Photograph by Nick Cobbing, National Geographic
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Open water mixed with sea-ice debris has started to refreeze around the R.V. Lance (above), locking it into place.

Photograph by Nick Cobbing, National Geographic

Storm Rocks Arctic Research Ship Like 'Titanic Bulldozer'

After the storm, the sun rose on the icebound ship. Now, says one scientist, "the system is waking up."

Editor’s Note: This is the third dispatch from aboard the R.V. Lance, an Arctic research vessel. Read the first and second installments.

We awoke to a deafening noise. First a low grumble and a moan, then high-pitched screeches that brought to mind a freight train grinding to a halt. The whole ship trembled and rocked. Then a peaceful quiet returned.

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Outside the Lance’s frost-covered portholes, the frozen surface of the Arctic Ocean appeared transformed. Huge slabs of snowpacked ice were piled up nearly as high as the port-side railing. The barren white plain beyond had become strewn with rubble. Squeezed on both sides, the Lance had been lifted three feet (one meter). It was as though, overnight, some titanic bulldozer had rumbled in from the south and rearranged the entire jigsaw puzzle of sea ice in its path.

“There is a pleasant, comfortable feeling in sitting listening to all this uproar and knowing the strength of our ship,” the great Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen wrote more than a century ago, as he drifted across the Arctic onboard the Fram. “Many a one would have been crushed long ago.”

Nansen spent two years in the Arctic on a wooden ship uniquely designed to withstand such pressures, as he attempted to reach the North Pole by traveling with ice along its natural drift. The Lance, operated by the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI), is drifting by similar means—tethered to an ice floe—but with different aims.

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The hull of the Fram (and similar ships, like the one above) was designed to withstand the crushing polar ice.

In an environment greatly changed since Nansen’s day—sea-ice cover today is thinner, younger, and much less expansive—international scientists are staying aboard the Lance in six-week shifts to investigate how the Arctic will behave when sea-ice cover begins to vanish completely during the summer months.

“We simply don’t know how such a seasonal-covered system works or the effect [melting sea ice] will have on ecosystems, weather, and ice dynamics,” explained Harald Steen, the NPI biologist leading the six-month-long study.

Storm From Iceland

The forces that packed more than a hundred tons of ice against the Lance had mustered 1,200 miles (1,930 kilometers) farther south, in the turbulent skies over Iceland. A low-pressure system that would typically deliver warm, moist air and precipitation across the North Atlantic to Europe veered to much higher latitudes.

For a day, 40-mile-per-hour winds and blinding snow pummeled the ship, which became, as Nansen once described the Fram, “a little oasis … in the vast ice desert.”

“I’m very surprised by the frequency of these storms tracking this far north,” remarked an atmospheric scientist with NPI, Lana Cohen, as she stared out the window at a gaping crack that had split the ten-foot-thick (three-meter) floe to which the ship was attached.

Even in this age of advanced satellites, the best method of obtaining detailed information about the Earth’s lower atmosphere, critical to weather forecasting, is still to stand on the ground and release an instrument-laden latex balloon filled with helium.

Twice each day, on the Lance’s frigid deck, Cohen and researchers from the Korea Polar Research Institute rig a small box of sensors to an inflated balloon. The times are closely coordinated with a worldwide network of weather stations that launch these balloons simultaneously, year-round. As the balloon ascends to 80,000 feet (24,380 meters) and beyond, the sensors record temperature, humidity, wind speed, and direction every 30 feet (9 meters), pinging the measurements back to the ship, which relays them to the World Meteorological Organization’s database via satellite.

“Data from the Arctic in general is very uncommon, observational measurements at the surface are sparse, and having continuous measurements from winter to summer is particularly rare,” says Cohen.

Her team is also measuring cloud properties and the amount of solar radiation the ice around the ship reflects back to space—a critical function in regulating the Earth’s climate.

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This thin cross section of ice, taken from a floe's ice core, was photographed under a polarizing filter, allowing scientists to see its crystalline formations.

Once the storm passed, the frozen world around us assumed a new character. The air felt unseasonably warm, practically balmy: 26°F (-3°C). A few people walked out on the ice wearing T-shirts—because for a rare moment, they actually could.

Low and far-off on the southern horizon, a fierce red glow burned with growing intensity. For days, we’d been watching as a sliver of violet sky took on more orange and pink, and the dusky blue dome above our heads brightened.

Last Sunday, the sun cast aside the cloak of polar night.

In the winter of 1894, after drifting for months across the Arctic, Nansen and his Fram crew had rejoiced in this occasion. They celebrated their first sunrise with a “sun festival,” enjoying pineapple, cake, figs, bananas, and sweets.

Some 121 years later, as the deep orange disk barely crested the icy horizon, the Lance’s genial captain, Johnny Hansen, snowmobiled around to scientists working on the floe and delivered freshly baked solboller—cream-filled “sun buns” that northern Norwegians traditionally eat to commemorate this annual event above the Arctic Circle.

Life Begins Anew

The seasonal return of sunlight to the Arctic also marks the rebirth of microorganisms on which the entire sea-ice ecosystem depends.

Ice algae, which live on the underside of sea ice and in the brine channels left after newly formed sea ice expels salt, feed off nitrates in the ocean water and receive fuel from the sun. They in turn feed the zooplankton that nourish the fish that fatten the seals that provide for the polar bear—such as the curious one that continues to visit us each morning, sniffing at scientific instruments and dragging away orange flotation buoys.

The thick ice floes that once lingered over the Arctic for multiple years have given way to large tracts of thinner ice that form and melt during a single year. These first-year floes seem to contain less biodiversity than older, multiyear ice, leading to important questions. How does thinner ice affect the growth of ice algae, which intercept radiation from the atmosphere, and what does that do to the rate at which ice melts? And how critical is that to the Arctic ice and climate?

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Scientists from the Lance take measurements with a Magnaprobe, an electromagnetic device for measuring the thickness of snow and ice.

“We know that thinning ice and climate change should affect biology,” said NPI marine biologist Pedro Duarte. “But we don’t yet understand the feedbacks between these biological processes and physical processes well enough to forecast the future.”

Through holes bored into the ice, Duarte’s team is collecting water samples and zooplankton at varying ocean depths. The team is also running onboard lab experiments to measure rates of primary production and zooplankton respiration. In core samples drilled around the Lance, the biologists last week discovered photosynthetic activity from algae that had spent the dark winter trapped in ice. At the daily morning meeting, Duarte was excited to share this news.

“The system is starting to wake up!” he said.