Going with the floe

8 November 2012

The email was one of those ones that stop you in your tracks: “As a Greenpeace supporter, and newly elected member of the local Greenpeace General Assembly, would you be interested in spending a week on the Arctic Sunrise, investigating the largest summer melt of the polar icecap recorded since observations began?”  Despite the short lead time, my answer was a quick Yes!

Day 1 First glimpse of MV Arctic Sunrise over breakwater

Shuttle by RHIB (Rigid hull inflatable boat)

A few weeks of hurried bookings, a trip to Brisbane to get a mariner-style medical certificate and a myriad other details, and my wife and I headed for a quick two week trip around Scandinavia so that we could both get the feel of the region. This included a beautiful boat trip along a fjord near Bergen, followed by a train trip across the high country of Norway where snow lingers year round. Then it was goodbye to my wife who flew home, and north for me, to Longyearbyen via Tromso. Landing on a runway made bumpy by the melting of the underground permafrost (a curious effect of global warming), and walking in a light sleet to the terminal, was a good introduction to the week spent on and around the archipelago of Svalbard, a protectorate of Norway.

The group of guests for the week included journalists and video crews from Norway, Turkey , Mexico and Argentina, along with Greenpeace reps. With 18 permanent crew, the total complement was 30, covering about 10 languages  with English the common denominator, closely followed by Norwegian, which is where this vessel is registered and the campaigner in charge, Martin Norman, and his wife and a number of other crew are from there. There were also a couple of Kiwis and an Aussie, with the remainder from all over. During the week Martin proved to be a mine of inspiration as well as information. My cabin mate was Anastasios, known as Nacho, who as Third Mate did the 8 to 12 shifts morning and night.

Monday afternoon was a briefing and we intended to leave then, but two people from Mexico had missed their flights, so we stayed overnight and on Tuesday morning went into Longyearbyen to visit the excellent local museum (government funded, and in the same building as the Norwegian Polar Institute). This was both informative and quite saddening as it chronicled the 300 year destruction of local populations of whales, polar bears, silver foxes, reindeer, birds etc, and also explained the history of coal mining there, which has been undertaken by the Norwegians, Russians and Americans for a century or so, and is still going on despite requiring a government subsidy to make ends meet. It is ironic that Norway generates 98% of its electricity by hydro, the last 2% is by coal, here, and the remaining coal is exported (which alone generates more greenhouse gases than all the cars of Norway). So Longyearbyen is both a beautiful place with snowcapped mountains and wide vistas, but also a rather ugly place with industrial relics, a coal fired power station on the main street, and an aridness created by earthworks which remain uncovered by foliage as all that grows there is grass, and then only with help to get it going.

After lunch on Tuesday our last guests arrived and we raised anchor at 1600. By the time we had gone west a mile or two the temperature had dropped and  it started snowing.

Wednesday morning, and we were rudely awoken as we dropped anchor about 120 kms north at a town called Ny-Alesund, which is 79 degrees north and 1231 kms from the Pole. It not only has a population of just 50, mainly researchers in weather etc, but also boasts the world’s most northerly store, pub, train (not working but ex mine), and a number of other “mosts”. After breakfast we went by RHIB to visit a glacier which has retreated significantly, to the point that some land thought previously to be part of the main island, is now seen as a separate island. On the way we passed a Greenland Seal resting on a small iceberg (we had to nudge our way through perhaps a kilometre of floating ice which had calved off the glacier. Because the glacial ice is fresh water, it stays frozen as the sea temperature is a little lower than that (salt water does not freeze till colder). For these trips Andreas, our local guide carried a Very pistol for firing startle shells, and a rifle, both to ensure that polar bears stayed away. He made it clear that he would try everything to avoid having to shoot at a bear, particularly given the role of Greenpeace. The comment was made that shooting the person closest to the bear would probably cause less paperwork…

After lunch back at the ship we went off again, this time to view a glacier from the same spot it was photographed nearly 100 years ago, and also 10 years ago (by Greenpeace). As it happened, the glacier is largely unchanged from 10 years ago, but much reduced from the first photo. The ebb and flow of glaciers is pretty complex, being affected by deposition rates over thousands of years and various freeze/slip effects to the rock below, so the story is complex. Overall, though, there is a worldwide acceleration of the rate of ice melt, which is attributed by scientific study to be largely the result of burning fossil fuels.

Our last stop for the day was at the village of Ny-Alesund where we sent postcards from the world’s northernmost Post Office and inspected the local museum.

Thursday was our day for garbage collection on the island of Moffin. The Norwegian authorities are very strict about keeping the area pristine. They do some beach cleaning themselves and organize groups of volunteers to go to more remote areas. The location we visited has not been cleaned in recent years as it is closed for most of the summer to allow undisturbed bird nesting . By mid-September, when this restriction is lifted, it is not normally possible to get here because of early new ice, as we are at 80degrees north. The island is about 1 km long and half that wide. We arrived in two RHIBs to find a walrus colony occupying the lee where we wanted to land, so we came ashore in bumpy conditions. By approaching carefully, we were able to approach to about 25 m without disturbing them. Our guide had warned that the group, which were all males, would be characterized by burping, farting and fighting – which rather reminded me of a typical football club. It was most impressive to see them close up, the larger ones having tusks about 30 cm long, and they weigh in at about 1.5 tonnes! When you think that their main food is scallops it makes you wonder if they are such a lean and healthy food!

My cabin shared with Third Mate

We then moved to the main activity which was  beach cleaning. As the island seemed to have a maximum height of about 2 m, this meant the whole island, as it obviously gets washed across by late waves during storms. There was quite a lot of driftwood that could have come from as far afield as Russia or the Gulf of Mexico, as the Gulf Stream runs past here, and actually keeps flowing north under the pack ice. One concern for the health of the planet is that these currents are in large part driven by the cooling effect of the sea ice. “No ice, no Gulf Stream” is a real possibility.

Apart from the wood, 12 people picked up enough rubbish in a fairly short time to fill several trash bags. The content included fishing nets and spherical floats, plastic and glass bottles, miscellaneous plastic and a variety of odds and ends including a high heel shoe!

On returning to the Sunrise for a late lunch, we found it tricky getting aboard as the wind had stiffened and a short sea was running. However, the crew are very experienced and manhandled everyone aboard safely. With the breeze freshening a return to the island was discounted, and so we raised anchor and set off following the 80th Parallel to find the edge of the pack ice.

At about 4 a.m. the pack ice announced itself through the ship by a crunching noise, initially at spacings of a couple of minutes and then more regularly as we pushed into denser ice. By about 9 we were in amongst floes that were on average about 20 m across, with the occasional one twice that size. They are typically flat topped as they are formed from frozen sea surface, with a dusting of snow on top. Coverage is about 80 to 90%. The conditions were now cold enough (-5 during the day and a little colder overnight) that the gaps between the floes freeze overnight, and only break apart again as wind pushes them all around. Before long this area would lock into a single sheet for the winter. After passing a number of floes showing Polar Bear tracks, we nudged up against a 40 m floe which was to leeward and the crew made the vessel fast using anchors drilled into the ice floe.  We then went “ashore”, both for the experience of being there, but there were also interviews done and photo shoots in best Greenpeace style, using Crime Scene tape to make the point about the impact of global warming:  that the large multi-nationals are targeting the Arctic for exploitation, despite being the ones responsible for unlocking the carbon stored in coal and oil which is now destroying the ice.

After lunch, a polar bear was spotted about 500 m away. She (general view of those who recognize bears by head size etc) was obviously aware of the ship but showed little interest apart from looking and smelling our way from time to time. She eventually meandered off to the east, loping from floe to floe. We then packed up and headed southeast, bumping and crunching our way through the ice till about dark, helmed from the crow’s nest by experienced pack-ice navigator, Arne Sorensen.

Valley beyond Longyearbyen

The next morning saw us steaming south along the coast we had previously passed going north. By late afternoon we arrived off Pyramiden, an abandoned Russian coal mine site. After dinner, in the lounge (seating for about 8 or 10) someone ran a Norwegian movie called Trolls which was like a cross between the Blair Witch Project and Men in Black and was about a guy who works undercover for the government to stop trolls from rampaging into human territory and generally to stop people believing that they exist. I found it very funny, despite having only been in the country for a week. There is no doubt that humour is a necessary part of healthy living in a confined space such as an ice breaker.

At 9 we boarded the RHIBs to go ashore at Pyramiden. At its peak it had 2000 people there. Started early in the Twentieth Century, it was destroyed by German battleships in WWII, rebuilt, and operated till the late 1990s. Then the crash of a Russian Tupelov approaching Longyearbyen in poor weather killed all on board, who were mostly associated with the mine. Given this misfortune on the top of unprofitable operations, they just downed tools and went home, leaving the doors open and everything as it was. There are now 2 Russian caretakers who work to keep the doors locked against polar bears and do a little guiding of sightseers in the summer. A strange place to visit, a real ghost town, even with its own statue of Lenin, as political time froze here but moved on in Russia.

After lunch we went over by RHIB to a glacier which calves into the fjord, and spent some time in the floating ice with the engines off, just absorbing the majesty of nature and the awesomeness of its silence. It was sobering to think that in a few short decades there may be trees growing on the hills and windsurfers on the fjord, with the Polar Bears and other animals existing only in the museum.

With a last raising of the anchor, we headed down the fjord, dropping anchor back in Longyearbyen in time for a final evening on board the Sunrise. As I left the ship next day, I was saddened to say goodbye to new friends, both crew and visitors.  I had also had the opportunity to see life in the raw where changes we make to the planet mean death to species and irreversible changes to pristine wilderness. On the upside, I was inspired by the Greenpeace team who have an amazing commitment to preventing the worst from happening, and steering the world towards a sustainable future. They are a team worth supporting.

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