"Had our course throughout the last few weeks continued we would have been out of the ice in a few days," said Harald Steen, leader of the project for the Norwegian Polar Institute. "On average, the distance to the ice edge shrunk by five kilometers per day, with peaks of 35 kilometers per day."
Svalbardposten.no reported last Saturday the ship was about to be forced out of the ice, and the crew and researchers participating in the prestigious project were preparing to pack up the equipment set up around the vessel.
The R/V Lance departed Longyearbyen on Jan. 11, heading north for a place where it would freeze into the sea ice. On Jan. 14, at 83.2 degrees north latitude, the vessel allowed itself to be frozen in while the Norwegian Coast Guard vessel Svalbard deployed sonar devices in a 20-kilometer radius around the Lance. In addition, the Lance crew placed sonar devices around the ship and set up various laboratories on the ice.
On Saturday morning, the vessel was at 81.8 degrees north latitude and the ice edge was approaching slowly, but surely.
"We're drifting awfully fast southwards," Steen told Svalbardposten last Friday. "We have entered a path that is not entirely pleasant. When planning this operation we planned for several drift courses, and we have been unlucky and experienced a storm. It appears that we have moved a long way southwards."
Winds coming from the north during the previous couple of weeks had resulted in drift speeds of up to 0.9 knots, or in excess of 1.66 kilometers an hour.
"It is uncomfortably fast and we had that for several days," Steen said during the satellite phone conversation.
The floe the Lance is frozen into is solid, but as open sea closes in the edges begin breaking up like crackers. Steen said there were numerous meetings among those on the ship, and preparations were being made for a breakout and move.
There were no plans to abandon the research cruise, since the Lance could either seek a new hole in the ice to freeze into or receive assistance from the K/V Svalbard with its icebreaking capabilities, as happened during the initial freeze-in.
Heading north again
But on Sunday the storm came and the ship began to be pushed northward again. As a result, Steen and the others are relaxing a little and dropping their worries about a restart after coming out of the ice one month ahead of schedule. Much of the equipment on the ice is frozen solid and a tightly controlled packing would have probably taken three to four days.
"At seven o'clock this morning the wind changed from west to east," the project leader reported Sunday afternoon on the expedition's official blog (www.npolar.no/en/expedition-field/n-ice2015). "At nine o'clock we had winds of five to six meters per second and were heading northwest, and the speed increased. At the time of this writing, we are cruising at 0.8 knots with a wind speed of 10 meters per second in the back."
The same storm also brought heavy precipitation and hurricane-force winds to parts of southwest and northeast Svalbard, and gale-force winds to Longyearbyen.
The Norwegian Polar Institute's sea ice project has a budget of 50 million kroner and is one of the biggest projects of its kind under Norwegian guidance, giving it prestige on an international scale.
The purpose of the expedition is to follow the ice "from cradle to grave" and the Lance has now been frozen in the sea ice for more than a month. Data collection, according to cruise leader, is going according to plan and the scientists on board have essentially achieved what they planned.
The exception is days when the temperature approaches minus 40 degrees Celsius. With the wind chill, the effective temperature has been as low as minus 60 degrees, making it irresponsible to be outdoors for more than a few minutes at a time. Equipment doesn't always function well at low temperatures and cables tend to crack.
"The outdoor activity then is limited to the absolute minimum, with full tarpaulin covers and not many out there," Steen said. "Otherwise, there have been fine working days with a lot of clear weather."
There have been no frostbite cases or accidents on the ship's deck. Logistics are also working well and participants are reporting they've been highly effective during their research time.
"The ship has worked out just flawlessly," Steen said. "The researchers have gotten themselves onto the ice every day there has been visibility and temperatures allowing it. There are only one or two days we have not been on the ice."
Life is good in the ice
Onboard are 20 scientists and a crew of ten. There was a crew change this week, which will work with the researchers until late March or early April. The ship will then return to Longyearbyen to take on a new team of researchers before heading north again to freeze into the spring ice for another three months.
It is starting to get light with several hours of good visibility during the day, but earlier during the winter polar bear guards had to put their trust in a spotlight sweeping over the area, an infrared camera and a separate headlamp. It was a lonely feeling.
Even more lonely would be an incident on the ice more than one kilometer away from the ship, where researchers have a base on the ice. If that occurs, however, they have emergency equipment for several days and the ability to communicate with crew aboard the Lance.
"It is remarkably simple," Steen said, describing everyday life in the sea ice.
"Scientists get up in the morning for breakfast, work all day and have all their meals served. Three great meals. You almost must put on more weight."
On Friday, the Lance was drifting south and at about 81.5 degrees north latitude.