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Category: The Arctic

Another update

Another update

We’ve been busier than usual the last couple of days, collecting temperature and salinity measurements as well as water samples from the deep. The weather although calm has also been quite dull, so I haven’t really had the inclination to take many pictures. However, while I was on the phone last night after finishing work the sky cleared up to leave a great sunset with the last few clouds just disappearing over the horizon. I took the first two photos at about half past midnight – they show just how light it still was!

We were back to work bright and early this morning though but the clear skies of the night before were just a memory and we had a fairly chilly day. The blue thing under tarpaulin in the picture below is a winch with three and a half kilometers of wire on it that allows us to lower instruments to the bottom and to take samples. The crane itself has only a little bit of wire and just holds a pulley over the side of the ship, so it takes a well co-ordinated crane and winch driving to swing things over the side! After the instrument package is in the water the crane driver can go and have a coffee and I can safely control the winch from my computer (USB winch anyone?) which is situated in the nicely heated and insulated shipping container just visible on the extreme right. Being inside is a good thing as it takes about two hours to lower the instruments down to the bottom and back, but it doesn’t have any windows so it’s a bit sad to be stuck in there on a nice day.

It takes such a long time to lower the instruments because although the package is very heavy in air it doesn’t weigh so much in the water. If we veer too quickly there will be no tension on the cable and it can loop and snag around itself in the water – or snatch as the ship rolls, which places enormous strain on the winch. Once the package begins to get deeper though we can speed up as the weight of all that wire hanging over the side maintains enough tension.

A couple of days ago while we were out at sea an unexpected roll, caused the tension to go very low and the wire got a loop in it, which then snatched tight. The cable survived, but the strands were horribly twisted and unravelled close to where the loop was so we had to cut it off at that point! The Norwegian term for this occurrence is getting ‘an Englishman’ in the wire. No one seems to know where the expression comes from though. I’m just glad this Englishman wasn’t driving at the time or there might have been a few jokes….

When the water is more than about a kilometer deep we can’t actually tell how deep it is using the echo sounder on the ship, because the speed of sound is influenced by the temperature of the water. We mustn’t lower the instrument package to the seabed as the ship will be drifting at up to a knot and the bottom may have nasty sharp rocks (or at least disgusting mud). To avoid hitting the bottom we have an altimeter on the instrument package that tells us how far away the seabed is, but it can only see about 80 meters – so we have to watch it carefully! Whats more when the package is it a depth of 3 km we might have let out as much as 3.5km of wire because the package drifts sideways a bit. Our deepest samples however come from only 5 meters above the seabed, so we have to wind the package up pretty quickly after we get them in case it pendulums downwards, or the ship drifts into shallower water. One final hazard to keep in mind while we’re doing this is that the end of the wire is not actually attached to the middle of the winch!!! There is so much strain on the wire if the ship rolls quickly that it’s just not possible to fix it there strongly enough… Instead it is simply held in place by always leaving a number of wraps of wire around the winch! If the current/wind is strong we can’t reach the bottom with the 3.5km of wire we have due to drift, so we have to remember to stop before we let it go like a kid losing a very expensive balloon. This idea terrifies me when we’re working late!

Anyways the joys of deep sampling are over for the first half of this cruise as we are now up on the East Greenland Shelf which is only about 250 m deep. The ice is also getting too thick for the ship, so we will continue to do out sampling using a small winch that we can take in the helicopter and lower small instruments over the side of ice floes. I’m including a couple of pictures of the helicopter hanger and the helicopter taking off. As you can see the weather is still a little grey….

My boss calls the guys lined up along the front of the hanger the ‘bug-men’ due to their funky helmets – you can see them better in some previous photos. I think they look quite cool, but I’m not exactly sure what their role is. They’re always just standing there observing us take off. Apparently if it gets really rough, and the ship rolls too much for the helicopter to land normally, it has to lower a cable and be pulled out of the air and down on to the deck using a winch!! So maybe the bug-men specialise in that kind of activity. If so I hope I never see them doing anything other than standing around looking mean.

Right all for now. Not quite sure if I’ll be out in the helicopter tomorrow or back on the ship processing data. Have to wait and see.


Ski-races and barbeque

Ski-races and barbeque

Just a quick update after an afternoon of nice activities. Today was May 1st which is a bank holiday in Norway. We took a few hours break from the science this afternoon and had some ski-races, followed by a barbeque on the ice. The ski-races took place on skis that some of the crew had made out of some spare pallets in the hold – so they weren’t exactly cutting edge! Still everybody welcomed the social opportunity after a period of hard work and the competition was pretty keenly fought!

After the races we had a really good barbeque out on the ice – we had to eat the food fairly quickly so that it didn’t go cold, but it was delicious and we were all hungry from the exercise so that wasn’t a problem!

It’s easy to forget that we are actually 200km out to sea on days like this. The ice beneath our feet is only about 1-2 meters thick, and underneath it the old Greenland Sea is still 250m deep. If it weren’t for the ice, there would be big blue-green waves and salty spray where we were walking today!

By late afternoon it was time to leave, so the ship was untied from the steel beams that had been used for mooring and we left the last human footprints that the bears will see for a while. As we are using up our supply of steel mooring points a bit faster than we anticipated we experimented with using dynamite to recover some of them from the ice! The beams are inserted into boreholes in the ice and filled fresh water which freezes them in place, so they can’t be pulled out easily.

Right, that’s all for now. It’s time to go and do some final lashing down because now we really are heading for open water and we’ll probably wake up in waves tomorrow morning. The forecast is pretty good though so we should be able to do work quickly and be back in the ice in a couple of days…

Another day on the ice

Another day on the ice

Had another fantastic day out collecting samples from the helicopter today. I was awoken up by the usual breakfast announcement and weather forecast over the ships intercom: Minus 15 and fog. I snuggled back under the duvet for at least an extra 10 minutes while contemplating the exact whereabouts of my thermals and thermos. Needlessly as it turned out, because it was too foggy to fly anyway. By midday the fog had burnt off though, leaving some stunning flying (and working) conditions. Which was lucky as my thermos turned out to have been incubating some coffee for about a week!

Anyways, we jumped into the helicopter at about 13:00 after having eaten our packed lunches on the ship, and headed towards the Greenland coast to try and bag some of the most westerly samples that we will collect. As we approached the coast, a distinct line was visible in the ice running north-south as far as it was possible to see in either direction (see picture below). This is the boundary between sea ice drifting slowly southwards over the East Greenland Shelf (left hand side ) and ‘fast-ice’ which is sea ice that is permanently frozen to the coast, and pinned in have run aground (right hand side). The ridge is the result of the moving ice being pushed up against the stationary ice.

Theoretically one could walk to Greenland from the western side of the ridge, as the ice doesn’t drift and there are very few leads (areas of open water). In fact, there were so few leads that we couldn’t find anywhere to deploy our instruments and had to turn around after searching for a while.

We did manage to land in the two other places we had planned to though, and both sites turned out to be quite spectacular, with big pressure ridges and blocks of ice, which had been pushed up as floes had collided.

The flying team is now generally made up of two oceanographers and one sea-ice specialist. Today Gorm came with Edmond and I so that he could make some ice thickness measurements. This basically involves drilling a hole in the ice with a very big and very long drill bit, then measuring the depth of the hole. You can see him and the drill bits in the the picture below. The ice is quite easy to drill through, so he can just use an pretty ordinary cordless drill at the end of that thing even when all the sections are stuck together.

The crew of the KV Svalbard were having yet another safety practise (these happen every couple of days, and I keep having to play the guy with horrible burns and smoke inhalation!) when we wanted to fly back to the ship, so we had to wait on the ice until the helideck staff had finished extinguishing a fake fire before we could take off to return – so we got to spend some time just admiring the scenery and drinking coffee which was really great. Usually we have be quite focused and work quickly when out on the ice so there’s not much opportunity to absorb the environment.

When we returned to the ship we got to fly several loops at quite low altitude while Edmond took a video of the ship out of the window to be used in …. another a safety simulation for the crew! Still it’s pretty cool to look out of the window and see people on the bridge at eye-level.

Ok well that’s all for now. The helicopter is back inside the hanger, looking a little sad lashed to the deck with it’s rotors pulled off. We’re heading back out towards open water tomorrow so there won’t be any flying for a while. We’re all going to have to have a bit of a marathon lashing-down session tonight. I tend to slip into living in ‘caravan-mode’ when we’re in the ice (leaving half drunk cups on tables, and not securing chairs) and that doesn’t make for restful night if the ship reaches the waves while your in bed. It wouldn’t be the first time my coffee table tried to climb into my bunk either…

Still, hopefully the weather will be kind to us!