“My congratulations go out to the whole Tara team on their tremendous human and logistical achievement,” UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director Achim Steiner said today of Tara Expeditions and the Arctic Drift project, Tara Arctic 2007-2008. “This expedition was not only about adventure however. The important scientific work undertaken will also contribute to a greater understanding of the negative impacts of climate change on the arctic environment.” The world’s polar regions are playing on a global scale the role of a canary in a coal mine – providing early warnings on the impact of human-induced changes on nature, ranging from global warming to chemical pollution. Wedged in the pack ice, Tara “drifted” with the wind and ocean currents at an average speed of 10 kilometres per hour for more than 500 days. In one and half years she covered 5,200 kilometres in the Arctic, and at one point was only 160 kilometres from the North Pole, the northern-most position ever reached by a schooner. The boat is now sailing in open water, and by the end of the week is expected to reach land at Longyearbyen, capital of the island of Spitsbergen in the Arctic Ocean. She will then continue on to her home port of Lorient in France. “The polar regions are some of the most hauntingly beautiful places on Earth,” Mr. Steiner said. “They are also nature’s early warning systems where issues like human-induced climate change, the thinning of the ozone layer and the impacts of persistent chemical pollution continue to be registered first.” As part of the International Polar Year, Tara has provided an unprecedented platform for scientific observations and research (including the European DAMOCLES project) on how the Arctic environment is changing. Throughout the course of the expedition, it has been relaying these findings to scientists, policy makers and the general public alike. In 2004 the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), an unprecedented four-year scientific study by an international team of 300 scientists, provided clear evidence that the Arctic climate is warming rapidly now and, of even greater concern, that much larger changes are projected for the future. ACIA predicted that Arctic vegetation zones and animal species will be affected. Retreating sea ice is expected to reduce the habitat for polar bears, walrus, ice-inhabiting seals, and marine birds, threatening some species with extinction. Such changes will also affect many indigenous communities who depend on such animals, not only for food, but also as the basis for cultural and social identity, according to UNEP. And, beyond the region, as the Arctic glaciers melt and the permafrost thaws, it will be developing countries, with limited means to adapt to environmental change that suffer most. 22 January 2008The United Nations-supported polar research boat Tara has broken free from the Arctic ice sheet after a record-breaking scientific expedition of over 500 days drifting across the top of the world to gauge the impact of global warming and pollution.