This is the log of my first trip to the Arctic to study the beautiful and often destructive relationship between ocean waves and fragile sea ice. My wife described it as the Arctic counterpart to Andy Weir’s The Martian, which I take as a compliment. Estimated reading time: 45 minutes.

Preface: Arrival

It takes a long time to get to the Arctic no matter which way you approach it. One of the most direct routes is via Norway. On the three-hour flight from Norway’s capital city to the island archipelago of Svalbard, there isn’t much to look at but the distant ocean surface and the gray haze of cloud cover. The plane begins to descend well before you can see the archipelago, making the approach all the more dramatic:  stark white, jagged peaks suddenly jut out of gray ocean and sky.

I am currently in the small village of Longyearbyen on the island of Spitsbergen, which together with other, lesser islands collectively make up Svalbard, Norway’s northernmost archipelago. It is said that here, there are more Polar Bears than people.

I am here to study the interaction between the sea ice and the ocean waves. The idea is to get a bunch of devices which measure the motion (Accelerometers and Gyroscopes together called Inertial Motion Units-IMU, and Global Positioning Satellite-GPS). These will tell us about the ocean waves and the way in which ice responds them. We want to try and understand the relationship between the incoming waves and the stresses felt by the ice. Running the show is chief scientist and expert of ice mechanics Prof. Aleksey Marchenko, it was by his generous invitation that I am able to come to this place and join in on the scientific cruise.

The cruise was designed to give his students (15 or so) a chance to participate in field work, experiments which take place out in the natural elements. By way of serendipity, Prof. Peter Wadhams from Cambridge University, the father of wave-ice interaction studies and all around polar science and climate change guru, is joining the cruise as well and he is also intent on making wave measurements. Before we jump in let’s take a step back and I’ll try to explain how I got here.

Back in 2015, I wrote a scientific article which was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research Letters. This is a good journal in our scientific community so this was a very exciting time for me. The long-story-short goes something like this: after graduating I started a new job at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). At the time I knew a lot about measuring waves but nothing about modeling them with computers. I came to NRL to learn about modeling waves which you can think of as very similar to the way the weather is modeled. My new boss was Erick Rogers, a world renown wave modeler and model developer. At a conference in Singapore, he had met an interesting guy from the University Center in Svalbard, Prof. Aleksey Marchenko. Aleksey asked Erick if he would try to model a large wave event, the largest he had ever endured, encountered on an Arctic research cruise in 2010. Seeing this as a teaching opportunity, Erick tasked me with following up with Aleksey.

According to Aleksey, before the arrival of the waves, he and some students were on the ice trying to perform some experiments on the strength and thickness of the ice. The ice became unstable and began to crack and break up around them. At which point they packed everything up and hurried back to the ship, just in time for the arrival of huge ocean swell which broke up all the ice around them. For the paper, I analyzed the motion of the ship to get the wave signal and Erick Rogers helped me to model the incoming waves with a model called SWAN. This was my introduction to wave-ice interaction, Aleksey, and the R/V Lance.

It turned out that this wave event set the record for the largest waves measured in the Arctic in ice.

So now here I am, a little more than a year after writing the paper, and about six years after the actual event, attempting to reenact the very cruise which encountered that large wave event. We are returning to the scene of the crime in a sense, but this time, we are prepared with a lot of wave sensors. It is unlikely we will get such extraordinarily large waves again because it requires an exceedingly powerful storm to set up in exactly the right place. We hope to get some waves, but even with all the glorious scientific implications, I am not sure I would like to experience anything like what they went through in 2010, with individual wave heights up 10 m (or 30 ft)!

Day 0: Pre-cruise Preparations

Today we are preparing for the cruise on the R/V Lance. First, we had to pick out cold-weather gear: down bibs known as a regatta suit, boots, and gloves. We marked them with our names and passed them to a container which will be loaded onto the ship when she arrives in port later today.

Afterward, Aleksey’s student, Benjamin, and I played the role of lab technicians for Peter. Peter brought along some buoys which are essentially IMUs in waterproof briefcases but these briefcase-buoys were built by another scientist who is not here. As often happens, there was some confusion about how they worked, how to properly power them and so on. The main difficulty was troubleshooting without blowing them up. After some time, we were satisfied that the buoys were properly powered we took them outside so they could establish a GPS connection, at which point the indicator light turned green meaning everything was peachy.

Now, we are ready for the cruise. We will meet tomorrow morning at 9 am and board the ship. The general plan is to head south and then east until we find stable sea ice. There is some possibility that there will be no stable ice in which case we go to plan B, which we will probably make up on the spot but I think will be to go deep into a Fjord where we expect land-fast ice.

Day 1: Cruising on R/V Lance


We have boarded the R/V Lance (Norwegians and Russians pronounce it “Lan-say”) and gone through a safety briefing with Steve Andersen the crew chief and safety officer. The most important safety rules are related to reporting the possibility of fires, knowing where your weather suit is (and how to put it on), and the mustering location in the case of an emergency. The rest of the meeting was filled with the do’s and don’ts of this particular ship. There is one area of interest here that may be unique to the Lance. They have “outside shoes” and “inside shoes” rule. Kind of like visiting someone’s home in Japan. You take off your outside shoes upon entering the ship, and then once inside proceed with socks or inside shoes. What is the difference between outside shoes and inside shoes? Inside shoes have not been worn outside. Once shoes are worn outside, they are outside shoes. You can bring outside shoes in and clean them up in order to restore their inside shoe status.

It is just after lunch and I expect we will set sail soon.


We have been steaming now for over 6 hours. Aleksey and I have been troubleshooting some of the data loggers which are supposed to record information from instruments on the ship such as currents from an acoustic Doppler current profiler (ADCP), winds from an anemometer, and motion of the ship (IMU). It appears that a user interface for the data logger doesn’t show heave, the up and down acceleration of the ship and the variable I am most interested in because it related to waves. I have downloaded the raw data file and I am trying to see if it is hidden in there and just not appearing correctly on the screen, this is my hope because it would be a whole-nother beast to decode the data logger.

IMG_3504We have been steaming our way out of Isfjorden, and it has been exceedingly beautiful. There are some seabirds around but no other signs of life. The water is calm, at times mirror-like which made for some fun pictures with the birds and their reflection from the sea surface.

While troubleshooting data loggers, Aleksey and I were discussing the possibility of waves increasing wave height in broken ice. He said that he had actually witnessed this and made some videos and measurements but couldn’t understand why it might occur. I suggested this could be due to the mass loading effect. To make a long story short, the added mass of ice on the surface can cause the wavelength to shorten, much like waves shorten wavelength as they approach shallow water. And similar to when waves approach shallow water, the waves will “shoal” or increase in height in accordance with the conservation of energy. Aleksey quickly went to work on a scrap piece of paper and pencil and worked out all the theoretical physics involved. It was quite impressive, and I pretended to follow along. In the end, I think he was convinced the theory was possible but he wasn’t fully satisfied. I imagine he will be doing some more derivation and doodling in his chief scientist cabin which I will surely hear about later.

We will steam all through the “night” but actually, there is daylight all the time. Our schedule is essentially set by the cooks who prepare meals at 0730, 1130, and 1730. These times set our breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I am extremely tired because I didn’t sleep much last night due to jet-lag and my body being confused by the constant daylight. I am ready to sleep now, but I am going to try and stay awake for another hour or two. We should arrive near our destination of stable ice around lunch time tomorrow. At which point we will assess the ice and proceed according to whether or not the ice is acceptable for our planned experiments. The students will be performing a number of ice mechanical tests and Peter, Aleksey, Benjamin, and I will be setting out the briefcase wave buoys.

One thing I should mention: bears (and guns). The threat of Polar Bears is very real in this area of Svalbard. We have to be very vigilant as Polar Bears could easily make a snack of one of us. Someone is assigned to “bear watch” anytime people are working outside the ship on the ice. Everyone (except me!) has been trained in the use of a rifle in case a bear decides to sneak up on us. A loaded rifle is kept with the crew on the ice and another (unloaded) on the ship.

Day 2: Introduction to Ice

After I fell asleep last night we made our first encounter with ice. My berth is near the bow of the ship and when the ship struck the ice it made a very distinct impact and some very loud noises. You can clearly hear ice scraping down the side of the ship from the bow to the stern. So loud the initial impact startled me from my deeply jetlagged coma. Of course, the sun was shining brightly into the cabin through the small porthole, so I wasn’t sure of the time. I checked my watch which read 11:45. In my daze, I thought holy shit, I have slept all day long and it is lunch time we are already in the ice! Right as I started to get up, I double checked the time, yes it was 11:45, but 11:45 pm (23:45). We must have encountered some lonely patch of ice on our way out to more concentrated areas of ice. The noise eventually stopped sometime after midnight and we didn’t meet ice again until noon today.

We gathered this morning after breakfast for a lecture by Peter. After Peter’s lecture, he and I went out and double (quadruple?) checked the status of the buoys on the deck. One green light and one yellow light, but the instructions had said to expect the yellow light while on the deck of the ship, so we were not all too concerned. By this time we had steamed into some pretty serious ice most of the time with some leads (cracks between ice) and polynya (larger water bodies between ice, lake-like). The average floe size has been about on the order 10 m. The ship has no trouble slicing through it or pushing it out the way. Then lunch and a lecture by Maria Pia who is a historian, geographer, and director of the Italian Polar Research Institute (and by the way, is married to Peter). Then I gave a lecture to the students about the study published last year describing the large wave event during 2010 Lance cruise. It was a lot of fun talking to the student about an event which happened on a cruise which in every way was the exactly like the cruise we are on right now. Other times when I have given a similar talk, I have to spend a lot of time introducing Svalbard, the R/V Lance, ice and so on, but of course, it was familiar to them. Obviously, what was not so familiar was the physics of waves, which it seemed they were more or less interested them (can’t win ’em all!)

Otherwise, today was spent observing ice from the bridge, hoping to spot some animals more than the looking for the proper ice condition, although those would be nice too. I spotted a seal, or at least I think it was a seal, it was kind of a black blob in the distance on a sea of white. Someone else spotted a Walrus. I also saw bear tracks and a bear kill: blood and few unidentifiable solid parts were all that remained of a seal floating along on a small ice floe. We are going pretty fast, so it’s kind of like spotting wildlife from your car. The fact we are able to see tracks and kills means they must be very close by or there must be a number of them around, probably both. We steamed mostly south yesterday, this morning we have been steaming mostly east and recently we started going north.

PbearTracksThe floes have gradually been getting more sturdy and larger as the day goes on, but none more than 30 or 40 m long. I think we need some floes on the order of a hundred meters or more to do the work with the students (and to tests Peter’s theories as well). So we journey on until we find the appropriate ice floe.

Update: we very quickly got into very large floes and around 10 pm we moored to a floe which is about 200 m by 300 m. We are drifting with the floe to the south at about 0.2 kt.

Day 3: Bear Scares

Breakfast was full of excitement because apparently we were visited by bears around 4 am this morning. Some of the students awoke to check it out. There were two small bears, maybe 2 years old, and male. The male polar bear is much larger than the female in general, but not everything is equally bigger. A key anatomical difference is the males’ necks are much bigger than their heads. They were very curious and sniffed at our data logger, a small orange briefcase which we placed outside the night before. They eventually wandered off long enough for the students to go back to sleep but came around again some time later, at which point the crew shot a flare to scare them off for good.

The students who were awake during their first approach took some nice video and pictures. At 0830, the scientists had a planning meeting and at 0900 we met with the students and went over all the safety procedures again and then proceeded to the ice. Maybe now is a good time to explain the safety procedures. We have a dedicated safety guy: “Seb from Logistics”. He BEARS the burden of enforcing safety procedures for the group. Polar Bears are a very serious threat. So, at all times, there is someone on bear watch on the helicopter pad, the point on the ship with the best visibility. They are armed with a flare gun and connected to the team via VHS radio. Then there is on-ice bear watch. Someone (a student) who has previously been trained, is on the ice watching for bears. They also have a flare gun and radio, but in addition, they have a half loaded rifle. These students were trained in the use of the rifle before the trip. Since, I am not rifle trained, I am only qualified for bear watch from the ship (not the ice). The ship crew on the bridge, in addition, keep watch for bears, but bear watch it is not their main mission; their main mission is to keep the ship running and safe so they cannot be relied upon exclusively for bear-related safety.

The bear watch shifts go hourly. We were not working long before a bear was spotted in the far off distance. I wanted to see my first polar bear, so I left the ice and proceeded to the bridge of the ship and grabbed a pair of binoculars. With the binoculars, the bear, still quite far away, looked like a fuzzy yellow dot in a sea of white. Great success! The fuzzy yellow dot was mainly distinguishable because it moved amongst the stationary features of the ice.

Back on the ice, we worked until lunch placing out accelerometers in strategic patterns. The students conducted tests on ice mechanics. The ice floe we are on is only between 20 and 80 cm thick. The students cut large rectangular gaps it in several places with a chainsaw for their tests. We also drilled a number of holes for conductivity, temperature, and depth measurements (CTDs) and other measurements.

Twin Polar Bears roam the floe around the ship.

Twin Polar Bears roam the floe around the ship. Photo credit: Anders.

At some point between lunch and dinner, there at least a few bears 1-2 km from the ship. I couldn’t help but get the feeling I was being watched. Especially when I was away from the group out near the ice edge. I was making my way towards the edge, measuring the distance between sensors, when some shouting alerted me the bear was approaching. Everyone working on the ice made their way towards the gangplank, the bridge which connects us to the ship. Once we were there, the bear, who was about 300-400 m away on the adjacent floe, rounded around the bow of the ship. Only a small strip of water separated our floe from the bear’s, I could now with my unaided eyes see the bear much better than I could from the bridge with binoculars. He was a huge, older male bear.

We watched in amazement until he slid into the small patch of water separating our floe from his. At this point we were ordered onto the ship in the event he might think to cross over to our floe. Eventually, he continued to swim in a circle around the ship, popped up on another floe, and headed off into the distance. We started work again after about 30 minutes, the bear still visible maybe 750 m away. Several times throughout the afternoon, when I was within earshot of a radio I heard “Bear at 6 O’Clock, maybe 2k away, proceed with observations”. It went on like this until dinner time.

Since there is no darkness, 24H daylight, our days are scheduled around meal time which happens 3 times a day. Breakfast: 7:30 — 8:30, Lunch: 11:30 — 12:30, and Dinner: 17:30-18:30, oh and of course cake time at 15:00, but this it optional (is cake time really ever optional, though?), the other meal times are strictly enforced. In fact, we have been split into two groups, one of which takes the first half hour of mealtime and the second of which takes the latter half hour. So work schedules, scientific recordings, bear watch, everything bends to the mealtime hours. After dinner, Peter and I returned to the ice and measured distances between sensors until about 10 pm. He is very keen to record everything by camera and notebook, double checking and triple checking as he goes. As we were doing this Aleksey sat on the ice for a while, seemingly lost in his thoughts. He called over to me in his Russian accent, “Tripp, there is wave. Do you see wave?” No, I thought, but to give him the benefit of the doubt I concentrated on the ice a bit and kind of gave him an unsure nod. Aleksey persisting, “There is wave now, do you see?”

I tried but I still couldn’t really see anything, and I was pretty sure we were too deep into the ice fields for any waves to penetrate, but I said, “Yeah I think so.” I continued work with Peter until about 20:30. I was sitting on the ice resting and I looked across to a flag pole about 50 m away, the top of which was aligned with the horizon from my perspective. As I sat there the top of the pole heaved slightly above the horizon, then slightly below, and back above within about 10 or so seconds. Holy shit, this thing IS moving. They were not big, but there were definitely waves moving through the ice. It is hard to describe, but it was kind of like when you make the bed and you lift the sheet up and then down to straighten it out, the sheet follows the movement of your hand where you are holding it, then this up/down motion propagates to the end of the sheet away from you. In a similar way, waves were propagating from one end of this ice sheet to the other. Still, not everyone on the ice was convinced. At some point, the motion was so dramatic you actually could feel the up and down without looking. Aleksey calmly remarked, “If there is ice-wave, ice will break”.

Day 4: The Rubble Pile



One of the mooring lines, anchoring the ship on the floe.

There was again commotion very early this morning around 4 AM. Apparently, the mooring line, which securely connects the ship to the ice floe became dislodged. The crew scrambled to get another one in place before we were set adrift away from the floe along with all of our equipment and more importantly data. The equipment is expensive, but the data is invaluable. The crew did a fine job and we were secured again very quickly, but the dislodging of the mooring was the final straw for Aleksey who thought the floe was too weak, thin, and unstable, especially after the experiencing the waves, and decided our first act after breakfast would be to break down camp and head upstream (quite literally upstream since the ice was flowing north to south down the east coast of Svalbard).

We scrambled across the ice, and what took a full day yesterday to set up was taken down and packed away in less than an hour. We raised the gangway, started the engine and have been steaming ever since. The character of the ice we are now steaming through has changed. Where floes were 10s-100s of km and squishy, they are now mainly 100s of km and stiff with large patches of open water in between. When we go over a floe it seems to shatter whereas before they kind of split. Kind of like the difference between breaking up milk chocolate and dark chocolate. Milk chocolate bends a bit and the tears and splits where dark chocolate shatters. Still lots of bear tracks.


Just after lunch, we came across a vast “rubble pile” at the outflow point of the glacier which flows off of eastern Edgeoya, Svalbard’s uninhabited eastern frontier. This was a very dramatic landscape. There was open water, then a sheer cliff of ice. Behind the cliff were piles of sea ice, mounded and scattered around, this is the rubble field. Within the rubble field were icebergs which dwarfed the other ice formations around them and in the background was a monolithic glacier where the icebergs were being conceived. The glacier appeared a plateau in the distance, its actual size was impossible to determine having nothing as a reference but the icebergs coming from it were the size of the ship and they look like grains of sand closer to the mouth of the glacier. Peter Wadhams, who has been studying and traveling the Arctic for 40 years was stunned. He had never seen an icy landscape quite like the one we were approaching. He supposed that the sea ice had formed and interacted with the glacial outflow, some of it getting frozen into the matrix of icebergs. Other sea ice, which forms in the deep Arctic and floes south along the eastern coast of Svalbard must have come in a sheared away any smaller floes leaving only a dramatic boundary between near solid ice which went 2-5 km to the glacier and nearly open water. There was a debate about trying to do some work on the rubble field, but in the end, it was deemed too dangerous. The field was very craggy and it seemed as though it would be easy to get stuck in some nook or cranny, not to mention the difficulty of treking by foot which would require scaling, jumping, and crawling around on all fours. In the end, we were satisfied to get up against the ice wall, chip away some samples with a shovel by just leaning over the side of the ship, and make several CTD casts.



Rubble field ice cliff.

CTD stands for Conductivity (which is proxy for salinity because salt water conducts electricity while fresh does not), Temperature, and Depth. We simply tie a rope to a probe and lower it down into the water from the deck. The depth was only about 35 m so this was a quick process and it was done by hand. On larger ships in the deep ocean (say 3000 – 5000 m), CTD’s can be huge requiring wench operation and last for an hour or more to get to the bottom. This is much more pleasant CTD work. For me, it was fun to observe the small wind waves with developed in the small fetch of the extended polynya (or maybe open coastal zone). They would come towards the ice wall and the small waves would get damped by the tiny ice in the water around us, and the long waves would interact with the bits of larger ice or reflect off the ice wall. There was also some oil in the water (either naturally seeping from the sea bottom or from the ship) which seemed to be attracted to the small bits of congregating ice and probably helped to damp the small waves. After some time and after everyone was satisfied with their pictures, we continued or journey.


We continued on, Lance is now struggling to get through the more stable and rigid ice. Before, floes were never more than 0.5 m thick, and now we have come across pieces of ice 4-5 m thick. This thick ice comes from ridging. This is when two pieces of thin ice collide, one gets rafted on top of the other. This can go on, piling up ice along the border between floes. When the ocean calms and cools, these ridges freeze into place making a large thick seam between two large floes. These become the strongest part of floe conglomeration, and when the floes break apart again, the ridges often stays stuck together and so you can find random pieces of very thick ice. Whereas previously Lance seemed to gracefully dance through the ice, now it is lumbering through often getting knocked this way and that. Kind of like the football player running and breaking tackles, sometimes dragging players with him. Eventually, when there is more ice than water, and this ice is mostly connected and stable, the ship tries to find the cracks or leads between the ice and ride up the seam. On occasion, the ice floes were so big and there was no clear way to proceed. We would then plow on straight ahead. Lance would slowly lose momentum and stop forward progress at which point we would have to back up the length of the ship and ram forward again. This is repeated until we break through the length of the ice, so sometimes progress was slow and difficult.

I spent the day wandering from the “galley”, where the kitchen/dining room and most importantly coffee is located, to the “bridge”, which is the captain’s pilot room and is located about three stories up from the main deck so that he has an unobstructed view of the ice ahead. Often I would get to the bridge just in time to hear “oh, did you see the walrus? It was just there two minutes ago.” Determined to one of these fat beasts I hunkered down in the corner of the bridge for a few hours, and then… nothing. It is a game of patience and I was stubbornly determined. I was delaying my trip back to the galley for dinner, every minute riskier than the last, that I might arrive too late and anger the cooks and I would have nothing but pickled herring to eat for the remainder of the cruise. As soon as I gave up and was on my way out of the bridge, two Walruses appeared on a small floe just off the starboard bow. Great success! And shortly after a large black seal, perhaps a bearded seal, poked his head above the water and took a dive exposing his back and finlike feet. I was making good progress on my personal “Arctic big five”: Polar Bear, Walrus, Seal, Arctic Fox, and Narwhale.

Eventually, we found our new home for the day. A vast ice floe maybe 500 m x 1000 m. If you can image (because I could not before seeing it for myself) there are ice floes of every size. Most of which are floating along with ocean currents and hence “flow” as opposed to ice which doesn’t flow referred to as “fast” ice which is joined to the Earth somehow, either be being so thick it touches the bottom or being attached to the coast or being conjoined with an iceberg which has grounded itself in shallow water.

We were looking for an ice floe of very particular shape and size. A good scale model would be a standard sheet of paper (8.5″ x 11″, 0.1 mm thick). The ship then, which it about 120 m long, would about the size of a lego. Upon finding a candidate ice floe we would ram our lego into the side of the sheet of paper, the paper is floating in a bathtub. The paper tears a bit as the lego presses forward, and we stop 1 or 2 ship lengths into the ice, at which point the ship is wedged in place. From there the crew uses a crane to lower a staircase, called a gangplank, from the side of the ship to the ice (by the way everything on a ship has funny name staircase = “gangplank”, bathroom = “head”, bedroom = “berth”, dining room = “galley”, gather = “muster”, navigation room = “bridge”, so on and so forth, and the Lance is Norwegian so I am sure there are special Norwegian names for everything which are even funnier). They take a couple of large metal poles and drive them through the ice cover and tie off some rope to secure the vessel. We are now moored to the ice. The ice at this floe was relatively thin. here the analogy with the piece of paper isn’t good enough, the paper needs to be about 20 times thinner for proper proportions. Although the surface area of the floe is maybe 500 m by 1000m the thickness is only about 30-45 cm (about 1 foot). This may sound thin, and it is, but it is plenty thick to walk around, drive a snowmobile, and operate heavy equipment.


Drone image of the R/V Lance moored to the ice. Photo credit: Seb from logistics.

The surface area we can see but how do we know the thickness? We walk out onto the ice without knowing and drill into it. The ice is pretty soft so it only takes seconds to drill through it. Then we take ruler and measure to the bottom of the ice. We check in several places and if the ice is more than say 10 cm, it is ok to work on. In this case, the ice was fairly uniform being between 30 and 45 cm thick except for a small ridge running through the floe that was about twice this thick.

Day 5: The Polar Bear Plunge

This morning, following breakfast we again met for a safety briefing and made sure everyone understood their assignments and then proceeded to the ice. Here is the procedure for going onto the ice: First, you have to be wearing the proper gear, the main piece is called a Regatta suit. Typically, you would put the Regatta suit directly over whatever clothes you are already wearing on the ship. The suit is a thick, one-piece outfit which looks kind of like overstuffed ski bibs which are very brightly colored for visibility. Then there are “scooter boots” which are like well-insulated galoshes which go half way up the shin. There are giant mitts which go on over your regular gloves which look like oven mitts. You face and head are up to you, I wear a neoprene ski mask which covers my face entirely, cheap sunglasses with a Maryland flag on the side, and a second-hand toboggan. Then there is a board on which hang little wooden markers. Each marker has a name and a number corresponding to each person on the ship and the board is split into two sides, one green for the ship and one red for the ice. If you are going to the ice, you remove the marker from the green side and hang it on the red side. This is another way of accounting for who is on on the ship and who is on the ice in case of an emergency (read: the ice breaking up around us). Today, ice fracture seemed unlikely as the floe was much more stable than the previous one. There were no signs of wave activity at all, not even our most sensitive wave instrument, Aleksey, could feel any waves. Regardless, we set out an array of accelerometers on the ice. We have 10 small briefcases from the University of Oslo, and 2 from Peter making a total of 12. We walked close to the ice edge, set out a triangle with about 10 m sides pointing towards the open water, walked about 100m then put out 1 of Peter’s, then another 100 m and another triangle, then a single, then a triangle, and finally another single. The whole array 400 — 500 m in length. Setting these took very little time the second go around. We were done just after lunch, having placed sensors, measured the distances in between, and drilled holes to test ice thickness at each one.

Since the accelerometers required no more attention I was free to do what I wanted. I took the time to learn more about the student projects. This whole cruise is part of Aleksey’s class, the topic of which is ice mechanics and instrumentation. The wave scientists on board are just piggybacking his class. He has about 15 students, and 3 graduate students, and two researchers. One group performs tests on the strength of the ice. One kind of test is called a beam test. One of the supervisors, either a grad student or a researcher, uses a chainsaw to make the outline of a rectangle. The long side about 2 m and the short side about 1/3 m, leaving one of the short ends intact. The chainsaw is not long enough to cut all the way through the ice so the students, armed hand saws the blade 1 m long with a 1 m wooden handle, saw the rest of the way through the ice. Sawing through this ice proved not to be very difficult as the ice was fairly thin and soft. Once all the ends of the rectangle were cut through, save one of the short sides, they pull up on the free end until till the other side, the one still attached to the main sheet of ice, snaps. They measure the amount of force it takes to make this ice finger snap and this is called a beam test. After several beam tests, the students started removing the beams from the water revealing large holes in the ice. They were breaking up the chunks of beams into blocks for building an ice-wall. The used saws and youthful energy to join all the pools left over from beam tests together into one large pool about 10 x 10 m. They then constructed the wall along the windward side of the pool which shielded the pool from the Arctic breeze. Regardless of wind, new, slushy ice forms continuously on the water surface.


Chainsaw time. Photo credit: Anders.

After dinner, the students continued work until about 20:00. Some of the work included taking ice cores at the ridge. They used a special drill to remove a vertical cylinder from the ice. The measured the total thickness, then split it up into containers for melting and further analysis. I was on bear watch for some of this time. Our new location was full of birds but no signs of bears. So bear watch mainly consisted of bird watching and scanning the horizon for movement. After about an hour on helicopter deck, it gets pretty cold and boring you are ready to head in for some hot coffee. During my bear watch, everything was packed up back onto the ship, leaving only our briefcase buoys and some underwater instruments on the ice. On my way in from bear watch, I noticed a small pool had been filled on the stern deck and was steaming: a hot tub! It was constructed of a wood frame and a kind of reinforced tarp. There was a heating element at the bottom through which sea water was pumped and which brought the temperature to scalding hot temperatures. But the entrance to the hot tub does not come easy as it is required that you jump into the hole in the ice constructed by students to gain admission. As I entered the galley there was already discussion of how you could jump into through the ice into the Arctic Ocean and make you way up the gangplank, up the stairs to the upper aft deck, and into the hot tub without a) freezing to death, b) falling on deck, 3) slipping on stairs, and 4) burning yourself upon entering the hot tub.

After a coffee, we met in the main meeting room to discuss the safety procedures with Seb from Logistics. Seb from Logistics started ominously, “Entering the cold water will be a shock to your body, and the stress from the shock can cause a heart attack. We at UNIS (University Center in Svalbard) do not recommend that you enter the cold water, and we cannot be responsible for you if you choose to do so, so if you want to swim you do so at your own risk.” Most of the students we eager to take this risk. Seb from Logistics continued, “Even at your own risk, I would like to have some additional safety precautions, so we will construct a diving board out of a wooden pallet, I with put a loose harness around your waist as you jump in in case you lose consciousness.”


Ragnar taking the plunge! Photo credit: Sebastian.

The water is so cold that you cannot stand more than a dip, so the idea is to jump in and clamber out. We wore full Regatta suits and scooter boots out to the ice and gathered around the small pool. One at a time we stripped out of the suits and boots, reduced to only swim shorts (or bikinis) and wool socks, stood on the plank and felt the full brunt of the brutal Arctic winds. It was cold on the plank, and it was sure to be cold in the water. I stood there for a moment, half regretting my commitment to go in. Finally, I jumped forward and I was in the Ocean, surrounded by ice for many miles and 75 m of pitch black Artic Ocean below me. The water was colder than an ice bath, this is because salt water freezes at a lower temperature. It is so cold and so shocking that natural reaction is to immediately get out of the water. It is an impulse, not a choice to climb out of the pool, but you do so only to find it is even worse once you reemerge into the Arctic wind having been soaked with Arctic water. At this point, the race to the tub was on. I scuttled up to the gangplank, still wearing my wool socks, the bottoms of my feet already numb. As I shivered and shook I only had one thought which was the relief waiting for me in the hot tub, but I still had to make it there without breaking my neck along the way. After climbing the stairs to the second aft deck, my hands nearly freezing to the railing, I had made it. I jumped up the stairs leading to the tub and threw my legs in only to find it was so hot I couldn’t stand to get all the way in. So there I was, my legs cooking and my upper body going numb with cold, trying to splash water around both to warm me and cool the tub. After about five minutes I managed to make up to my neck and sat comfortably in the corner. By this time there were already 10 students in the pool, most of wearing toboggans and wool socks. After an hour in the tub I took a shower and changed into fresh clothes, the feeling was incredible.

Tomorrow we recover the briefcase buoys just after breakfast and will be steaming away by 9.

Day 6: Things are Going Swell

We got up for breakfast at 0730 and were fully in gear and on the ice  by  0800; all business this morning. There were only a few items left on the ice, some were deep in the water connected to the surface by a wire which ran through a small hole in the ice. Others were just lying in the snow on the surface of the floe so it was just a matter of picking them up. We have small sleds which we stack our gear on and slide around the floe. So, the procedure is to grab a small orange, plastic sled, pull it with a rope by hand or tie around your waist, and slide the gear around the ice. There is snow on top of the ice in some place several inches thick so it is not much different than walking around a flat part to of ski slopes. After recovery, we secured everything in the laboratory space. We were steaming away by 0900. Our goal was to make it from the interior of the ice pack, where everything is more or less solid and “packed together, out to the edge where there was some open sea. This consisted of heading mainly east and south.

There isn’t much of note until just after lunch when we spotted a polar bear in the distance. We approached close enough for some nice pictures and continued on our way. I got a couple of good shots of him (or her?) checking us out and then one shot of the bear swimming in the water.

It was very slow going at first as the ice was still quite thick and the floes vast in extent with the ship banging around this way and that, sometimes crawling and bashing through the center of floes sometimes finding a lead between floes. After an hour or so the floes gradually became smaller and space between floes was easier to find. The students made presentations after dinner at 1900 about their progress with the data from our first two stations (“station” is what we call  it when we moor the ship on a floe for work). I learned a lot about ice mechanics, the strength of ice and the composition of ice with relation to temperature and salinity. I was impressed with their work ethic and professionalism, particularly when some were forced to approach a completely new subject: oceanography. Most if not all of the students were 2nd or 3rd-year engineers, mostly geotechnical engineers.

About the science team: there are 23 from the University Center in Svalbard (UNIS) including chief scientist Aleksey, his wife, Natalie (who is also a research scientist), and a technical researcher (all three from Russia), Seb from Logistics (Polish), 15 undergraduates: 2 from Vancouver Canada, 3 Germans, 2 Norwegians, 7 Russians, and 1 from Belarus, 4 graduate students: 2 Russian, 1 Ukrainian, and 1 Frenchman. In addition, there is a group consisting of 2 postdocs and a Prof. from Norwegian Technical University (NTNU) who have paid for 1 day of ship time for their own, independent experiment. And finally, there are three invited researchers, Peter Wadhams from the UK, his wife “Maria Pia” from Italy, and myself. After the presentations, I went to the bridge one last time before going heading down to sleep as I was quite tired from waking up early.

I was settled into my bunk a little after 2230 when the motion of the ship began to suddenly change character. Along with the bumping and grinding against ice, there was a now a pronounced heave (up and down acceleration) and pitch (tipping back and forth). I recognized this particular ship movement as I had felt something similar many times before, we were now in waves. I got out of bed and went to the bridge, and there was a significant swell rolling through the ice field. The average size of the floes maybe 10 x 10 m now much smaller than the average length of the waves at 80 — 100 m. The waves easily moved through the ice which bobbed up and down slowly, in sync with the swell. It was an impressive sight to behold with my own eyes. There were some students on the bridge when the ship transitioned into the waves. Apparently, the floes were quite large and all of a sudden the ship entered a zone of some smaller floes, and with them, the swell appeared. This happened within 15 minutes or less.

I watched the swell for maybe an hour. At first, the swell was very smooth and uniform. The wind was blowing at a 90 deg angle to the swell. As the ice cover became less and less at the surface, smaller waves became apparent. Eventually, there was almost no ice, at which point the swell direction was harder to make out and there were significant waves in the direction of the wind and the whole sea took on a very rough appearance. Tomorrow is the day planned for the group from NTNU. Their plan was to measure how waves lose energy as they propagate into ice (attenuation experiment). This is done by setting out a number of sensors in more or less a straight line in the wave direction over some large distance. They have 5 sensors they want to place each one about a mile apart. We already had one required ingredient of the experiment; we had found the waves. They would begin their work after midnight, but I would go to sleep. It is nice to sleep while in steaming through waves as your bunk becomes like the cradle with the sea rocking you back and forth through the night.

Day 7: Ice Floe Frogger

Since the NTNU group had booked the day, there wouldn’t be any work for me to do and I took the opportunity to sleep through breakfast. At 0900 we met for a brief time and it was announced that we would have a special “Captain’s Diner” at 1900 but not much else. After the meeting with the students, Aleksey, Peter, Benjamin, and I talked about how we might take advantage of strong swell conditions which had persisted and even strengthened through the night. At this point we were in the middle of the NTNU experiment, they had placed their sensors in the just after midnight and we were positioned in the middle of the array so they could keep watch of 2 or 3 of the sensors during the experiment. We thought possibly we could put out a group of sensors after they had collect theirs. They would begin collecting at 1530 and would end around 1900, but of course, it would then be time for the Captain’s dinner and we would either have to rush to get them out beforehand or wait until after dinner.

Anyways what would we want to do? Peter suggested place 3 sensors on adjacent ice floes and try to measure the collisions between these neighboring floes. Since the floes are small and moving along with the waves, often the floes will bump into one another. I suggested we might try and put a forth about a wavelength away to directly measure the speed of the waves by tracking the wave crests from the first group of sensors to the one further away sensor. We were pretty pleased with this little experimental plan, but we had to think the whole thing through. We knew how we wanted to place the sensors, but how the hell were we going to get the sensors where we wanted them? The ship is moving quite a lot in the swell, the floes are small and each one is moving with the swell, so we cannot just lower the gangplank and waltz out onto the broken ice.

One answer would be to toss them from the ship and fix a tether of some kind to pull them back up with, but this was risky as it seemed easy to lose, damage, or destroy the sensors. Another option was to use a small boat. On Lance, there are two small boats each about 5 m long. We could load one with our sensors and ourselves, lower it near the surface but still have it connected to the ship by crane, and with the sea surface much more accessible, we could then simply place each of the sensors off onto the appropriate floes by hand. The problem with this plan was that the wind was strong. Because of the strong wind, we might need to actually use some ice screws to secure the sensor to the ice floe so they don’t get blown away; carried off by the wind never to be seen again. Also, Lance is very big and great at crushing ice so there was a chance she might destroy the floes we want to study.

Ok… plan C: we could lower the small boat all the way into the water, motor over to the ice, lean over the small boat to screw in the sensors. It seemed very risky to get in a small boat among such large swell, not to mention this boat would be about the same size or smaller than the surrounding ice floes. It was a plan, but not a good one as too many things could go wrong: if one of us fell over we could get crushed between the ice floes which were bumping together, or the small boat could get pinned between the ship and the ice, or the small boat could get stuck in the ice, or 100 other possibilities all equally as terrible. Going in the small boat also required wearing a special survivor suit. The survivor suit is designed to keep you alive in the ice water, it is neoprene (like a diving wetsuit) on the inside, but on the outside, it was bright orange, waterproof PVC. It was bulky and had rubber boots built in, it made doing work in a Regatta suit look like a picnic. Another requirement was the involvement of the ship’s crew as they were needed to drive the small boat. In addition, Aleksey wanted to make some measurement with a special instrument that did not have an internal battery. So we thought to run a power cable from the ship, but this seemed ridiculous for obvious reasons, so then Aleksey thought we should bring along a generator on the small boat.

So here is a recap of our brilliant sensor placement strategy: let’s all get in bulky rubber suits, pile into a tiny boat, haul with us a generator full of gasoline, crank it up on the small boat, lower the boat from the ship into the heavy swell and surrounding ice, then ride around while trying not to get smashed to death and while the generator is operating make some measurements and place some sensors on nearby ice.

We were not exactly happy with the plan which was getting more and more complicated and dangerous, but it was only 1000 and we had time to figure out something better. As Aleksey said, “We have time to think”. However, as Aleksey was saying this, the ship’s captain came into the small science lab where we were hatching our scheme. The captain informed us that the ship would be stationary for the next 2 hours, so if we wanted to do some experiment then the time to do it was now, and now only…

Ok… I had barely finished my first cup of coffee and now there no more thinking out the consequences, we had to begin preparations immediately. We had 20 minutes to ready the sensors, pull on the survivor suits, and load up the small boat. This was not enough time. We had to make some cuts to the plan. We scrapped the generator and the decided to place only a cluster of sensors, without the fourth further away. With a more efficient plan, we set into action. Seb from logistics prepared the survivor suits, Benjamin and I prepped the buoys by strapping the small briefcases into foam blocks that would act as flotation in the event they get knocked off the ice, Aleksey went with the crew to prep the small boat and Peter decided to supervise and document from the bridge. Having set-up the small briefcase buoys with floats and tiny red flags, Benjamin and I struggled into our survivor suits. We met up with Seb from logistics, who had a backpack full of extra tools and a GoPro strapped to his head, and Aleksey who was already loading the small boat with a shovel, and large metal spike, and other blunt instruments that I couldn’t fathom a safe use for. Before I had time to think too much about it, the four of us plus two crew were being lowered into the hammering swell below by the captain who was personally manning the small boat crane. It was only a few seconds and then we were on the sea surface, completely free from the ship, on our own against the elements.

The crew started the engine and Aleksey tried to direct them towards some ice nearby. We were stopped by a larger floe and had to back up. The crew put the small boat back into forward gear and you could hear the engine revving but we were not moving. One of the crew scrambled to the back of the boat with a shovel and tried to clear the ice which had closed in around the motor. We were stuck, bobbing up and down at the mercy of the swell and I had a fleeting thought about what it might be like to have to endure in the corner of a small boat for an hour… or longer. The engine recovered we steered forward towards the ice.


Going to the crane in the small boat.

It was all a bit confusing since the ice was moving and we were trying to pick out particular floes which looked suitable out of the few which were on the perimeter of the patch of open water the Lance had cleared with its thrusters. Aleksey would spot an accessible floe and point it out to the team “That one!”, but they all pretty much looked the same and so it was easy to go the wrong one. We approached a floe by crashing into it with the small boat. After the initial contact, there were a few seconds with the bow of the small boat over the ice floe before the swell would separate us from the floe. This made placing sensors by leaning over the side of the small boat impossible. And so Aleksey and Seb from logistics (SebfL), without much discussion, decided to time a leap from the boat onto a small ice floe. Aleksey and SebfL made the jump and the small boat got disconnected from the ice, so they were alone floating on a floe scrambling to place the sensors by clearing the floe of snow, picking at the ice with a large metal spike, and drilling through the foam with ice screws. The crew managed to crash the small boat back into the floe without killing Aleksey and SebfL who grabbed onto the railings of the small boat. All this crashing into floes was pushing them all around, changing the arrangement of the floes.

Placing the sensors in a strategic way was out the window. It was impossible because we could not guarantee the floes would remain in configuration after crashing into them. So we just had to choose some floes, kind of at random, but trying to choose a few which were very close together. In fact, to place the third sensor, SebfL jumped directly from floe #2 to floe #3. There was a distance of about half a foot when he jumped from floe to floe, but when he wanted to return this had expanded to two feet. He waited and the waves slowly pushed them a bit closer together, and he had clear about 1 foot of icy water to get back to floe #2 and then onto the small boat. The minutes dragged on and every passing minute made me more anxious than the last that some accident would occur. In the end, we attached 4 sensors, two with flags one without, then sped back to the Lance only about 100 m away. The crane wire was already lowered, it slipped easily into position and we were flying out of the water with little warning. The ship was still swaying back and forth and we, at the end of the line like a pendulum, slammed into the side of Lance. Benjamin lost his balance and seemed to be heading over the side but quickly recovered. Seconds later we were on deck. What seemed like an hour in the small boat on the ice was maybe 15 minutes from the time I stepped foot off the deck of Lance until the time returned to Lance.

After removing my survivor suit I made my way up to the bridge to have a look at the configuration. Once on the bridge, the sensors were almost impossible to find among the vast undulating, ice covered ocean. Through the binoculars, I was barely able to make out the tiny red flags which stood out in contrast to the surrounding white. Three had ended up clustering together and the fourth a little further away. And so, quite by accident, we achieved our previously planned setup with the unexpected bonus one further out as I suggested! I kept track of the buoys by eye until I remembered it was 1200, lunchtime.

We had no tracker or GPS tags on the buoys, so eye contact was crucial and at the time I was the only scientist on the bridge. The crew, of course, had other priorities, so they could not watch the buoys, but on Lance, meal time rules all so I had to make a gamble. I rushed down to the galley, inhaled some very delicious stew beef and rice and returned to the bridge. I grabbed a pair of binoculars and searched desperately for the tiny red flags, scanning the horizon for a few minutes in vain. The other scientists were preparing for the recovery mission, again donning the bulky survivor suits and packing the small boat. They would need fewer people for the recovery and the fewer people put at risk in the small boat the better, so it was up to me to track the position of the sensors from the bridge. I was almost panicking when the first mate chuckled a bit and pointed at 10 O’Clock (direction) about 100 m off the bow. While I was in the galley he had generously steered the Lance towards our buoys, so when I returned and was scanning the far out on the horizon they were right under my nose.

The recovery operation went much the same way as the deployment but was slightly quicker since all they needed to do was unscrew the buoys from the ice. This time, Aleksey brought short metal ladder along. For the cluster of sensors on 3 adjacent floes, he used the ladder to crawl from one floe to the next, recovery all 3 sensors while the small boat up against only one. I should say he intended on using the ladder, he used it to cross the first flow but then SebfL took it for the next. Aleksey didn’t wait for SebfL to return and started hoping floe to floe like a real life, icy version of frogger. As for SebfL, I guess he decided the using the latter was slowing him down so, in the end, he carried it in one arm and started his own deadly game of Arctic frogger, but with the handicap of also having to carry a large metal latter. All returned safely and so ended our quick experiment.


Aleksey crossing floes. Photo credit: Anders.

For all the madness and excitement of the morning, the afternoon passed uneventfully. I spent a lot of time watching waves and ice from the bridge, counting down the minutes between meal times. After NTNU crew recovered all of their sensors, the experimental phase of the trip was over and the return journey had begun. It would take two days to steam back to Longyearbyen. The dinner that evening was the very special “Captain’s dinner” at 1900 in which everyone dressed up a bit, the table placings were more formal, and we were severed 3 courses. Aleksey, the captain, and the professor from NTU made speeches about the success of the trip and competence of the crew and quality of the equipment on Lance. It was a nice way to cap off the last week of hard work. The seas by this time were very rough, and the captain had ordered the ship be steered in the most pleasant way possible for the duration of the dinner, but soon after we had to make up the time and the ship was getting tossed by the seas in all directions. This was less a gentle rocking a more a roller coaster ride, at some point in the night the shipped rolled so hard that chairs flew across the room and I felt myself nearly tumbling out of the top bunk.

Day 8: Farewell to Ice

It is now nearly cake time and we have spent the day riding the surf towards port. We left the ice behind at some point yesterday evening, but not without going out to the bow for group pictures. We lingered on the bow afterward, admiring the ice as it played in the waves. The ice was now worn by the waves, broken and hollow like Swiss cheese. The ice which was formed over the long Arctic winter was melting and being destroyed by the waves. In a few months’ time, most of this ice will be gone. Lance plowed through it without any trouble and it crumbled and crunched under the bow. It was time for me to say farewell to the sea ice but hopefully, it was not a goodbye. This morning the void left by the absence of ice has been filled by incredible views of southwestern Spitsbergen. It is easy to understand the origin name of the main island of Svalbard meaning “land of spikes” as steep, snow covered mountains punctuate the horizon and plunge directly into the sea. We visited the incredibly picturesque Bellsund where an ancient glacier spilled languidly into the Fjord. We have another 17 hours to of steaming until we reach port in Longyearbyen.


Farewell to ice.


Sea ice is disappearing. 2016 is on track to set a new record for minimum  sea ice extent. There may be a time in the not-so-distant future when sea ice no longer forms near Svalbard. I feel honored to have been able to experience the Arctic before the ice is gone and I hope that our work, in some small way, can contribute to our understanding of this fragile environment.

After the cruise, Peter, Pia, and I were invited to dinner at the home of Aleksey and Natalie. Over several bottles of wine, we discussed the nuanced beauty of the Arctic. Between the ice and the near constant cloud cover, the color palette is very limited, but the human mind is able to adjust and become sensitive to all the small variations in shade, shadow, and hue. The Artic takes on a supernatural beauty that is impossible to describe and for which pitctures simply cannot do justice.

A humongous thank you to Prof. Aleksey Marchenko and Natalie Marchenko who’s kindness, hospitality, and generosity I will never be able to repay, though I hope to try. A big thank you to the students, some of whom gave me permission to reproduce some of the pictures and videos here. Thanks of course to the other characters of the story: Benjamin, Peter and Pia Wadhams, Seb from Logistics, and the captain and crew of the R/V Lance. I am very thankful for the support from NRL, in particular Erick Rogers and Rick Allard.

I hope you enjoyed this 100% authentic story. If indeed you enjoyed this story, please help me spread the word by telling your friends and giving me a shout out on your favorite social media platform. If you have feedback, please don’t hesitate to contact me.


The Polar Bear Plunge: the video experience:

Ice Floe Frogging:

Polar Bear Action:

Ice Breaking:

Lance in Swell:

Working on station:

Ice Surfing:

Modelling the Survival Suit during the Safety Breifing:

A few extra photos that I love…

Bear Watch:


Ice Mechanic: