Being researchers, it was certainly exciting discovering a new concept of “shift change.”
A new team of scientists and crew members is working aboard the Lance research vessel with the reassurance it’s solidly frozen into the sea ice at a safe northern latitude. But their initiation was anything but tranquil as the final hours of the departing participants were shook up by the ice around the vessel breaking up well to the south of its present location.
“Did you feel that?!” yelled a safety guard while those aboard were relaxing after their final dinner of the voyage, according to a Feb. 17 entry by project leader Harald Steen at the expedition’s official blog.
“It was just a little movement in the boat, I felt it too,” Steen wrote. “We rushed to the window and saw that there were cracks by the shipside, and the SODAR (a meteorological instrument) was about to end up in the drink.”
Eight people rushed out on the ice – one of whom watched for polar bears, another overseeing the work and monitoring safety – to collect the gear and bring it back to the ship, Steen wrote, but it wasn’t just a simple pick-up job.
“The cracks were ‘breathing,’ caused by the swell that hit us, and a fall into them could easily have ended a life,” he wrote.
The final hours on the ship for the 34 scientists and crew were relatively uneventful, and they were brought off the vessel at midday the next day by a helicopter making four flights. But what they saw from the air meant passing on bad news to the new participants coming in on the arriving flights.
“From the air we saw that the situation was a lot more serious than we had imagined,” Steen wrote. “The ice fields we were so accustomed to had broken up into small floes and it was a complete chaos.”
The Lance, which departed Longyearbyen on Jan. 11 and froze into the sea ice at 83.2 degrees north latitude, was supposed to remain in the ice until late March or early April. But it drifted southward with the ice much faster than researchers expected, putting the ship in danger of being pushed out of the ice only a month after the freeze-in.
A Feb. 15 storm that blew the ship northward again provided only a brief reprieve and the first task of the new team of participants was a salvage job.
“For three days and nights, in temperatures well below zero, the scientists scrambled to salvage their instruments, with mixed results,” wrote Andy Isaacson, in an online article for National Geographic after arriving with the incoming crew.
“It’s the Arctic that’s controlling our expedition and the Arctic is unpredictable,” Amelie Meyer, a Norwegian Polar institute oceanographer, told the magazine. “We’re going to break instruments, we’re not going to be where we think we’re going to be and we don’t know what the weather will bring us.”
The next step was getting far enough north to freeze into the ice again, which essentially meant repeating their original journey north. The Norwegian Coast Guard vessel Svalbard reached the Lance on Feb. 19 and, using the Svalbard’s icebreaking capabilities, escorted the research vessel back to essentially the same latitude of the original freeze-in five days later.
“The N-ICE2015 campaign will lose about seven to 10 days worth of data due to the exit,” Steen noted, adding the most significant loss will be a continuous monitoring of snow and ice thickness since they are no longer following the same surfaces.
The six-month project, initiated by the Norwegian Polar Institute and involving scientists from 10 countries, is attempting to study the Arctic sea ice “from cradle to grave” in the hope of developing better models for predicting climate change and its impacts. The participants now onboard are scheduled to return to Longyearbyen around Easter, at which point a new team will embark and the ship will head north again for three more months of freeze-in.
The disruption due to the premature breakout may in a way help the mission’s objective, said Norwegian Polar Institute Director Jan-Gunnar Winther, in an interview with Svalbardposten. He said predictions of drift speed were made on the best data available, but factors such as an increasingly high percentage of year-old ice – which is far less stable than old ice – may reveal flaws in the old models.
“It may be bad luck with the wind direction, but it may also be the new Arctic where things can happen faster,” he said. “We don’t know, but for us it might be interesting.”