Facing Polar Bears, Isolation, Researchers Explore Arctic Sea Ice

Mar 21, 2015

Photograph by Nick Cobbing

By Andy Isaacson

82.44 Degrees North—We’ve drifted across the frozen Arctic for 30 days. Four miles here, ten miles there—a squiggly red line on the ship’s digital chart is the only measure of progress.

Trapped in ice, the Lance meanders at the mercy of wind and current. Some days, low, moist clouds engulf the ship from the south; on others, cold northerly winds chill it by 50 degrees. Switched off at this latitude for four months of the year, the sun now rises higher each morning, casting long shadows off surface ice ridges and snowdrifts as it traces a low arc across the horizon.

From January to June, in six-week stints, scientists are on board the Lance, a research vessel operated by the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI), to study how the ocean, atmosphere, snow, ice, and biology all interact in the Arctic amid a backdrop of significant warming. “Right now we’re just trying to take as much as we can, because this is a one-off opportunity to get this data,” said Amelie Meyer, an NPI oceanographer. “And nobody’s got it.”

Isolation has settled in. The Lance is currently some 250 nautical miles from another human dwelling or vessel—farther than the distance between New York and Washington, D.C.

At one point, a polar bear crossed our path, paused for several days to sniff at the weather masts and strange-looking electronic instruments it encountered, and then eventually moved on.

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