Ever had that dream where your house moved while you were sleeping in your bed? Where you wake up and walk out the door to find that your house has pulled up its roots and drifted down the valley to where the river meets the sea?
For the past three nights, the Arctic Sunrise has been moored to the same ice floe in the Arctic Ocean. On the first day we got here, BBC reported that new satellite data shows that the sea ice is melting so fast this summer that both the Northeast and Northwest passages now are open. This summer’s sea ice minimum is on a trajectory to run a close second to the 2007 record for the smallest area of ice cover since the satellite era began in 1979.
Each ice floe melts from the bottom and the top at the same time. Anything you dig into the ice will be closer to the surface the next day, so every morning the metal stakes the crew has drilled into the ice to keep the ship moored have to be drilled further in. From day to day, you can see our floe is melting, small cracks developing and other floes drifting into us, only to drift away again. When you look at the positioning track, you’ll find that we are drifting as well. The general direction is northeast, but the ship and the floe doesn’t move on a straight line. It looks like we are doing the slowest waltz in history, or, at least, since the satellite era began in 1979.
The Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen would recognize this dance. Nansen famously tried to reach the North Pole by freezing his ship (Fram) into the ice in the fall of 1894, hoping that the winter drift would take him close enough to the pole to make it there on skis. His ship moved in circles as well, but ended up nowhere near where they wanted to be. Still, Nansen took his best man man and made for the pole. Their attempt failed badly, and the 16-month survival epic that followed is one of the classics stories from that age in the history of polar exploration. While Nansen tried to make the drift of the sea ice work to his advantage, the polar explorers of our age have grasped the opportunities the melting of the sea ice presents. In 2010, two independent boats sailed through both the Northwest and the Northeast passages in one summer, a feat that had never been accomplished before.
The fluidity of the polar ice cap – it comes and goes, it drifts and spins – makes it harder to convince people, governments and industry that this fragile environment needs protection. It easier to get people on board with protecting a certain piece of land, than a ever-changing white maze. The oil and shipping industries are closely monitoring the sea ice extent. While still some decades in the future, we could some day see an industralization of the Arctic.
Last fall, I talked to Børge Ousland, who was the captain on one of the two boats who sailed all around the north pole. He has been to the North Pole a dozen times. He said he had never seen as little wildlife as that summer. Up here, climate change is happening so fast that no one knows the lasting impact on biodiversity.
We haven’t seen much wildlife so far, but it never get's too lonely, as the ice floe insists on dancing all night through. Only problem is the crew likes classic rock, but the ice does the waltz no matter what music we play in the hold.