A typical day's work on the frozen sea.

A typical day’s work on the frozen sea.

Even before we’d cleared the Bering Strait northbound, people started asking Chris when the melt ponds would appear.

“June third,” he said without missing a beat.

“Yeah?  What time?”

He’s worked on the Greenland Ice Sheet, Antarctica, and all over the western Arctic sea ice, so when he talks melt, we listen; my money was on him.  But then yesterday nature interceded, as it’s wont to do, the wind shifted, and it snowed, re-enhancing the albedo.  “Hardest I’ve ever seen it snow in the Arctic,” he said.  (There’s seldom enough moisture in the Arctic air to snow.)

Of course, no one can know precisely, given wide natural variability, but there are signs: The snow has turned slushy, granular, corn snow, I think skiers say, and through it grey patches appear here and there that one imagines might become melt ponds in a day or so.  Anyway, you don’t have to be a pro to tell that change is upon us.  Further, the water column is well mixed, full of the fertilizer phytoplankton relish.  The annual Arctic explosion of life is cocked and ready—light will soon ignite the short fuse.  And if the scientific suppositions on which this expedition was founded and funded are correct, first light will shine through those melt ponds.  Soon.  The mess-deck mood tonight was more jovial than usual; I wonder if that was why.

When traveling, the Inuit (the “People”) were often thirsty, but eating snow was no remedy because it lowered body temperature.  The melt ponds offered a slacking source of fresh water—they called them piqaluyak.  In the animistic spirit world of the Inuit, the seal willingly relinquishes its life that the people might survive.  In thanks and propitiation, they ritualistically give the dead seal a drink of piqaluyak water before butchering it.

Chris Polashenski, ice scientist, and Rebecca Molinari, ice safety officer, wrapping up another ice deployment.

Chris Polashenski, ice scientist, and Rebecca Molinari, ice safety officer, wrapping up another ice deployment.

Change in the air, the brain trust has decided to stop the ship for three days in order to measure repeatedly ice, light, and life.  I watched from the “aloft con,” the ice-piloting position atop the bridge some 90 feet above the waterline, as the chain of command, considering wind direction and ice conditions, directed the ship drivers to nose Healy into a substantial floe flat as a dance floor.  There, at 71°35’N x 166°21’W, they parked her.  But nothing on sea ice remains truly stationary.  We’re drifting north-northeast at a half knot under the behest of a southerly breeze that, the assumption is, will prompt further melting.

The scientists worked all day, came aboard wet and a little haggard looking for dinner, then went back out on the ice for several hours.  Now that we’re stationary, they leave their heavy, unbreakable, and safely packed gear out on the ice.  The foot of the brow is craned about four meters above the ice to discourage uninvited dinner guests.  At midnight, with scattered gear abandoned under a soggy fog, the scene looked like the aftermath of a skirmish in a dystopian melodrama.

This morning’s sky is leaden, monochromatic except for a thin layer of cloud the color of coal smoke lying close above the horizon.  A steady drizzle leaves puddles on the 01-deck, portside, from which I watch the scientists and the Coasties sink suddenly shin-deep in wet snow en route back to their research stations.  Has yesterday’s excited mood on the mess deck faded to a kind of head-down resolve?

Chris holding "melt grain clusters" that suggest the onset of the melt back.

Chris holding “melt grain clusters” that suggest the onset of the melt back.

Is it the anticlimax of premature expectation, or is it just that the fog and the rain make it seem so?  Also, it just occurs to me, there’s the unaccustomed silence.  For the past two weeks, Healy has been bashing and crashing, displaced ice grating along her hull plates, reverberating through her innards as if she were perpetually going aground on bouldered bottom.  Now even her generators seem subdued.  Or maybe I project.

Watching Carolyn, toting her radio spectrometer, fade into the fog at the far end of her transit, bear guard beside her, I was reminded what a strange little microcosm we live in (like Western-movie towns, ships in their isolation make good microcosms).  Research vessels are literally and figuratively divorced from shoreside reality.  We don’t shop, cook, or wash up for ourselves after meals.  Focus on the work is utter, distractions minimal.  Sure, everyone’s a careerist, even writers, but while it lasts, before the papers need to be written, data parsed and explicated, while the real-world decisions, day-to-day pressures, and personal obligations hang in abeyance, everyone helping and looking out for each other, it feels, someone on another ship once said, like science camp for adults.  And then suddenly, as the dockside heaving lines arc over the rail, it ends.  But, then, I’m not a scientist, only an observer of science in action.  Maybe I’m alone in that view.

At lunch I wondered aloud what happens should the melt ponds not appear by Friday at 1200?

“Don’t ask that question,” said Bob only half kidding.

Oh.  Okay.  So we’ll wait for the window to open, let the light in.  I’ll keep you posted.

My thanks to Jason Christensen

The return of "winter" just when we thought the melt had arrived.

The return of “winter” just when we thought the melt had arrived.

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.

One Response

  1. jonathan Russo

    I have just finished reading several of Dallas Murphy’s “dispatches” I know Mr. Murphy from his previous books about the natural world. These posts are in that same vein. They are very well written and vividly convey the importance of the work being conducted. Each post adds and builds up the flavor of this fascinating Arctic voyage. Thanks Mr. Murphy for the great insight and quality writing.


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