Footprints on a Frozen Sea

Here, a couple of dozen miles from the Alaskan coast in but 35 meters of water, the ice field is rumpled, ridged, and caked with dirt due to near-shore wind and tide action, quite different from the ethereal whiteness we’d seen a few days ago farther offshore.  This morning, watching the ice from the portside rail under a sullen, gunmetal grey sky, I can’t see a single spot where, amid the chaos of upended slabs of SUV-sized ice, a person could walk ten paces in a row.  This seems an environment utterly hostile to human endeavor of any kind, let alone scientific inquiry.

In the warmth, comradeship, and congenial comfort aboard Healy, mortal danger, even mild danger, is merely an abstraction, yet I can’t help recalling stories of ill-equipped, unprepared Western explorers, such as those aboard the Jeannette Expedition of 1878 and the Karluk, 1913-18, who died on the ice not too far from our present position after their ships were embayed, crushed, and sunk (“nipped” in antique parlance).  When in the mid-18th century Westerners began thinking about nature in terms of aesthetic response, Edmund Burke coined the term “sublime,” contrasting the “terror” of raw wilderness with soothing bucolic beauty.  In A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Burke wrote that the sublime in nature, “fills the mind with grand ideas, and turns the soul in upon itself.”  Staring out over the mean-looking ice field, I see what the man meant.  Today we will go out onto the ice, not to plumb our own emotional, aesthetic response to wild nature (though I might try a bit of that), but to objectively measure aspects of it with instruments of precision.


Ice deployment briefing on the bridge led by Kris Valdez, assistant operations officer

But first we attend an ice-deployment briefing on the bridge conducted by Kris Valdez, assistant operations officer.  The safety team, he says, will go onto the ice before the rest of us to test thickness by auguring holes in it, then marking with orange traffic cones the safe area within which we’d work.  He warned us that, should someone fall through the ice, we were not to attempt rescue lest we end up in the water as well.  Rescue is the safety team’s job, and they will be present, vigilant throughout.  There will also be an armed bear watch on the bow and several pairs of eyes on the bridge surveying the scene for Ursus maritimus.  If a bear is sighted close aboard, Healy will sound her alarms, and we’re to abandon our equipment, return immediately to the ship.  The bear will be fired upon only in a life-or-death emergency.  Met officer Karen Aquino tells us to expect winds NW at 17 knots, fair visibility, water temp 29° F, air temp 28° with a wind-chill ten degrees colder.

“Anything else, Captain?” Mr. Valdez asks.

“Have fun,” replies Captain Reeves.  “Be safe.”

  Everyone in the science party is talking not only about the Coast Guard people’s competence, but also their genuine spirit of cooperation and generosity.  We owe them recognition and public thanks.  Healy is a fine ship.

setting the gangway, the "brow," down to the ice

setting the gangway, the “brow,” down to the ice

Preparations began shortly after lunch.  The bridge watch found an incongruously flat patch of ice, and positioned Healy portside-on to the edge of the floe, leaving the props turning languidly to keep her there.  The deck crew craned overboard a long gangway called the brow, and fixed it, at a 45° angle, to the flare of the port bow.  Then the safety team went to work testing ice integrity and setting ice anchors, while the scientists readied their esoteric gear—and they have a lot of esoteric gear—on the foredeck, starboard side.  The deck crew craned the heaviest equipment over the side in cargo nets.

Some of the scientific equipment is heavy, requiring the crane to get it onto the ice.

Some of the scientific equipment is heavy, requiring the crane to get it onto the ice.

In separate units, scientists from the pertinent disciplines will be measuring light reflectivity (“albedo”) as a determinant of melting, while others will measure the nature and quantity of nutrients and other chemicals within the ice, on the bottom of the ice, and in the water column below.  At this time of year at this position in the Chukchi, 71°45’N x 164°12’ W, the ice is sufficiently thick and snow covered to prevent appreciable light penetration.  But it’s essential to the concept of the expedition to document as a kind of baseline the conditions before primary production, that is, the plankton bloom, begins.  Chris Polashenski, acting head of the ice-science team (Don Perovich did not join us due to injury) tells us that conditions will change rapidly.  In the next two weeks, the snow will melt and ponds of fresh water will dot the ice field.  These, the supposition is, will act as lenses or skylights projecting light down into the nutrient-rich water column, triggering the explosion of photosynthesis even before the ice actually melts.  To be present before, during, and after the bloom—that’s what makes this expedition unique.

Caroline Guilmette and the science party waiting to go

Caroline Guilmette and the science party waiting to go

Now the scientists, a writer, and videographers assemble, waiting for permission from the deck crew to go down the brow onto the sea ice.  Its character has changed in the few miles we’ve covered since morning.  There are still hummocks and rumpled pressure ridges, and the sky remains sullen, but it appears less “sublime,” a large stretch of open water off the bow.  It’s cold, and everyone’s dressed for it in matching orange “Mustang suits” (named for their manufacturer), dark glasses, with all flesh including faces covered.  We look like a band of misdirected Bedouins.  Many of these scientists have worked on the ice in the Arctic and Antarctica, but none are jaded by the experience, everybody joking and laughing.

And now all’s ready, says the deck crew.  We line up at the top of the brow and one by one go onto the ice.

“We’re walking where no human has ever walked before,” someone says, but I can’t tell whom for her balaclava and tinted goggles.

“And no one will ever walk here again,” adds someone else.

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.

3 Responses

  1. Lizzie Feldmann-DeMello

    How fast do the plankton blooms grow in reaction to the melting ice? At a certain point, does the rate of plankton blooms spur the rate of the ice melting or even cause it to slow down?

  2. Regina

    What kind of chemicals and nutrients within and beneath the ice help to melt the ice? How do these chemicals and nutrients affect the rate of melting and how much of these nutrients and chemicals need to be present for the ice to melt and the phytoplankton to bloom earlier?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.