June 22, 2010 | 1
Editor’s Note: Haley Smith Kingsland is an Earth systems master’s student at Stanford University specializing in science communication. For five weeks she’s in the land of no sunsets participating in ICESCAPE, a NASA-sponsored research cruise to investigate the effects of climate change on the Chukchi and Bering seas. This is her first blog post for Scientific American.
It’s a curved region of frozen sea encircled by Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Sweden and Siberia: the Arctic Ocean. The first few days aboard the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy, I yearned for more eyes because I couldn’t see enough. Raindrops smattered my wide-angle lens as I meandered from bow to fantail across a 420-foot ship equipped with a basketball court, helipad, and barbershop. I learned to pry open latched doors shaped like those of a hobbit’s abode; to dodge control panels with buttons larger than lozenges that glow navy, green, and orange. Pipes, wires, and cables of all lengths and thicknesses decorate my stateroom. My ears hear new lingo like ladderwell, scuttlebutt, and mustang suit, and my feet slowly become accustomed to the drag of wool-insulated steel-toed boots. I measure chlorophyll among members of the science party, generations of academics both vocal and soft-spoken. The captain says the research labs remind him of "a science fair without the posters describing what’s what." I bump into cryotubes, bungee cords, and beakers. Peek into a cold room for shocking phytoplankton with light.
In the Bering Strait my bearing grows. The Healy pauses for our first research stations near the Diomede Islands, one Russian, one American, with clouds nestled over them like a kid’s unevenly applied frosting on cupcakes and ridges specked with snow. Some days the ocean blends into the sky; others it forms a distinct horizon. Ripples undulate within waves. Scientists deploy an instrument from starboard that measures the ocean’s reflection; an A-frame lowers another from stern that scoops sea stars from bottom sediments. Some details I notice only in my photographs—a few seabirds’ wings above their bodies in flight, a few below, but all beaks pointing south. A gloved fingertip about to nudge a piece of equipment. The wheels of an optical package resting on the surface before dropping into sea. Three crew members peering over a bucket.
Uncanny, ethereal, surreal… no word is right for the sight of walruses sprawled on sea ice at twilight as we cross the Arctic Circle, 66 degrees 33 minutes North. Their skin rusts in the midnight sun and fourteen of them scrunch on a chunk. On another piece, I count eight. Two are swimming. Their bodies are pyramids with a small blip atop from which two canine teeth extend—ivory tusks. Through my porthole ringed seals perch on the edge of diagonal lines of sea ice and rotor clouds that look like horizontal tornadoes stretch from horizon to horizon. One windless night I amble back to my bunk and catch six orange bodies in red hard hats coring through an ice floe. The sun oozes through haze and the scientists look like aliens. In this place that most will only glimpse on a map, I hope to absorb these instances, flashes of existence that flicker as fast as water sampling bottles fire at precise ocean depths.
Image: Haley Smith Kingsland crossing the Arctic Circle. Courtesy of Karen Romano Young.