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The Man Who Scuba Dives In the Arctic For Science

By Guan Tan

Frenchman Alban Michon pictured diving amongst glaciers.
Alban Michon
Frenchman Alban Michon pictured diving amongst glaciers.

Extreme scuba diver Alban Michon's press manager told us that the the interview was still on despite it being the Christmas break. The 40-year-old Frenchman doesn't have time for year-end festivities; he is into the final leg of his preparation for a 2018 expedition to the undiscovered Northwestern Passage in the Canadian Arctic. 

The final segment of Michon's diving preparations will go on until he departs in March. Michon will kick off his expedition from the northern village of Kugluktuk in Canada, before travelling to three other Inuit villages to stock up on food and stove fuel. From village to village, he will be skiing with the help of kite sails at 10 to 20 kph. His 80 kilogrammes worth of baggage will be dragged along on two sledges. "In addition, I will stop from time to time to dive under the ice... As it is my passion, it is impossible for me not to put my head under the water," he laughs. Michon reckons his expedition will conclude in May or June. 

Alban MichonThe 40-year-old Alban Michon mapping out his past expeditions.
The 40-year-old Alban Michon mapping out his past expeditions.
Alban MichonAlban Michon pictured on skis, his baggage dragged along.
Alban Michon pictured on skis, his baggage dragged along.

Like many scuba divers out there, Michon started diving as a hobby. "One day, at the age of 11, I asked my parents to [allow me] to dive in a pool," Michon recalls. It then swelled into a lifestyle and is now his career. 

Michon has had several successful trips to the polar regions. In 2010, he went to the North Pole. Later in 2012, he ventured to Greenland. These extreme expeditions are often tied to scientific research. Michon's role as a trained diver is to collect data. "I am only a 'worker' who follows a scientific protocol to bring back information," he quips. "I replace the scientists because they cannot be away for two or three months, at -30°C to -45°C, sleeping on pack ice, travelling on a journey of more than 1000 kilometres." Michon's work begins where the scientists' limits are. 

The data that Michon collects will power scientific research for climate change and tourism-induced environmental degradation. In his upcoming trip, for instance, he will be collecting three sets of data for three scientific facilities. 

On his dives, Michon will "have to collect plankton and then study the DNA of it with the scientists". The study is a pioneering one. Michon explains that there is "little information about plankton data in the Arctic". Studying plankton's DNA will reveal "the effects of climate change and the impact of human activities on the ocean". This is a project with the French Roscoff Marine Station.

While on land, Michon will gather data of the "solid and liquid particles suspended in the atmosphere". It is a project by the French governmental space agency Centre National D'Etudes Spatiales for air quality and pollution. The data amassed by Michon will eventually be used as teaching materials for primary and secondary students in educational institutes. 

Finally, for the churn of extreme divers and tourists like Michon himself, he will be measuring "the performance of the brain when subject to extreme environments". Research on this subject matter has been ambiguous. There's a distraction hypothesis and an arousal hypothesis, meaning cold temperatures will either dull a person's reaction or heighten it. Michon will be evaluating the speed of brain reactions, "and therefore, the brain's alertness in order to correlate fatigue, stress and extreme conditions". The Divers Alert Network Europe is behind this diving safety study.

Alban MichonMichon in the midst of a dive in the polar regions. Here, he's taking a photograph underwater.
Michon in the midst of a dive in the polar regions. Here, he's taking a photograph underwater.

All three sets of data will serve as yardsticks – brain reactivity data will determine if extreme diving in polar regions is safe. The first two sets of statistics will be a basis of comparison for the anticipated environmental damage that tourism and commercial routes will soon bring to the remote Canadian Arctic region. "Our study will help generate models and patterns to better understand the effects of climate change and the impact of human activities on the ocean," Michon continues.

Last July, the region's sea ice was reportedly melted for increasingly prolonged periods. When the ice is absent, it invites commercial vehicles to ferry through the region, alongside tourist trips and expeditions. "There will be less ice... and more tourists because this place will one day become easily accessible." 

Alban MichonMichon diving amongst broken slabs of ice.
Michon diving amongst broken slabs of ice.

The absence of ice makes diving trips like his possible. Yet, it cues at an uncertain future for the Arctic's residents. "Inuit villagers are anticipating their future with melting ice and the possibility of more tourists coming to see them." 

In the next few years when the world adds the Arctic to their travel bucket list, the Inuits' homes will be threatened. "There will be between 200 and 300 million climate refugees." 

It seems like a riveting expedition for a diver. Michon will be one of the first and the last to take in the breathtaking views of the Candian Arctic and the full orchestra of marine life. Yet, he is sorely aware of the desolation in his trip – he is only embarking on this trip because the Canadian Arctic region is predicted to degrade. "The Northwestern Passage is a sad example of the rapid change in climate change."

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