The R/V Lance was again at 83 degrees north latitude Wednesday after members of the research voyage were forced to pack up their equipment on the increasingly unstable ice. The ship was ultimately pushed out of the sea ice due to a southward drift that reached a peak of 35 kilometers in one day.
More mobile ice
Norwegian Polar Institute Director Jan-Gunnar Winther said the experience has been useful. The purpose of the cruise is to follow the sea ice from creation to melting. There has been more single-year and less old ice in recent years, but scientists don't know the consequences of that change.
"The core of the project is to find out if we have described the sea ice correctly in climate models and the answer is probably no," he said. "We don't have good enough descriptions of the Arctic and the sea ice today, and that leads to more imprecise projections of climate change in the Arctic as well as globally. Clearly if we make climate models more precise the project has an enormous social value."
All of the Arctic is changing and one of most notable alterations is to the sea ice. The fact there is less ice is well known. Now researchers are concerned about first-year ice, and how developments in the balance of both mass and energy are changing. Year-old ice has a surface that is rougher and often comprised of smaller ice flows. That affects its ability to reflect heat from the sun compared to old ice, where the floes are larger.
Another difference is the young ice moves faster than old. That resulted in the Lance drifting faster than calculation models suggested.
"We are now drifting faster than we thought and that was based on 'best knowledge,'" Winther said. "It may be bad luck with the wind direction, but it may also be the new Arctic where things can happen faster. We don't know, but for us it might be interesting."
So the drift wasn't just an inconvenience?
"Maybe not, for that which has characterized the Arctic in recent years is precisely the unpredictable," he said. "The first of our operations differed from what is the assumed drift speed and direction. That was based on an average of what we know from operating in this area. If this is a new trend, we can't say for sure today."
Help from the Coast Guard
When the Lance drifted toward the ice edge, a decision was made to ask the Norwegian Coast Guard vessel Svalbard for help getting frozen into the ice again. The Coast Guard vessel has icebreaking capabilities and by Tuesday night it had escorted the research vessel to a suitable place.
"After the Coast Guard dropped off the incoming team they went north," Harald Steen, leader of the research expedition, told Svalbardposten a week ago. "Meanwhile the incoming team has taken down the equipment, so that should be all right"
There had just been a crew change on board Lance and a new group of researchers were expecting to remain in the sea ice until Easter. Instead, during the past few days they were busy packing equipment deployed around the ship and rigging it up again.
The declared purpose of the Norwegian Young Sea ICE Cruise (N-ICE2015) is to follow the Arctic sea ice "from cradle to grave" and is the largest project of its kind under Norwegian leadership. The budget for the six-month expedition is 50 million kroner and the scope of the project has given it international prestige.
Steen said he is is grateful the Svalbard showed up, since without that assistance the Lance researchers would have faced a longer delay.
MIllions following the voyage
Winther is following the developments in the Lance's voyage from the Troll Station in Antarctica. He's far from the only one.
"It is a project that is being followed very carefully from the main office and there is no doubt that if we continue as we have started we will collect an incredibly large set of data from a range from a time of year that will be unique," he said. "We are investing large resources."
The project is also being followed by fans worldwide, and there are many more eyes on the scientists and the boat in the ice after National Geographic published its first report from the vessel this week. The publication has tens of millions of readers and the article, "Adrift in the Arctic Ice," received about 16,500 hits online Tuesday evening.
Winther said the N-ICE2015 project is important for Norway on several levels. One is research, with several major Norwegian institutions focusing more deeply on the Arctic than usual. In addition, the project's international interest and importance will be heavily bolstered by researchers from ten different countries that are participating.
In addition, there is the political significance of an Arctic country like Norway having knowledge about and being active in the northern areas and the Arctic.
"It calls great attention to, and ensures a clear and obvious voice in the northern areas, and it strengthens our impact and authority to be able to refer to solid activity and knowledge," Winther said. "It is a statement that Norway is active in the north and has knowledge of the north. Therefore, Norway a stronger voice internationally."
Arild Moe, acting director of the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, said he agrees with that assessment.
"It is difficult to say anything about this specific project, but in general I would say that knowledge and research is one of Norway's greatest resources in the Arctic. One sees very clearly abroad that Norway enjoys respect for having high levels of knowledge. And to pay for a large project like this draws it further the same direction: Norway as a serious participant," said Moe, adding he believes such factors allow the country to speak with greater weight in organization such as the Arctic Council.
Was it high time for Norway to launch such a project?
"Yes, it seems in any case natural that Norway has engaged itself," Moe said.
The N-ICE 2015 expedition began Jan. 11 and is scheduled to be completed by summer.
Translated by Mark Sabbatini