Discussion with polar explorer on mission Biodysseus
Interviewer: Antoine Rondelet, Founder @ Ganddee
Guest: Alban Michon, Explorer, Founder of mission Biodysseus & the School of Explorers
Alban Michon is a French adventurer and polar explorer with a deep passion for the polar regions and scuba diving. Over the years, he has participated in various expeditions, such as diving at the Geographic North Pole in 2010, kayaking 1,000 kilometers along the coast of Greenland in 2012, and spending 62 days on a solo trip traversing the pack ice of the Canadian Far North’s Northwest Passage in 2018.
Alban is a world acclaimed ice and underground diver who’s owned two scuba diving centers in France. In 2020, he founded the School of Explorers in Tignes, where he shares his expertise by providing training, advice, and guidance to individuals pursuing projects in adventure, technology, or science. (More info here (French)).
Antoine Rondelet: According to you, what roles do explorers play in the fight against climate change?
Alban Michon: Today, we’re no longer discovering new territories, but our world is changing rapidly.
To me, the role of the explorer has a scientific connotation. This is what makes the difference with extreme sports and adventures where we’re in the sporting achievement, pure and hard.
Even though I didn’t study science, I consider myself a science worker. Basically, I’m going to be given a protocol to study a phenomenon and/or collect data in remote places. That serves science because the more regularly we have information everywhere on the planet, the more we understand and the more we can protect the world. But, the challenge is that measurements need to be regular. In cities we’ve been collecting all sorts of data at regular intervals for 60, 70 years, or so. When I say regular, I mean minute-by-minute data, for things like humidity, temperature, wind direction, whatever you want. But on the scale of the planet, which is already 4.5 billion years old, it’s peanuts. We need much more data to better understand our world and our ecosystems.
Of course, we have information on the past climate when scientists do core drilling in Antarctica, for example, but if we want to understand the evolution of the world, if we want to see the positive and/or negative impacts of humankind - among other things - on the planet, we need regular data everywhere on Earth, sometimes collected over long time windows. This is where explorers can help. While some scientists do spent time in extremely remote places under very rough conditions, their role isn’t to spend 60 days in a tent at -50°C to collect plankton etc. The explorer can come in to do that. He is a guinea pig, he is a scientific worker, and possibly the hand - on the ground - of the scientist. That’s how I see the role of the explorer in 2023.
We have so much to do. Exploration is very broad. My focus is mostly on polar regions, especially the Arctic, but we still find between 15,000 to 17,000 species, insects, new vegetation each year. The world is to be discovered, the world is to be observed.
Let me give an example. In the 80s, scientists in Antarctica realized that there was a hole in the ozone layer caused by the use of CFC gases in fridges, deodorants etc. Following this observation - thanks science -, engineers worked to replace our CFC gases with something else - thanks technology. Scientists were also involved with the Antarctic Treaty in 59, the Montreal Protocol in 1987 etc. Now, what happens 30 years later? The hole in the ozone layer is shrinking and we know that because we have regular atmospheric observations. This example shows the role of science and technology, which both rely on data and measurements. Explorers can help collect such data on Earth.
As someone who’s been there and felt the changes in polar regions, how to communicate effectively what you see and feel in these regions where few people can go? Do you feel a responsibility, maybe as a messenger, to help spread what you observe in these remote regions?
I believe in four main things: science, technology, education, and pedagogy.
I haven’t done long studies, but I learned things that interested me. Things that weren’t boring to me, things that made me dream. Commander Cousteau has been a big source of inspiration to me. Sure, he made mistakes, but he did extraordinary things that really inspired me and forged me as an individual.
So, every time we go on expeditions, we make films, we write books, and we work on educational projects with schools to engage with their teachers and their students.
When we engage with students, we tell them about our expeditions, we show them pictures etc. for them to learn what global warming is, what climate change is, the impacts it can have on human beings, etc. So, when we come back from an expedition, we can tell about it, engage with students, engage with scientists and act things. While climate change is very unfortunate, I try to stay as focused on the facts as possible and look at what the solutions are. That’s what interests me.
Look, I am a lover of the polar world. In 30 years, in summer, the ice pack in the Arctic we be gone, melted. This is making me unhappy and sad. I love these ecosystems. But I have two solutions: either I cry, and I say “Oh my God, this is horrible”, or I say “OK, that’s how it is. Now, what would be the solutions to prevent this from causing an additional disaster?”.
So, back to your question, I believe that the explorer has a role to play to teach things and demonstrate that the world is changing, in a fun way, using stories from the ground and engaging students. I think we have an educational and pedagogical role to play. With students and scientists, we can become explorers of solutions.
This makes me think about the saying “We love what we know, we protect what we love”, which I think is credited to J. Y. Cousteau. If I understand correctly what you’ve just told me, your work is very much aligned with that, i.e. explorers bring back data, pictures, stories from not-very-well-known remote parts of the world to help scientists better understand these territories, but also to spread insights with the population. Thanks to the data collected, scientists can get to know these ecosystems better. If we all know better about these places, we’ll want - and be able to - protect them.
Yes. It’s important to understand that our world is changing fast, but it’s important to communicate it without constantly saying it that it is people’s entire fault. What do you want me to tell you? I can’t change the situation alone, neither can you, so we shouldn’t feel all the blame. Global warming is scary. There will be famines, there will be wars, there will be deaths. But, so what? It doesn’t stop you from moving forward. Humans can be crazy, the world is uncertain, it’s always been like that. So, I do things. I look at facts and strive to find solutions. In doing so, I like to understand things in a fun way, testing things, going on the field etc.
For fifteen years, I had an ice diving school in Tignes, in Savoie (France). When I was in my 20s, we were talking about global warming and they were saying “well, there will be a warming of about 2°C”. I’m not hiding it, when it was -15°C outside, I told myself at the time, “frankly, it doesn’t matter, it will be -12°C or -13°C”. Years later, I was on an expedition to dive at the geographic North Pole, therefore at the heart of the climate reactor. During our first dives in March that year, the ice was forming big, thick walls of ice under the water. When I punched the walls underwater to see the solidity of the ice, my hand was bouncing. The ice was hard, cutting, sharp. It was very impressive, all in bluish, turquoise colors. Two months later, in May, the outside temperature went from -55°C to -15°C, which was totally normal, but during our last dives under the Arctic ice pack, my fist was sinking into the ice when I punched it and the color of the ice had changed from bluish to yellowish. Chunks of ice were falling off from the pack underwater, rising to the surface like an inverted avalanche. The difference between our dives in March and our dives in May was that, in March, the water temperature was -1.6°C. Two months later, the water temperature was -1.4°C. Again, that temperature delta was totally normal, but that taught me a simple thing: 0.2°C of difference and the ice no longer has the same relief, no longer has the same texture, no longer has the same solidity, no longer has the same color. That’s when I understood the importance of global warming. That’s when I understood that 1.5°C changes everything. Global warming and the melting of the sea ice means changes in ocean currents, changes in the Gulf Stream, etc.
Such stories from my dives are my own ways to educate people and show that, yes, 0.2°C of difference is very important for our climate.
That’s a powerful story. I read scientific reports, but I obviously don’t get to experience such things on the ground, so it’s very valuable to hear such stories from your past expeditions.
You know, scientific reports are published every year. Every year, newspapers talk about them. The problem, as we talk about communication, is that there is nothing new. Every year, we say the same things. We alert on the same subjects. Since we don’t bring positive news - even if there are some, we simply don’t talk about them -, people lose hope. People say to themselves, “well, the IPCC told us that anyway we’re all going to die, nothing new under the sun, it’s catastrophic”.
Here’s an example. A few years ago, I shared something on Facebook. It was an article saying that a species of whales had come back to Antarctica, where they hadn’t been seen for 30 or 40 years. It was great. So, I share this information, which came from a reliable source, like the BBC or Science&Vie, and the first comment I have is one guy saying “it’s a fake”. If you only share bullshit, though, everyone believes it. People have been instilled, in their little heads, that everything is almost screwed up and that whatever we do, there is nothing that goes in the positive. Well, I totally disagree. We’re going to provide solutions. I’m not just optimistic. I’m also realistic and as I said, there will be wars, there will be famines, there will be 200 to 300 million climate refugees. Now, does that prevent us from finding solutions?
There’s a quote I like, but I can’t remember who said it, which is "it’s better to be an optimist who is wrong than a pessimist who is always right ". Totally so.
I’d like to talk about Biodysseus. What are the objectives of the mission, and how is the project structured? Is that only a collaboration from the private sector or are states engaged as well, a bit like the ISS model?
I’ve been working on this project for 8 years. It’s been 8 years of thinking, asking myself why I was going to do this etc. Things have changed a lot between the original project and what it has become today, including name, etc.
I announced the projects in October last year, and for me there are two objectives that come back to: science and technology.
The original idea was Cousteau’s, who inspired me when I was a kid. He made underwater habitats called Precontinent I, II and III. So we’re not the first, we’re not inventing the concept of underwater habitats, but we are going to do it with today’s technologies. Cousteau had demonstrated that man could work under the sea. He made people live 100 meters deep for three weeks. So, our project is in the continuity of what he did. As a lover of the polar world, I said to myself: “I will redo an underwater habitat, but under the polar ice floe”. We are going to put ourselves at the heart of the climate reactor. Doing so with today’s technologies allows limiting our impact on the environment, so we will be able to remove the station in the end. At his time, Cousteau didn’t do this, and so there is still one of his station at the bottom of the water in Egypt.
I designed the mission as if I was using my own money, trying to stay lean and keep costs low wherever possible. So basically, I’m making a 24-meter-long, 2-meter wide mother station. This kind of underwater ISS will be made of modules that can be assembled together, which will all be shipped in containers. That’s why the station is 2-meter wide. It’s narrow, but you can live in it, and it allows keeping the logistics cost-efficient by fitting modules in containers.
I could’ve designed a 200 million euros super project, but I’d never find such amounts of money, and even if I did, there are many people starving around the world today, so we can’t afford to throw money away.
With our underwater habitat in the Arctic, we’ll be able to study this fast changing environment from the inside, right in its heart. We won’t be a moving station, a boat that takes samples right and left and moves, etc. The station will stay there for several years to host different missions. Our world is changing and evolving very quickly, so it’s important to stay and watch it evolve. We’ll be able to do this with the panoramic view at the front of the station, a bit like in the ISS. We’ll put ourselves on a point of interest, and we’ll live with the environment. It won’t be the same as putting cameras on, it won’t be the same as coming back two years later to take three samples again. We’ll live in the heart of the element.
The Arctic is warming 3 to 4 times faster than the rest of the world. So, we have everything to win to study this environment. Let’s look at France, for instance. It has a scientific base in Antarctica, Dumont d’Urville, and half a base with Concordia, which is shared with Italy. France also shares the Arctic research base AWIPEV with Germany at Ny-Ålesund in Svalbard. That’s not a lot of scientific bases in these fast changing polar ecosystems. So, Biodysseus is an international project that will provide an underwater scientific base, for research, technology testing and development, over 20 to 25 years. Kind of like the ISS, to answer your question.
For the moment, no governments are committed to the project, but I’ve been discussing with partners. Overall, people and institutions are very interested in the project. In fact, we provide a unique European project that will allow us to deepen our understanding of polar regions. It will be a unique science laboratory.
The project will also be an innovation accelerator. Sometimes we forget it, but space research is satellites that allow us to study the impact of global warming, anticipate climate disasters, track world pollution etc. Space research improved diapers for the astronauts, diapers that many use today here on Earth. Space research allowed us to have telecommunications. Space research has developed survival blankets, technical textiles, etc. etc. So, we forget that such research serves us, Humans, and I didn’t even mention the GPS. Well, to develop space research, and therefore the world of tomorrow, things have to be miniaturized. Technologies have to be tested in extreme places, in complicated environments, in degraded mode. There are plenty of things that exist today in the laboratory, which are mastered. The next step is to master it here, in everyday life, and then you have to make things work in extreme conditions. This is where Biodysseus comes in. I’ve been talking about the Biodysseus underwater station to observe the environment, collect data etc., but we will also have a station on the ice floe on the surface where many technologies will be tested. We are going to work on green hydrogen. Like, if you test green hydrogen snowmobiles in conditions where it is -30 or -40°C outside, there is a good chance that, in Paris, it will work. If experiments work, great, the technology is battle tested and works. If the experiments fail, well that’s also very good for the engineers working on them because they’ll be able to improve their technology.
My job here will be to take people who don’t have the vocation to go to these extreme places, but to take them safely to do scientific programs and to carry out lots of tests on their technology. This, in short, is the role of the Biodysseus station. It’s all about science and technology.
How will the station at the surface stay coordinated with the station underwater, given that Arctic ice is constantly moving?
It’s a good question. I haven’t talked about the location much, but we’re not going to stand in the middle of the ice pack. We are going to set the station in a fjord. We’re starting with a six-month mission during which I will welcome scientists and engineers, and we’ll be able to see what needs to be improved, what needs to be changed, adjusted etc. This first six-month mission is the time of a full season in the Arctic, so we’ll do a season under the ice. Also, six-month is the time that it will take for humans to get from Earth to Mars. We’re going on a space trip under the ice, or shall we say, an interpolar trip.
Oh, and, what’s the history behind the name “Biodysseus”?
When the Commander Cousteau did Precontinent II, he nicknamed the divers who took part of the project the “oceanauts”. The oceanauts showed that we could work under the sea. In our case, we’re going to study biodiversity, so we’ll be “bioceanauts” as a nod to Cousteau. Now, why “Biodysseus”? Because it’ll be “The Odyssey of bioceanauts”.
Thanks for your time, Alban. It’s fascinating to hear about Biodysseus and the future plans ahead. Would you like to share something else with us before we wrap up?
There’s a website for the mission (https://www.biodysseus.com/) where people can find more information about it. I call every company, researcher etc. interested who’d like to work with us to reach out. I’m here to welcome scientists and engineers in this unique structure, so if they have projects to propose, they’re all welcome to contact us.
Some links about France’s polar stations:
More info on the Antarctic Treaty: https://www.bas.ac.uk/about/antarctica/the-antarctic-treaty/the-antarctic-treaty-1959/
More info on the Montreal Protocol: https://www.unep.org/ozonaction/who-we-are/about-montreal-protocol
Astronauts’ diapers: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maximum_Absorbency_Garment
NASA’s space blankets: https://www.nasa.gov/offices/oct/40-years-of-nasa-spinoff/emergency-blankets
Cousteau’s Precontinent I, Precontinent II and Precontinent III: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Continental_Shelf_Station_Two
We originally published this interview on OCRA, a climate forum and community that we started. This interview has been moved to our blog following the closure of the OCRA forum.
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