East Greenland Glaciology
Gordon Hamilton and Leigh Stearns
June 22 to July 26, 2005
Gordon Hamilton     Leigh Stearns
Thursday, July 7 - Sunday, July 10, 2005
74.5 N 20 W

Gordon writes
Off the coast of NE Greenland

No science at the moment -- we are in transit between Ittoqqortoormiit and the Danish Polar Center's research station at Zackenberg in NE Greenland. In our last update, the ship was making slow progress through the pack ice guarding the entrance to Scoresby Sund. Breaking through ice is noisy (especially when you are trying to sleep), but at least the ice cover dampens the ocean swell. Almost as soon as we cleared the outer limit of the ice early on Thursday morning, we could feel the ship start to roll. For the next 36 hours we experienced the roughest waters of the trip so far. For a couple of land-based glaciologists, I think we came through it pretty well!

The same characteristics of the Arctic Sunrise that make it an excellent ice-class vessel unfortunately also mean that it is very unstable in the open ocean. Icebreakers have rounded hulls that allow them to ride up onto the ice and break it, and the hull is rounded because it has no keel. Now, as anyone who has played with a toy boat in a bathtub will tell you, the purpose of a keel is to provide a ship with some lateral stability. To make up for the rounded hull and lack of keel, icebreakers often carry ballast below the water line to give some stability. Our ballast is fuel and water, but because we have been at sea for a few weeks now, these reserves are providing less and less stability as we go on. Pete, the chief mate, likes to say that the Arctic Sunrise has all the hull stability of an egg!

So, what is it like plowing through 20 foot waves in an egg? Everybody staggers around a lot. Things tend to fly off shelves and tables. Some people lose their appetite (I wonder why?). Eating is an interesting experience -- you get a fork full of food just before your plate slides down the table, but hopefully by the time you've chewed that mouthful you have your plate back. Or someone's plate, at least. Just about every normal activity becomes difficult to impossible. Thankfully neither of us have had seasickness. We even managed some fresh air late on Thursday evening -- standing at the bow of the ship, watching the waves approach, we had a competition to see who could last the longest balancing on one foot. Leigh won -- 24 seconds on one foot as a ship rolls 15 degrees to port and the same amount back again to starboard is pretty impressive. I was just glad not to be flipped overboard!

The rough seas continued through much of Friday until we entered the pack ice again. At that point, we exchanged the rocking and rolling through waves for the loud banging and scraping noises of icebreaking. We have been passing the time processing and analyzing our data from the glaciers we visited last week, and preparing the survey grids for our next set of field sites.

Saturday was notable for one thing: we saw our first polar bear! It was foggy so viewing conditions were not perfect. Still, the site of a large male bear 20 meters away off the starboard side of the ship was very impressive. It looked at us for a while, then seemed to get bored, jumped across a lead between two ice floes and wandered off into the fog. Just as it disappeared, Leigh returned from the bathroom and wondered why everyone was leaning over the side of the ship!

We are still making slow progress through nine tenths ice as I write this on Sunday afternoon. Nine tenths ice means that only 10% of the ocean surface is open water, and a lot of the open patches are disconnected from one another by large floes. Arne, the captain, is piloting the ship from the crows nest, looking for the most efficient path through the close pack. We are averaging 1 knot, or 1.1 statute miles per hour (but a whopping 1.76 km per hour if I think in metric!). Reports indicate that ice concentrations are much less closer to the coast (three tenths ice or better), so hopefully we will pick up speed soon. Meanwhile, Leigh is on the bridge, binoculars scanning the horizon for a polar bear...

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