The crew of the Arctic Sunrise is on top of the world today, for many mindblowing reasons. As I write this, the ship is nudged up against the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean at 82.5 north – a latitude higher than any Greenpeace ship has achieved before, as far as we know. A couple of hours after we arrived, and had barely finished breakfast, a young polar bear loped past, seemingly curious and indignant about us unfurry humans gawping at it from our inedible green ship. It had been prowling along the ice edge, looking for seals for breakfast. We later saw evidence that it may have been successful, but I’ll spare squeamish readers the details. After such a short time here, it’s incredible that we’ve seen one of the world’s most formidable animals, one that is at risk from the lost of sea ice caused by climate change.
Where are we anyway? To the west, in the distance are mountains in the north of Ellesmere Island, and we can just about see the Canadian base at Alert. To the east, the mountains Greenland’s top end lie on the horizon. To the south, Nares Strait – the route to Baffin Bay by which we arrived, and to the north – well, there’s really only frozen ocean between here and the geographic North Pole.
Earlier – with lookouts keeping an eye for polar bears, most of the crew jumped out onto the ice, taking a very short stroll around on the Arctic Ocean, before Nick had us clowning for a crew photograph – with Captain Pete holding a sign that reads “North Pole: 445 miles”.
What are we doing here? In my last blog entry from the Arctic Sunrise, we had just departed Sisimiut, after picking up some team members. We sailed through Baffin Bay, while Jason, the climatologist on board, and heli pilot Martin leapfrogged to check on time-lapse cameras that had been set up along Greenland’s west coast two years ago, taking high resolution, hourly images of the glacier movement. I’ve seen some of this footage, and it’s compelling viewing – we hope to get some of it online in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.
The Arctic Sunrise then entered the Nares Strait, the body of water that divides northwest Greenland from Canada’s Ellesmere Island. On our way to Nares, we’d been warned that our chances of getting through were about 50/50 – the route is usually choked with sea ice well into the summer, with most icebreakers only making the passage in August. I expected to fall asleep at night listening to ice clunking and grazing along the hull of the ship.
It wasn’t to be, however – we encountered no ice worth talking about. For reasons that are unclear – but may be related to warming sea temperatures and high winds – the sea ice in Nares Strait never ‘consolidated’ last winter, for the first in 32 years of records. This means that the ice never really properly fused together, and remained thin. The last time there was any proper sea ice Nares Strait was March 2008. While we can’t say what exactly is causing this – we can certainly say that it’s evidence of a climate is changing.
Usually at the bottom end of Nares Strait there’s what known as an ‘ice bridge’, at Smith Sound. Now this doesn’t look an crystalline Golden Gate or Sydney Harbour bridge, it’s a term to describe an arc-like formation of ‘old’ ice that holds sea ice in place, creating a body of open water, called a polynya.
There was no ice bridge at Smith Sound from last winter – so it was plain sailing for the Arctic Sunrise and its ice pilot, Arne. We’ve been joking with him that his life as been made easy – instead of spending the last few days crunching through sea ice, we didn’t encounter any significant amount until we reached Robeson Channel, 450km north of where the first ice bridge should be. That’s where we’re sitting right now and it’s where we met our polar bear this morning, right at the Robeson ice bridge.
A few hours sail back down the Nares Strait is Petermann Glacier – which we stopped off at for a while yesterday, before mounting a recce mission to survey the sea ice. With the ice bridge due to crack up at any time, we wanted to check its state and estimate when it might break – lots of sea ice being blowing down the Nares Strait will make life a little tricky in the coming weeks, as we carry out our mission at Petermann Glacier – which includes observing the expected disintegration of some of the glacier, as well as carrying scientific research with our team of scientists.
The sheer size of a glacier like Petermann is something that many on board the Arctic Sunrise haven’t yet got our heads around. Martin flew across the glacier yesterday, and was stunned that after six minutes, he was still crossing it – it’s 16km wide! The piece of ice that is expected to break off in the coming weeks is a whopping 100 square kilometres.
A photograph taken by Nick yesterday shows Jason and our ‘super ice guy’ Eric setting up a time-lapse camera on the glacier itself. Shot from a helicopter, the two men look like tiny ants on a surreal, alien landscape, mottled with azure blue melt pools. We’re heading back towards Petermann tonight, and in the coming weeks will be telling you lots more about our adventures there.
Satelite photo from the Byrd Polar Research center.
Setting up this expedition and all the research is expensive. Please consider a small donation to help us.