In The Field

On board the Amundsen: Ice alarm

June 6, 2008

A perfect sunny day again. There was no night, no darkness, not even a dawn. With bright daylight lasting for 24 hours, time seems to stand still. Meals and other little rituals that structure a day gain a new significance when the sun never sets.

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A few observations:

Arctic exploration is no longer the male business it used to be. At least half of the partcipants in this leg of the CFL study are female scientists, mostly PhD students and postdocs. The ship is also commanded by a woman, Captain Lise Marchand.

In trems of safety and comfort, the expedition has little in common with what 19th century explorers must have risked and endured when setting out towards the poles. The Amundsen is no luxury liner, but life on board is just as enjoyable as as would be a stay in a hostel for the dedicated young outdoor lover. With the nearest store a 60-minute flight away, we are still pretty isolated out here. One young scientist who has been on board for 16 weeks now told me this morning that the Kiwi she had for breakfast (from the fresh supplies delivered yesterday) was the first fruit she had eaten in three weeks.

The morning was dedicated to ‘familiarization’ with the safety and security rules. We went on the life boat, tried on life jackets, learned what to do and where to gather in case of an emergency, and so on. A brief medical examination, too. In the afternoon there was an alarm exercise.

After lunch the ship has started to move. Just minutes later we reached the ice edge and continued in open water. We are now steaming to a near-by spot in the ice where ice sampling tools and other equipment are to be deployed. I will join one of the teams who will go out onto the ice. Mukesh, my cabin mate who studies the physical properties of sea ice, has been fiddling around all day with a laser profiler he is meant to install in the evening. Our cabin looks like an electronics workshop.

There is less sea ice in the Amundsen Gulf than one would typically expect at this time of year. At which point the remaining land-fast ice – the ice attached to the coastline – will start to break up nobody kows. Dave Barber says it may happen next week, but that it could just as well be next months. In any case, everybody here whose scientific work involves ice is trying to get it done as long as the ice is still there.

The ice along coastlines, and the permanent ice pack covering the central part of the Arctic Ocean, have been shrinking in recent years. What causes the dramatic retreat is not exactly known. It seems to be driven by climate warming, which is more pronounced in the Arctic than in most other parts of the world. Changes in atmospheric circulation may also play a role. But whatever the physical causes may be, shrinking and thinning sea ice will affect Arctic people and ecosystems alike. One of the purposes of this trip is to find out how.

Quirin Schiermeier

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