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ARCdoc in the Arctic – final review

November 6, 2012

Our intrepid Arctic explorer, Matthew Ayre, has now returned from a profitable and enjoyable cruise in Arctic waters. Here is his review of his time in the frozen North.

Waiting in the departure lounge of Anchorage Airport, I was unknowingly about to learn first rule of travel in the Arctic: do not expect things to happen on schedule! I boarded my flight bound for Barrow, via Fairbanks and Deadhorse (yes, that’s the name!), still yet to make contact with any of my future crewmembers. Everything was fine until we reached Fairbanks “Sorry folks, runway is fogged out at both Deadhorse and Barrow”. Four hours later I was still in Fairbanks, still too foggy to continue further north and my flight was redirected back to Anchorage. Ushered onto a larger plane bound for Deadhorse, I departed Anchorage for the second time that day. Thankfully the fog had lifted by the time we landed at Deadhorse, only for a mechanical problem to ground the plane for a further 3 hours! Eventually I was flying west towards Barrow along the coast of Alaska’s North Slope, peppered with thousands of shallow lakes and rivers it was stunning view, finally landing in Barrow a mere 12 hours later that expected.

Once in Barrow I met up with the Healy’s science party and taken to the NARL (National Arctic Research Lab) huts where we would be staying. We had some time to look around Barrow before flying out to meet the Healy. At first Barrow seemed a barren and uninviting place, foggy and desolate but I soon came to change my views. With a rich cultural history, fascinating relationship with science and friendly local population I really enjoyed my short time there and hope to return one day.

A short but exciting helicopter ride later I was finally aboard the Healy, issued with a pager so I could be contacted by anyone onboard and shown my room. I ended up sharing with Chad and Ben, both National Ice Centre observers who I would be working closely with over the next five weeks.

The Healy headed due north once everyone was aboard, the fog once again causing some delay. Within 48 hours I saw my first piece of ice! A large piece of melting multi-year, time to start my observations!

In order for my experiment to work I need to get sets of parallel observations, one using the historic terms and one using the modern. Chad and Ben from the NIC would be making the modern observations and I would be making observations using the terms defined by William Scoresby Junior in 1821. It was agreed observations would start at 10am and be taken every 2 hours up till 8pm. Alongside the actual ice observation, position, wind direction and wind speed would be recorded.

Everyone aboard was assigned a watch, to monitor the multi beam sonar that was being used to map the sea floor. I got lucky and my watch 12pm to 6pm, there being 4 of us on watch I was still able to complete my ice observations.

 I had a couple of preconceptions about the sea ice before I had actually seen it. First I presumed being there in the end of summer all I would see was ice in various stages of melting and secondly that ice the was relatively static. In reality the ice is extremely dynamic, constantly being moved by the wind. Also we saw all stages of ice development, from newly freezing grease and nilas ice to rotten ice. 

I had been worried I may not see any ice at all! This year saw a new record low sea ice minimum in the Arctic, with a large storm melting a lot of ice before I’d left even left the UK. Thankfully I saw much ice, despite getting as far north as 84N we were almost constantly in the Marginal Ice Zone. This was good for my observations as this is where the whalers hunted, but it is not good for the Arctic in general as at that latitude is usually solid pack ice.

The highlight of the cruise, apart from getting a lot of good data, was seeing five polar bears, including a mother and cub! It’s amazing to see them in their natural habitat out on the sea ice, hundreds of miles from any land.

We didn’t see any whales up in the ice but were treated to a few sightings when travelling south through the Bering Strait to Dutch Harbour, Unalaska, where I was to leave the Healy.

It was truly an amazing experience that as forwarded no end my understanding of sea ice and the conditions the whalers worked.

I would like to thank Professor Larry Mayer from University of New Hampshire for letting me aboard, Jack Wolskin York for providing me with the gear to keep warm up there and finally the crew of the Healy for ensuring a safe and successful cruise for all aboard.

I wasn’t aware there was a blog of the cruise until I was in it! So here is a slightly belated link to everything that was going on:








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