Arctic Journal

“At −40°C, electric cables become hard as sticks, the little humidity in your breath turns immediately to ice, and you shouldn’t keep your eyes shut too long without a mask if you don’t want your eyelids frozen together. But most importantly, don’t move too fast or engage in anything too intense. Sweating, even under layers of thermals and an armour-thick down jacket, can upset your body temperature with dire consequences.”

As the cab negotiated its way to the airport in the suddenly crazy traffic of Fashion Week in Milan, I was going over all the recommendations I had gathered in two months of preparation. At the end of February, the city was already warming from the approaching sun and I was comfortable in just a shirt. But some three days and five flights later, I would be the farthest North I had ever been, boarding the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Amundsen, a Canadian research icebreaker sailing through the same Northwest Passage a group of five Norwegian explorers had navigated more than a century ago. It had taken the group, led by Roald Amundsen, three years to sail through the passage on a wooden sailing boat with a small auxiliary engine. In winter, they camped on the coasts to wait for the ice to clear. Amundsen’s diary of those days is a chronicle of patience, endurance, and self-confidence.

For a reporter at a large business newspaper in Italy, this trip was an exception. I was not new to covering environmental issues, but I had never spent so much time together with the scientists I would have to write about. And I never thought I would venture to the Arctic Circle in winter with only my hand luggage and a pair of Italian shoes. The rest of my luggage was stuck in Heathrow and this was all I had with me when I boarded my second-to-last flight to Inuvik, Canada’s northernmost town and the last stretch of land I’d walk on before flying out to the middle of a sea of ice.

The DeHavilland Twin Otter landed on a 200-metre strip of ice at 71°N, 125°W. The cabin is not pressurized and even with earplugs, I still feel all the plane’s movements right in my head. Landing on this strip of ice looks like an attempt at collective suicide, but it turns out to be much smoother than the bumpy landing of a large plane.

The Amundsen, with its 100 metres of steel and comforts ranging from satellite Internet and television, washing machines, and a little gym, was something the Norwegian explorers wouldn’t have been able to imagine. Nor could they have guessed at its task. The Canadian government had assigned the vessel to scientific research for the International Polar Year (an international, interdisciplinary scientific program focusing on the Arctic and Antarctic) in spite of, according to the rumours I hear on board, the government’s denial about climate change. It seems that not everyone is unhappy about the warming of the Arctic regions. That which is profoundly disturbing to these scientists is seen by shippers and businessmen as a future potential for new drilling opportunities and faster routes connecting Russia and China to North America and Europe.

As I’m walking on the ice—or pack as it’s known up here—towards the Admundsen, loaded with two cameras, a laptop, and a small digital video camera, in my Italian shoes, I can’t help thinking it was worth every mile. The journey alone is an experience. A few hours later we spot a polar bear from the main deck. In spite of the fog you can see it clearly a few hundred meters away, stripping bits of flesh and fur from a freshly captured seal.

The ship is comfortable and all the scientists seem eager to talk about what they’re doing. I’m here as one of the winners of the Amundsen Competition launched by the World Federation of Science Journalists and will spend 15 days trying to understand why the Arctic is so meaningful to climate researchers. The scientists on the Amundsen come from all over the globe and from so many different disciplines that within 100 metres you can meet physicists, chemists, marine biologists, or any one of a number of specialists. The climate is probably the most complex system humans have ever tried to describe. I thought that it hadn’t yet been seriously tackled with an interdisciplinary approach, but it’s actually happening out here in the Beaufort Sea in this unique arctic laboratory.

The first day on the ship we wake up to a new patch of ice at 70° 58′ N, 123° 55′ W, just south of Banks Island. We will stay here for three to four days if the north-easterly winds of the coming days don’t blow too strongly and push us south towards the mainland. Schedules are getting busier and there are three teams out on the ice sampling ice-cores, catching zooplankton, and measuring temperatures and concentrations of CO², mercury, and other air pollutants. My eagerness to have another bear sighting has been dampened by our chief scientist Gary Stern and the rest of the crew, who have warned us to be extra careful about wandering around by ourselves. The ice ridges are the hiding places of the largest land carnivores—the hungry polar bear.

Dawn in the polar regions is a godsend when there is no fog. Coming up on the deck later that week, I thought I had suddenly landed on Tattooine, the planet with multiple suns where the young Luke Skywalker grew up before following the ways of the force. Ralph Staebler, a researcher for OASIS-Canada, quickly shatters my city-boy dreams. He tells me I am looking at a “sun-dog,” a common phenomenon in the Arctic produced by sunlight reflecting off of tiny ice crystals suspended in the dry Arctic air. It’s a bright spot, similar to a rainbow only circular. There are two—one on each side of the sun, like two smaller stars shepherding the larger, brighter star in between. The effect is spectacular and captures the attention of both newcomers and seasoned polar dwellers.

My cabin phone rings a few minutes before noon. “Hey if you’d like, you can fly out to fetch your bags at Sachs Harbour,” says Gary. Sachs Harbour is the only community on Banks Island and home to a couple hundred Inuvialuit. “Be on the helipad at 3:30. Dress warmly!” No need to twist my arm. I’ve been peeking inside the hangar at the white, red, and blue Twin Huey, a Bell 212 sporting the graphics of the Canadian Coastguard for days now and bugging Gary about when, if possible, maybe, I could hop a ride.

Flying at these latitudes is completely different. Fog, vapour, and ice crystals reduce visibility enormously and all navigation is done by instrument. Only very experienced pilots are allowed to fly here, and they always fly in pairs: one for the instruments and one for the steering. At 100 knots, a few minutes in the wrong direction would cost us precious litres of fuel. Without fuel you might end up having to land on the ice somewhere and wait for hours—if you’re lucky that is—for the Amundsen (the only ship at sea!) to come and rescue you. At −40°C or −50°C in the blowing wind, that doesn’t sound like much fun. The flight goes by smooth as silver and as we carefully land in front of our hangar, a crackling from the radio tells us the kitchen has kept a couple of dishes warm for us.

My bags are not there. I come back without my possessions but with a camera full of pictures. We are also bringing back a present from Sachs Harbour: two large and heavy boxes of muskox meat, an Inuvialuit treat that I’ve been wanting to try since my arrival. The flight alone is worth the trip. I finally get a bird’s eye view of the “flaw leads” everybody is talking about: an intricate network of canals in the ice that appear and disappear according to the winds. These patches of open water are becoming ever more frequent in the area—the very reason the Amundsen and its scientists are wintering at sea. In the barren white and icy landscape, they look like warm rivers as the water, barely above -2°C, lets out clouds of vapour into the -30°C air.

What you understand following researchers in the field is that the data you read in scientific publications and reports are distilled out of days of relentless, hard work. One single figure is often the result of dozens of assays, samplings, filtrations, and surveys. This is how scientists get results. It is not an easy task. We’re on a $250 000 000 ship powered by six 16-cylinder diesel engines with state-of-the-art equipment connecting us to the outside world, but research in the Arctic still takes a lot of luck and creativity. The rosette, for example, a paramount piece of equipment that provides daily samples of water from as far as the bottom of the ocean, has broken a component that must be rebuilt in the metal shop on board. This means at least a 24-hour break in sampling.

During the last days on the ship, we are greeted by high pressure and clear days as we sail north. The scene is magnificent. If it weren’t for the cracks and openings that reveal the open water below, you could almost mistake this lake for one of those dry salt lakes that are ideal for racing cars. Gary is grinning. In front of us lies the peculiar mix of thin ice and open water he has been hoping for. This means the scientists will have a chance to observe how CO² is released into the atmosphere, and to witness ozone and mercury depletion events. No big breakthrough, but an important bit of arctic science could happen here today.

The green laser light is flashing as Jeff Seabrook, a PhD student at Purdue University, operates the now-functioning lidar, a special kind of laser that uses three different light frequencies, much as radar uses radio waves. We wear thick dark goggles because the beams, although invisible, could harm our eyes. The installation process is not yet complete but is coming along nicely, and tomorrow the instrument should be churning out the first data on the ozone 10 metres above sea level. The aim of this experiment is to observe and record ozone depletion events: sudden and still-mysterious falls in ozone concentration.

I’m also on the lookout for seals and bears as my last 24 hours in the Arctic approach. It’s a good spot, some of the crew tell me, as we are close to Banks Island and the open water should attract seals and make it an appealing hunting ground for bears. The last highlight of the day was a chilly but wonderful walk on the ice at night. The 25-knot wind and the -30° air temperature feel like -50° on my skin. But the view, with streams of snow whistling on the pack, was just unbelievable.

My last full day on board is a lesson in creativity. Ralf Staebler’s sled is finally out on the ice gathering data on CO² in the atmosphere and giving Leif a chance to set up refractors for his air analysis system. It takes about an hour of hard work on the windy pack, two kilometres west of the Amundsen for Ralf, Leif, Phil, and Roc to get it to work properly. Then Ralf’s laptop crashes because of the cold. Things don’t look too good when even sticking it into Ralf’s parka to heat it up doesn’t seem to help at all. Finally someone has the idea to sit the laptop on a running engine of one of the Ski-Doos. Not something you’d find in the instruction manual, but the untested protocol works fine. No beers to celebrate tonight because the bar is closed, but an iridescent sunset greets us as we return to the ship.

A few more hours and the Twin Otter will land on the runway traced onto the ice just west of the Amundsen to fly Wayne and Bart (the two reporters from the Winnipeg Free Press), Helmut (the researcher working on CO² chemistry), and me back to Inuvik. Fifteen high-school students and teachers will then fly in, as well as Emily Chung, another of the winners of the WFSJ Amundsen Competition that brought me here. It’s been 15 days packed with discoveries, learning, and wonder at the vastness of the Arctic. My trip is coming to an end but the scientists’ work continues.

I return to the bustle of city life with images from this place, one of the most hostile and pristine environments on our planet, engraved in my memory. I also have a more precise understanding of how the environment we live in is our life support system, and how this system is being endangered. Ice is a perfect example of how generous and fragile our ecosystem is. Knowledge of its inner workings and of the complex feedback network regulating climate change is progressing, thanks to the work of many passionate and dedicated researchers. But now I know we all need to change our daily lives if we don’t want our future to melt away.

Guido Romeo is a reporter for the Italian business daily, Il Sole 24 Ore, and writes for Vogue Italy. In 2008, he won the World Federation of Science Journalists' Amundsen Competition.