laboratories were involved in the development of the scientific strategy representing twelve different countries. 

Initially, the project envisaged cooperation also with Russia, which was interrupted following the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine. “We launched in peacetime and built in wartime, we’ll see what happens next”, declares Romain Troublé, underlining that beyond the Russian issue, cooperation in the region is smooth. 

The work conducted on board the Tara Polar Station will itself strengthen this coordination by providing valuable information to the Arctic Council, in particular to the AMAP which advises the governments of the eight member countries on issues relating to threats posed by pollution in the Arctic

Art and science in dialogue

The list of technical profiles invited on board also includes – not surprisingly – journalists, tasked with documenting and telling the general public about the undertaking. However, the mention of resident artists aboard a research station adrift in the Arctic Ocean. 

“Tara Polar Station is also an incredible human adventure and it allows us to tell people why we do all this, what are the threats at hand”, explains Romain Troublé, passionately underlining the care that the Foundation has always placed in storytelling and education. 

This story is complex, sometimes difficult to accept, and existential nonetheless. And this is where the artistic medium comes into play. 

© Fondation Tara Océan

The artists will mostly come on board in the summer when the weather conditions are milder. According to Troublé, their role will be questioning what they will see and the scientists’ work, asking new questions, and pinching the emotional chords that data can hardly reach. “There is a void between knowledge and action. I believe that art, in all its forms, can fill that.”

Therefore, the success of the Tara Polar Station will depend on the ability to narrate and be narrated, to answer numerous research questions and stimulate new ones, and to move observers and push for action. 

We must wish it succeeds. 

Annalisa Gozzi

Osservatorio Artico © Tutti i diritti riservati

Annalisa Gozzi
the authorAnnalisa Gozzi
Sono una studentessa del Master in Environmental Policy all’Università Sciences Po di Parigi. Sono appassionata di comunicazione e cerco di rendere il tema del cambiamento climatico accessibile nella sua complessità.

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