The first ice
That was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
We were all sitting in the main lab for the daily 18:00 science meeting when the call came down from the bridge that there was ice ahead. The first ice of the trip. We managed to sit still through the meeting, despite the crunching and slushing reverberating from the hull behind us. But as soon as it was over, there was a dash to the bridge.
The bridge is four stories above the lab on a stairwell that turns every 6 steps. A climb to the bridge can be a dizzying experience. The stairwell is lit in a harsh fluorescence, until that last turn when it goes dark but for a single red light before the door. The lights stay dim and red on the bridge so the captain keeps his night vision and has good visibility in front of the ship.
Walking through the door and onto the bridge is like walking into the back of a bat cave after taking a few turns on a speedy merry-go-round. As I stepped through the door, somewhat dizzy and completely blind, I was incredibly aware both that there were several people coming up behind me and that there were a lot of very important buttons somewhere in front of me. I managed to take a few stutter-steps forward without setting off any alarms as my eyes adjusted to the dim light. And then I looked up.
The full moon shone between wispy clouds, brighter by far than any trace of a sun we have seen for several days, illuminating the expanse of ice ahead of us (along with a few high-powered beams off the ship’s bow, of course). My jaw quite literally dropped. In every direction stretched a delicate layer of new ice. In some places it was bright white and in others dark grey, almost imperceptible against pools of inky water. There were cracks and ridges, streaks and smudges. After watching for a few minutes, I could see gentle swells roll across the scene, effortlessly pushing bits of ice around and into each other, shaping them into discs scientifically and appropriately named pancake ice.
I stared out the window, completely mesmerized, and suddenly it all clicked. This is why we’re here. For so many months we have talked about the ice; but for me it has been this elusive thing in the arctic that is disappearing and that we want to understand better. And for the last five days we have been underway, motoring through the day (what of it there is) and night in open water, talking about little else but ice and waves. It was still something of an abstract concept.
But not anymore. There it is – right there. That’s what this is all about. That is the ice, right there in front of us, that should be thick and healthy. It should be supporting a huge amount of life, from tiny baby arctic cod to huge bowhead whales. And it should be much further south by now.
It was humbling and magical, and I am so glad I am here to witness it and share what I learn with you.
(Speaking of sharing… don’t forget to tune in on YouTube tomorrow (Wednesday) at 11am pst (2pm est) for a live tour of the ship with Jim.
words by Becca Guillote
photos by John Guillote