"The expedition has been a success,. We have done what we wanted!" exclaimed Harald Steen, the expedition's leader and project manager for the Norwegian Polar Institute, as he looked down from the deck of the RV Lance on Wednesday morning. The research vessel sailed into Adventfjorden the previous afternoon to complete its 141-day expedition.
Under his supervision, the crew and researchers spent the day unloading, sorting and packing equipment before the vessel's departure for for Tromsø.
"We have laid in permanent ice for 111 days," he said. "The rest have been spent transporting back and forth."
In mid-January the ship cast off from Longyearbyen, heading for the ice north of Svalbard. Accompanied by the KV Svalbard, it traveled up along the west coast of Spitsbergen. The Norwegian Coast Guard ship, using its icebreaking capability, helped the Lance reaches its target of about 83 degrees north latitude, where the ship was allowed to freeze into the sea ice. Since then scientists from ten countries have gathered data from on, over and under the ice during the expedition known as N-ICE 2015. The researchers are keen to find how first-year ice affects climate, the environment and wildlife, and now the data will be processed.
N-ICE 2015 is the largest Norwegian ice cruise of its kind ever, with just the use of the ship budgeted at 50 million kroner. In addition, considerable amounts were spent on equipment and other resources from research institutes.
The expedition also has prestigious value for Norway, with National Geographic and other major media entities following its developments. In addition, the Crown Prince and Princess visited the ship and stayed on the ice, while NRK visited to film a documentary about climate change.
20 centimeters thinner
The researchers examined the first-year ice, which is becoming increasingly prevalent, following its progress from "cradle to grave." During periods the ship was frozen in, it drifted lazily with the ice. At some point the floe starting dissolving, and on four occasions the participants had to retrieve their equipment from the ice and prepare to relocate. While the ice sheets were dissolving, the researchers followed them with instruments to determine how quickly the melting occurred. Water currents determine how quickly the ice melts, which during its peak saw the thickness reduced by 20 centimeters from the underside in one day.
"The whole is an exciting game – for how long can we stand?" said Steen, who revealed that one challenge was the the risk of losing important measuring equipment in order to monitor the melting for the longest possible period of time.
"But we lost no equipment of importance," he said. "Some disappeared, but that was expected. So we've kept at it for more than five months and the wear is great on equipment that might not be designed for use at 30 degrees below zero."
The coldest temperature was 42 degrees Celsius, accompanied by an all-out storm, during which everyone stayed indoors. There were no cases of frostbite, but a participant who slipped on the stairs suffered a minor foot injury.
Polar bears may not have been seen daily, but the total number of observations was roughly equal to the number of days in the ice.
"One one leg we had a bear that was very much around us, so then we had to 'speak out' in the usual way that we didn't like this," Steen said.
That meant firing warning shots from a signal pistol.
What was discovered during the expedition?
"To highlight something special, I dare not do now," Steen said. "We will see when we're analyzing. So far the focus has been on gathering data."
One thing, however, they noted with surprise: there was a lot more snow than they expected and this snow affects the ice by being forced down by gravity. In addition, the insulation of the snow prevents the ice from reaching a certain thickness.
"One can blame the climate and weather changes, but one obvious certainty is more precipitation," Steen said.
In addition, there is melting that varies with the water temperature. In some places researchers have observed ocean temperatures rising sharply, while elsewhere it has been well below zero.
The reason for the temperature variations isn't clear. One possibility is the areas with more open water allow warmer water in the lower layers to mix with the upper layer due to move waves.
In recent months, there have been multiple overflights of the Lance. The goal has been to learn how to interpret measurements of ice from airplanes and satellites, and the crew aboard the research vessel has taken measurements examining the same area. As a result, the precision of sea ice monitoring should be more accurate. In one instance, signals were captured from a point that didn't make sense to the researchers and, when the point was examined from the ground, it turned out a thick skin of frost had formed. It was not spotted by the planes and satellites.
The results will now be analyzed, interpreted and published. Afterward there may be a new expedition. Steen said he envisions it coinciding with the completion of the new research ship Kronprins Haakon in 2017.
Does spending so much time in the ice ensure everyone becomes well known to each other, for better or worse?
"Yes and that has gone well. There have been no conflicts or episodes. There are professional folks," said Steen, who calls N-ICE 2015 his lifetime expedition.
"I think that most people feel that," he said.
Translated by Mark Sabbatini