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Interview with Polar explorer Jean-Louis Étienne

2 July 2024

Today we have a special interview with Jean-Louis Étienne, a doctor and explorer whose name is synonymous with polar exploration. As the first man to reach the North Pole solo in 1986 and to complete the first full crossing of Antarctica in 1989, Jean-Louis has dedicated his life to understanding and protecting our planet’s Polar Regions. His numerous educational and scientific expeditions aim to raise awareness about the critical role these areas play in our global climate. In this interview, Jean-Louis shares insights into his extraordinary journeys, the challenges he’s faced, and his upcoming adventure aboard the Polar POD.

Please introduce yourself (Who are you? What do you do?)

My name is Jean-Louis Étienne, a trained doctor and explorer. I was the first man to reach the North Pole alone in 1986 and to complete the first complete crossing of Antarctica in 1989/90. I am a tireless defender of the planet and have done numerous educational and scientific expeditions aimed at raising awareness of the Polar Regions and understanding the role they play on life and the Earth’s climate. My next adventure will take me to the Southern Ocean for a unique exploration aboard the Polar POD.

Jean-Louis Étienne has been passionate about the Polar Regions since a young age, influenced by the heroic expeditions of discoverers
When did your interest in Polar science begin, and what factors or influences motivated you to pursue and commit to this field?

Without knowing why, the Polar Regions were on my youthful path, and I was interested above all in the heroic expeditions of the discoverers. After medical school, I organized several polar adventures, then built the ship “Antarctica” in 1989 (now called Tara) to retrace the Arctic drift of Nansen’s Fram. From then on, I organized scientific and educational polar expeditions.

Can you share a particularly memorable or challenging experience from one of your expeditions and how it shaped your approach to exploration and research?

It’s obviously my solo expedition to the North Pole, which took 63 days of pulling my sledge on a chaotic and dangerous ice floe. I experienced minus 52°C in the tent. In 1986, there was no GPS, so I navigated by the sun, and there was no telephone, which amplified this extreme solitude. Encouraged by this extraordinary commitment, I decided to get involved in organizing polar expeditions.

You are a well-known advocate for environmental conservation, how do you perceive the impact of raising awareness about Polar Regions and climate change on both policy-making and public action?

The poles are major players in the planet’s climate system, driven by the exchange between tropical heat and polar cold. The poles are also witnesses to global warming. The ice pack in the Arctic Ocean is melting fast, as if we’ve “opened the door to the fridge” and this cold will increasingly affect the Earth’s thermal balance. The massive release of giant icebergs in the Antarctic is also an inescapable warning to the public and political decision-makers.

As a pioneering figure in Polar sciences, how do you perceive the evolution of this field over the course of your career?

During my first expedition to Greenland in 1979, and to the North Pole in 1986, there was no talk of global warming. It was in 1989-90, during the international Trans-Antarctica expedition, that I made my first commitments. There was talk of exploiting Antarctica’s riches. I wrote our motto: “Antarctica is not a continent for man, it’s a continent for the Earth”. The subsequent Madrid Protocol prohibits the exploitation of mineral resources until 2048.

Concept picture of the Polar POD
Can you tell us some more about the Polar POD, how it originated, and what its overarching goal is?

Polar POD is a vertical vessel designed to study the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica. Remote, tempestuous and difficult to access, it is still little-known. Its vastness of cold waters and surface agitation make it a major player in the climate. The Southern Ocean alone absorbs 50% of the CO2 absorbed by the world’s oceans. It is a zero-emission autonomous vessel. Hydrophones installed at depth will enable an acoustic inventory of marine fauna.

Can you share a fun fact or go-to icebreaker about the Arctic or Antarctica?

The Polar Regions have the attraction of inaccessible places that call for passionate commitment. You don’t push your limits, you discover yourself, and you perform in ways you never knew you could until you were confronted with reality.

Learn more about Jean-Louis Etienne’s Polar POD