THE LAST ICE STATION

As of yesterday morning, Healy had passed the 5,000-mile mark.  On 19 June, she’ll point her bow toward Dutch Harbor 1,000 miles to the south, and three days after that, this 42-day expedition will come to an end._L4A0456

A cottony fog lay over the still-frozen Chukchi Sea for the last ice station, enough to lend the scene a soft, moody character and probably just enough to make the bear watch edgy.  We’ve returned to the exact same spot where we parked for those three days while awaiting the melt that did not happen; some scientists are reusing the same holes they bored two weeks ago.  Not much has changed since then.  The ice is decidedly slushier in spots, yes, but the only open water visible is that plowed by the ship upon arrival.  Coal-fire-black clouds dispersed in thin patches lie low in the sky indicating open water some distance beyond the horizon.  The light purple bands below the black probably indicate something else, but I don’t know what.

The final time afoot on sea ice this trip, perhaps forever, I was thinking about endings.  Voyages are intrinsically literary with built-in beginnings, middles, and ends; that’s one reason why there’s been so much sea literature.  The ship leaves land, essentially disappears, things happen and are observed by no one but those aboard, then returns to land to tell the story (we tend to survive to return more often today than in past centuries). It’s a lifetime in miniature, and one can’t help pondering what it all means as the end hoves into sight.  However, unlike consciously structured literary voyages in, say, Heart of Darkness or The Sea Wolf, scientific voyages often end less conclusively.  This one set out with a clear hypothesis, an expectation, with which nature’s timing did not cooperate, but much has been learned, leading to a new set of questions that will require another voyage, which in turn will introduce another set of questions.  Geoscience progresses; it does not end with decisively crafted climactic moments.  To try to specify the new knowledge and what at this point it means, I’ll speak with the scientists during the steam for Dutch, then get back to you.

Geoscience progresses; it does not end with decisively crafted climactic moments.

Watching the sky, recognizing it would take an Inuit to read its signs and signals, and watching the scientists in their Mustang suits, with their high-tech apparatus making painstaking, repetitive measurements, I got to thinking about the relative ways and purposes of understanding nature between the aboriginal and the scientific/technological viewpoints.  When in 1818 John Ross encountered Inuit in Melville Bay, Greenland—neither side had ever seen each other before—an Inuit man walked over to directly address one of the ships moored against the ice, and asked, as Parry’s translator explained, “Who are you?  Where do you come from?  Are you from the sun or from the moon?”  This was one of the happier Arctic bi-cultural encounters, but to the British explorers the incident evinced the “primitiveness” of Inuit culture.  However, the explorers were the primitives in the Arctic, struggling to survive in their ill-adapted clothing, over-crowded ships, and environmental ignorance, neglecting to notice or imitate, often at the cost of their lives, the brilliance of the natives’ survival strategies.  What did an advanced, technological culture capable of sailing to the Arctic have to learn from the primitives who live there?

_L4A0439Healy, too, is an exploration vessel.  Technology has obviated any threat to our survival and allowed us to bring our cultural mores and our shoreside comforts along with us into the ice.  We can return to the exact place we left weeks ago, because satellites tell us its location and ours within a circle of accuracy about the size of a backyard kiddie pool, but as to our current knowledge about this ice-ocean environment at this time of year, we are primitives.  I didn’t understand that when I boarded Healy nearly six weeks ago.

She had passed through the springtime Chukchi only twice before this cruise, heading north in a straight line, pausing to take temperature/salinity/nutrient measurements en route to her study area at the shelf break at the northern edge of the Chukchi.  One ship, two happenstance transits, not much more revealing of the whole than going out in your backyard twice a week in July to record temperature and on August 1st drawing conclusions about the state of the climate.  But check our present cruise track, the extent of its coverage, the repeated transects—absolutely unprecedented this time of year.  Two hundred and thirty CTD stops to measure ocean properties and to capture water samples from which to measure biological productivity; sixteen all-day on-ice deployments to measure repeatedly the degree of light reflecting from and penetrating through the ice, the nature and quantity of nutrients present in the water column and the organisms partaking of them, not to mention the 24-hour-a-day analysis in the lab; and first-rate scientific minds aboard a brilliantly operated, purpose-built icebreaking research vessel. Conclusive?…Not really.  No, I did not credit the complexity of the system or how little we know about it.

Chris Polashenski and Ken Golden study ice porosity using a melt pond dyed green.

Chris Polashenski and Ken Golden study ice porosity using a melt pond dyed green.

The other thing I did not credit is the degree of seasonal variability.  Over the last decade, observers based at the science station in Barrow, Alaska, traveling by various means including airplanes had learned that melt ponds appeared during the first week of June, but they did not measure them.  The 2011 ICESCAPE scientists serendipitously discovered the huge under-ice plankton bloom on July 7, 2011, when it was well underway, and of course that “once-in-a-career discovery,” as Chief Scientist Kevin Arrigo called it, directly motivated our present expedition.  However, as originally proposed, it was to consist of two back-to-back cruises spanning the first of May to late July.  That would have accommodated the range of annual variation, but due to logistical constraints, the fieldwork was reduced to the present single, 42-day expedition.  Nonetheless, this still seemed feasible.  We would be here early enough, mid-May, to bracket the typical onset of the melt in early June and see it through to end of the bloom.  As it turned out, by sheer chance, we were here too early.  Nature’s systems do not accept appointments.

It would be disingenuous to claim that people weren’t disappointed.  When it became clear that we would not witness the appearance of the melt ponds and whether or not they engendered a sub-ice plankton bloom, I sort of hung back, respecting their feelings by not asking a lot of questions.  But it became quickly clear that no one was moping; I’d misunderstood how these things work.  So much is unknown about the geophysical systems at work up here, that any knowledge is revelatory because everything is new.  That’s how exploratory science works.  Furthermore, as I think I can show in the next essay, for our purposes as outsiders witnessing science in action, the lessons learned in place of those that weren’t may be more revelatory of the way field science works than if the ponds had appeared and, sure enough, the plankton had bloomed below.

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About The Author

Dallas Murphy

Dallas is an author with nine published books, a mix of fiction and nonfiction, most recently "To the Denmark Strait", an account of a 2011 oceanographic expedition with Bob Pickart. The Healy cruise will be his sixth Arctic expedition serving as outreach writer.

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