Photograph by Nick Cobbing, National Georgaphic
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Norwegian oceanographer Algot Peterson checks the mast of an instrument cluster suspended through a hole in the sea ice to measure ocean temperature, salinity, and currents. Some of Peterson's colleagues (left) return to the Lance after conducting fieldwork.

Photograph by Nick Cobbing, National Georgaphic

Facing Polar Bears, Isolation, Researchers Explore Arctic Sea Ice

Scientists aboard the icebound R.V. Lance study the effect of warming temperatures on the Arctic.

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

82.44 Degrees North—We've drifted across the frozen Arctic for 30 days. Four miles here, ten miles there—a squiggly red line on the ship's digital chart is the only measure of progress.

Trapped in ice, the Lance meanders at the mercy of wind and current. Some days, low, moist clouds engulf the ship from the south; on others, cold northerly winds chill it by 50 degrees. Switched off at this latitude for four months of the year, the sun now rises higher each morning, casting long shadows off surface ice ridges and snowdrifts as it traces a low arc across the horizon.

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From January to June, in six-week stints, scientists are on board the Lance, a research vessel operated by the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI), to study how the ocean, atmosphere, snow, ice, and biology all interact in the Arctic amid a backdrop of significant warming. "Right now we're just trying to take as much as we can, because this is a one-off opportunity to get this data," said Amelie Meyer, an NPI oceanographer. "And nobody's got it."

Isolation has settled in. The Lance is currently some 250 nautical miles from another human dwelling or vessel—farther than the distance between New York and Washington, D.C.

At one point, a polar bear crossed our path, paused for several days to sniff at the weather masts and strange-looking electronic instruments it encountered, and then eventually moved on.

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Squeezing has created a pressure ridge (right) in this ice floe.

A bioluminescent jellyfish happened by a hole bored in the sea ice one day, drawing excitement: signs of life! The other night, a marine biologist sat elated at her microscope as it magnified a rare glimpse of an amphipod, caught in a net that day from 200 meters (656 feet) below, giving birth to ten offspring.

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Mathematician Woosok Moon, here assessing the tools of a weather station, is developing a model to predict the status of sea ice.

People refer to life on board as "The Bubble." Snippets of world news leak in through email, via satellite, like communiqués from another planet. What date is it today? Certain things just fade from mind. "It's kind of comforting to not be bothered by all of ordinary life's problems," admitted Algot Peterson, a Norwegian oceanographer. Without smartphones or the Internet, he said, "you actually sit and talk to each other."

Absence of distractions also brings into sharper focus the task at hand. 

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Frost flowers, or ice crystals that form on young sea ice, carpet the frozen surface between two ice floes.

Each day, worker bees in yellow-and-black jumpsuits drag children's sleds laden with tools and equipment to their study sites across the ice floe. They analyze it from every angle. With a thermometer and a scale, a snow physicist stands thigh-deep in a snow pit, measuring the temperature and density of the different layers of snowpack to discern how much it insulates the sea ice from the cool atmosphere above. A Japanese biogeochemist deploys a robot that traps and measures carbon dioxide emissions off newly formed sea ice, its surface ornamented with delicate bouquets of salty ice crystals known as frost flowers. Nearby, sea ice physicists drill ice cores that they'll analyze for their internal crystalline structure, which holds clues to the environmental conditions under which the ice grew.

Farther below, warm Atlantic seawater, which passes between Iceland and Norway as it enters the Arctic, lies beneath a 100-meter-thick (328 feet) layer of cold surface water. Several times a week, oceanographers send down instruments that probe these layers of seawater to determine how much—and when—they mix, as heat from the Atlantic water influences ice thickness and its extent across the Arctic.

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Snow physicist Jean-Charles Gallet captures observations about the layering of snow within a snow pit he's created in an ice floe. Gallet uses snow pits to determine the type and the size of the snow grains, the snow density, and the temperature for each layer of snow.

Woosok Moon, a researcher from the University of Cambridge, tries to make sense of all the data. In his cramped cabin on board the Lance, he spends evenings scribbling arcane equations into a notebook, which no one else seems to understand.

Much more than mid-latitude environments, Moon explained, the Arctic sea ice system, especially in the summer, is highly sensitive to any disturbances. As more bright ice melts and is replaced by dark ocean, for example, more solar energy is absorbed in the water, raising temperatures of the ocean and air that in turn melt more ice—a process known as the ice-albedo feedback. But other feedback loops counteract that process. "It's like an unstable person, bothered by neighborhood noise one day, and a gentleman the next. It's very hard to make future predictions about erratic behavior."

Moon is trying to forecast the status of the Arctic sea ice by building a stochastic model, which is similar to the models used to make stock market predictions. It concedes that there are certain behaviors of sea ice that are simply too complicated and too unknown to try to force into a model—how two ice floes located side by side can vary in thickness, for example—but it maintains that with a deep understanding of the basic physics driving sea ice growth and melting, one can narrow the uncertainties enough to make a reasonable prediction.

As Moon sat inside the Lance, 34-mile-an-hour winds swept in from the south. They pushed the ship in the opposite direction of its planned drift back to Spitzbergen, undoing two days of southward progress in a matter of hours. The temperature shot from minus 22 degrees F (-30°C) to 32 degrees F (0°C) overnight, eventually settling back to minus 7 (-22°). The ice floes hemming in the Lance, meanwhile, slowly became unstitched.

First one crack here, then another, the fractures slowly widened until the ship was separated from the various study sites across the floe by gaping channels of exposed seawater, which began radiating smoky vapor. One split took down a 33-foot-high (10 meters) weather mast in the atmospheric science quarter. A GPS station began to drift its own way. There went the neighborhood.

Also, the boat was stuck. The industrious crew spent the next two days trying to dislodge the Lance from nearly 18 feet (5.5 meters) of ice blocks that had nestled under its bow during a storm two weeks earlier. A tranquil week of data collection suddenly turned into an instrument rescue mission. It was time to pack up and abandon the floe—if only the boat could set loose.

Many, naturally, had anticipated such a disturbance. "That's uncertainty," Moon joked.