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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Explorer Plans Arctic Airship Quest

MARSEILLE, France -- A French explorer has unveiled plans to fly over the Arctic in an airship to measure the ice cap amid concern at the pace it is melting. Jean-Louis Etienne said his 10,000-kilometer journey would serve as a benchmark for monitoring the impact of global warming on the North Pole.

Etienne's expedition will begin in April in northern Norway and take him over the Barents Sea to Spitzberg. He will then fly over the magnetic North Pole and Beaufort Sea before heading to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, where he is due to land in May.

"Measurements are being made by ships, but ships do not cover the kind of surface that we will cover," Etienne said.

"The airship will allow us to fly over vast areas and it will give our measuring equipment the stability that a helicopter cannot give."

Data will be collected using an electromagnetic probe hanging below the 54-meter-long, 14-meter-wide airship, Etienne told reporters at the inauguration of the Russian-made craft on Friday.

Large tracts of Arctic ice have melted at an increasingly rapid pace in recent summers, a trend widely linked to the emission of greenhouse gases and threatening the livelihood of Arctic peoples and wildlife.

Etienne's expedition comes at a time of growing awareness of global warming's impact on the environment.

"Today the polar ice cap is seriously threatened by global warming," Etienne said.

The project is being sponsored by French oil group Total. Chief executive Christoph de Margerie rejected criticism that its involvement was a publicity stunt.

"The idea that oil companies cannot take part in environmental projects is a falsity that needs to be changed," De Margerie said.

De Margerie said some of Etienne's findings might help Total better understand the drift of ice in the Barents Sea, where the French group is looking to make a multibillion-dollar investment in the Shtokman gas field.

The seabed under the Arctic, shared by Nordic countries, Russia, Canada and the United States, has oil and gas resources that are coveted by international energy groups seeking to meet rising demand for energy.

Russian explorers planted a flag on the seabed below the North Pole in August in a symbolic claim to the territory.