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The Planet Ice Project: Into the Arctic Ice Pack

Cruising into the Arctic Ocean onboard a Russian icebreaker
By James Martin - January 3rd, 2008

Editor's Note: 

Writer and photographer James Martin, author with Mark Twight of Extreme Alpinism, has turned his attention to the vanishing ice of planet Earth. Embarking on a new book, Planet Ice, Martin will blog exclusively for over the next two years as he visits the polar regions, the last of the Equatorial glaciers, and the ice of more temperate mountains, to document how they show, all too clearly, the devestating results of global climate change. For this, his sixth dispatch, he reports from the Kapitan Khlebnikov, a Russian ice breaker, in the Arctic Ocean. (Read the introduction.)

Three weeks after leaving Greenland I returned to Kangerlussuaq to board a Russian icebreaker cruising to the top of the island, the Kapitan Khlebnikov. Our proposed route headed south, threading through Prins Christian Sund and then up the east coast through ever-thickening ice to the northern tip. We hoped to make our way to the top of Greenland, to the northern-most mountain and northern-most land in the world. However, this year prevailing winds and currents concentrated ice at the north of Greenland, posing a formidable barrier. Absent a southern wind to break up the pack, our prospects were uncertain.

After a full day in the fog, we slipped into Prins Christian Sund, or Sound, as the ceiling rose. The Sund is a narrow passage bracketed by 4000 foot granite cliffs, 3.2 billion year old basement rocks. The odd iceberg floated by and glaciers dipped their toes into the sea. Some no longer meet the water, a recent occurrence from the look of the rock between ice and sea.

If the ice continues to retreat, there will be no icebergs, sooner in the Arctic than the Antarctic. It is likely that the glacier feeding the Illulissat Icefjord I visited earlier this summer will pull out of the water in the next few years, and the grand display will revert to a calm inlet.

Things are no better on the Arctic ice pack. Every August from 1975 to 1995 ice covered 3.5 million miles, but in 2007 it shrank to 2.2 million. With less ice cover the sea absorbs much more heat. As the Earth warms, permafrost melts, which releases greenhouse gasses. All the feedback loops point toward accelerated warming of the poles and the planet as a whole.

We made good time up the East Coast of Greenland, a dryer, colder, and more sparsely populated than the West. We intended to rush to the northern-most point, climb the mountain, and stop frequently on the voyage south. However, we encountered thick ice earlier than expected, which slowed our progress.

Confronted by thick ice along the coast, we bypassed the ice to the east. When we turned west to crush through 90% pack ice, we heard the call "polar bear." At first the bear was a spec on the horizon, but he allowed the ship to approach within a couple hundred meters. He was a portly male, well provisioned for the coming winter, unconcerned by the sight of a giant ship shadowing him.

We were eventually turned away by a persistent northern wind that compressed first and second year ice into a 9 foot thick plain of ice. Rather than struggling though, we decided to land at Antarctic Bay shy of our goal. We ferried to shore in helicopters. We walked over an austere landscape where a few frail flowers dried in the rocky soil, pocket glaciers crumbled near the sea, and dramatic igneous intrusions slashed through layered stone. After just a few hours of on shore time, the Captain pointed the Kapitan Khlebnikov south to explore the fjords.

In the ensuing days the ship cruised up one channel and down another, each featuring 6000 foot walls of multi-colored stone. Immense glaciers fed wonderfully shaped icebergs to the sea. I felt like I was cruising a larger version Denali's Ruth Gorge, and from the bar I could enjoy the wild view with a creditable espresso in hand. We explored the Bredfjord, Godthab Golf, Franz Joseph Fjord, and King Oscar Fjord in turn, landing the zodiacs and flying the helicopters when feasible to catch a glimpse of musk ox or Arctic hare. On some landings time was short so I had to almost run from shot to shot, but once I had an hour to myself on a high bench. I could sense the vast icesheet just out of view and feel it in the wind.

We intended to visit a village in Scoresby Sund, the largest fjord system in the world, before concluding our voyage in Reykjavik. Two hours before out scheduled departure, the captain announced we would spend an extra day exploring the calm waters of the Sund to allow a large storm to pass through our route. We followed a line of mountains dripping in ice. Although the geology was completely different-layered basalt instead of metamorphic quartzite- the mountains resembled the Canadian Rockies on the east side of the Banff Jasper Highway.

We left the protection of the Sund the next afternoon. By dinner, the big ship wallowed like a bathtub in the high seas. The lack of a keel on an icebreaker lets her roll in even a modest swell. We rocked as much as 30 degrees. The ship had rolled more than 50 in big storms. We universally praised the Captain for his wisdom, especially those who had spent the night hugging the toilet in the relatively calm seas.


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Posted on April 29, 2008 - 12:22pm
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