Tara Arctic: a unique expedition on the top of the world

Tara Expeditions Foundation

Even more than other regions of our planet, the Arctic today is undergoing significant climate change. Each year the ice pack melts to its minimum by September. In the past 30 years, both surface area and thickness of the permanent Arctic sea ice have decreased by 40%. With the pack ice melting, new maritime routes opening and the exploitation of oil and gas deposits, the Arctic region is increasingly subject to economic and environmental upheavals.

The Tara Expeditions Foundation has been working since 2003 to protect the environment and support scientific research. The schooner Tara has sailed all the oceans of the planet for the last 15 years. Sailors and scientists from many countries relay each other on board to study the largest ecosystem on the planet, the Ocean. In the first of four major scientific expeditions conducted to understand climate change and its impacts on the Ocean, Tara in 2006 achieved a real human and scientific feat: Locked in the ice, the boat drifted for 507 days in the heart of the Arctic pack ice. This first polar mission was named Tara Arctic.
A schooner designed for extreme conditions Length: 36 m. Width: 10 m. Weight: 120 tons 2 masts, each one 27 meters high Sails: total of 400 square meters Hull: 60 tons of aluminium up to 4.5 centimeters thick

At the beginning, a revolutionary vision

Tara was born of a dream: to create an ideal vessel for polar expeditions and thus perpetuate the tradition of great 19th century explorers.
The schooner's wide aluminium hull has rounded flanks designed to escape the phenomenal pressures exerted by pack ice. When plaques of ice close in, they slide under the hull, lifting it up instead of crushing it.

A unique human experience

“If there weren't a few people crazy enough to go, we'd never have succeeded.
Today, our team includes people specialized in extreme conditions, but at the time (in 2006) they were true adventurers”, says Etienne Bourgois, founder of the Tara project.

On September 4, 2006, Tara had a rendez-vous with the Kapitan Dranitsyn -- a Russian icebreaker capable of opening a path through the increasingly compact ice. The Kapitan Dranitsyn helped Tara locate an ice floe wide and solid enough for the schooner to position herself and set up a research camp. The crew then unloaded the heavy scientific material transported by the icebreaker on Tara's behalf.

In the wake of the explorer Fridtjof Nansen

Before Tara, only one sailboat – the Fram in 1893 – had ever dared to confront the extreme conditions of the Arctic. A hundred years later, Tara accomplished a contemporary version of the Fram expedition, spotlighting the spectacular aspect of this unique scientific adventure and revealing current environmental upheavals.

507 days of drifting with the ice pack, including 260 days in total darkness

Tara locked herself in the ice pack on September 3, 2006

The schooner emerged from the ice on January 21, 2008

20 crew members relayed each other aboard

With the crew: the Taranauts

Throughout the Arctic drift, 20 Taranauts and 2 dogs learned to live on the ice floe: Sailor, pilot, medical doctor, scientists with various specialties, mountain guide, journalist, photographer, cameraman, artist – Men and women of many nationalities, all committed to observing, informing, raising awareness.

Tara: Arctic sentinel

The schooner positioned herself on an ice floe measuring 2 by 3 kilometers, with thickness of ice ranging from 0.80cm to 1 meter. Installation was facilitated by the permanent daylight of Arctic summer.

Men in the cold

The coldest temperature was - 41° C. No question of touching a piece of metal with your bare hands, at the risk of leaving your skin behind.

The very long night

The last ray of sun was seen by the crew on October 18, 2006. The sun passed the horizon again at the beginning of March 2007!

260 days in the polar night

A refuge

Tara endured snow storms and the movements of ice called “compression ridges” that forced the boat to lean over, at the risk of breaking apart.

Voluntary confinement

In extremely close quarters, the Taranauts found various ways to relax.
The people closest to the Taranauts during their Arctic drift were the crew members of the space station that passed in orbit every 91 minutes.

The Taranauts were visited 18 times by bears. Some came very close to the boat, threatening equipment, crew and dogs. Zagrey and Tiksi, the 2 faithful huskies got injuries requiring stitches.

Tara: platform of the Damocles scientific program
Tara is the main research vessel for the Damocles program, the European Union's pilot project for the International Polar Year. The project aims to observe, understand and quantify climate change in the Arctic to help make informed decisions about global warming. For scientists eager for information about the poles, the schooner Tara provides an incomparable research platform.

Researchers of the great cold

Flat, fragmented, melting -- sea ice is never uniform and changes every day.
Certain manipulations last for hours and can be extremely difficult at such icy temperatures.

Research balloon

This balloon inflated with helium was sent up to an altitude of 2,000 meters to study the lower atmosphere. A series of sensors attached to the rope recorded data.

Tara Arctic polar station

During Tara's 15-month drift, researchers made many observations and surveys of the atmosphere, up to an altitude of 1,500 meters, and beneath the Arctic ice to a depth of more than 4,000 meters. Temperature of air and water, pressure, salinity, intensity of winds, the pack ice was closely studied to evaluate its evolution in real time. After this data was recorded aboard Tara, it was regularly transmitted by satellite to researchers on land.


The Tara Arctic expedition succeeded in demonstrating the fragility of the poles and the increasing ice melt. 21 scientific publications established 3 major findings about the Arctic ice pack.

Ice is melting faster and faster

Tara's Arctic drift -- from the Laptev Sea to Fram Strait -- lasted 507 days (from September 2006 to January 2008). This contrasts with the situation in 1893, when it took the Norwegian ship Fram more than a thousand days (3 years) to drift the same distance.

Surface area of ice pack is decreasing in summer.

There has never been so little sea ice as in the summer of 2012. Since the previous record of ice melt (in September 2007), the surface area of pack ice decreased by 20% in September 2012.

Thickness of the Arctic ice pack is decreasing

In the 1970s, the average thickness of pack ice was more than 3 meters. In the mid-90s, it measured less than 2 meters on average. Today it's only about 1 meter thick.

On January 22, 2008, Tara arrived in the Longyearbyen Fjord in Spitsbergen, Norway. Following an old sailing tradition, the 10 crew members lighted their distress flares.

Mission impossible accomplished!

Starting with a very difficult installation on the ice pack (in 2006) until their triumphant emergence after 507 days of drifting with the ice floe, the TARA team took on an incredible challenge.
This journey to the heart of the climate system represents the backbone of the TARA Foundation's mission, and legitimized the schooner's role as a fantastic environmental observatory.


To move forward, we need the help of everyone because the Tara Foundation remains independent. We operate thanks to the generosity of our donors, essential sponsors of our actions.

Every donation counts and allows our work to continue. To support the Tara Expeditions Foundation:


Credits: Story

The Tara Foundation thanks the photographers
François Bernard
Denys Bourget
Hervé Bourmaud
Francis Latreille
Audun Tholfsen

and the architects Mr. Luc Bouvet and Mr. Olivier Petit (Tara's plan)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.