Storm saves scientists from biggest fear: A boat that floats

Lance frozen in ice

Usually one would have to wonder about a group of supposedly very smart people desperately hoping their boat doesn’t float.

But that was a worst-case scenario facing a team of scientists aboard the Lance research vessel during the past week, since the ship is supposed to be spending six months frozen into the sea ice north of Spitsbergen. Winds from the north were pushing the ship toward open water, however, and the scientists were only a few days before having to hurriedly pack up the equipment on the ice and sail to a new freeze-in spot.

“On average, the distance to the ice edge shrunk by five kilometers per day, with peaks of 35 kilometers per day,” wrote Harald Steen, leader of the Norwegian Polar Institute project, at the expedition’s official blog on Sunday.

But a massive storm that brought hurricane-force winds to some parts of Svalbard on Sunday proved to be a blessing for the Lance, as a shift in the wind’s direction sent the ship north again.

“All is better now,” Steen wrote in the same blog post, adding “we’re currently cruising at 0.8 knots (about 1.5 km/h) with a 10 m/s tail wind. Pretty impressive, one might say.”

An international team 20 scientists, aided by 10 crew members, are participating in one of the most ambitious voyages ever led by the Norwegian Polar Institute. The blog describes the project as “monitoring the entire system of the polar winter ice from cradle to grave” in order to develop more accurate models of climate change and its likely impact on the Arctic.

So far the voyage has been promising, even when the researchers were worried about a temporary halt in their work, Steen wrote.

“Every morning, the scientists go out on the ice to tend to their instruments, check on the data, sample snow and ice, and launch weather balloons,” he wrote. “Some remain on board, looking after CO2-measuring instruments and working though samples, or running the deep-water CTD (conductivity, temperature, depth) as well as collecting water samples at different depths.”

A new team of scientists is scheduled to take over this week until late March or early April, at which point the ship will return to Longyearbyen to take on a new crew and science team before heading north again to spend an additional three months in the ice.