The full moon broke free of the clouds and lit up a winter wonderland off the ship’s bow. In every direction stretched a delicate layer of new sea ice, some sections glowing white and others imperceptibly dark against pools of inky water. There were cracks and ridges, streaks and smudges. A gentle swell from the nearby open water morphed the icescape minute by minute.
We had been motoring north from Nome, Alaska, for four days. This was our first sighting of ice, and it was more spectacular than I had imagined. Standing on the bridge, blanketed by a hushed awe, my blurry understanding of what we were able to do that November eased into focus.
The ice had been a hypothetical concept until then, a distant material that, according to smart people, was going away too quickly. It was a diminishing white blob on animated maps. And then there it was in front of me, long after the fishing vessels and intrepid cruising boats had headed south to seek shelter. At the beginning of November, we should not have been able to motor even that far north into the Chukchi Sea. Thick, multiyear sea ice should have blocked our path, defiantly defending the coast eight months out of the year.
Instead, this thin layer of freshly frozen water parted in front of us with nothing more than a tinkling as it slid down the sides of the hull.
That is why we were there: to learn from the interactions in the new Arctic. I was with scientists from the University of Washington, led by Jim Thomson, who holds a doctorate in physical oceanography. The team wanted to better understand the role waves play in this part of northern Alaska.
Historically, waves did not come into play in the Arctic. There is protection from all sides by pervasive ice and continental landmasses, so there was hardly ever open water for waves to build.
Today, though, places like the Chukchi Sea sometimes spend half the year free of ice. Thomson wanted to understand how waves, created by storms and now with more room to grow, were affecting the coastal sea ice.
We were aboard Sikuliaq, a 261-foot research vessel commissioned and owned by the National Science Foundation. She has a sloping, icebreaking bow and a hull that is 2 feet wider forward than aft, to reduce resistance when pushing through thick ice. Her propulsion system includes Icepod, which has 360-degree thrusters for maneuverability and redundancy. Research technology and accommodations for 26 scientists are on board. The name Sikuliaq comes from the Inupiaq word that means “young sea ice that is safe to walk on.”
Aboard Sikuliaq for a month, our days took on a routine punctuated by the occasional dramatic moonrise in a pastel sky, a distant sighting of a polar bear, or freshly baked pastries in the galley. The team took samples and measurements on a 24-hour, rotating schedule. As the outreach correspondent, I shared their work on social media, wrote blogs, hosted livestream events and tried to stay out of the way.
The ice captivated my attention every day. I could never have imagined the array of personalities frozen water could take. There were messy discs jostling for space in the swell, a cellophane surface dotted with frost flowers (my favorite), mountainous concrete ridges and delicate, symmetrical icy fingers. Every day, the ice reminded me that I was in a wild place ruled by elements well outside the purview of humans.
The sun slipped below the horizon one afternoon with low, heavy clouds flinging snow sideways, and didn’t return the next day, or the next. Some days, we motored through open water, the ship rolling gently in the buffeted waves. Other days, we had to yell to be heard over the screeching and moaning of ice grinding down the hull.
Every day was cold. There was a perpetual flurry of scientists and crew layering and delayering on their way between the negative temperatures on the aft deck and the cozy, warm lab.
Thomson kept one eye to the weather. The best data set would come from a storm. The strategy was to position the ship at the edge of newly formed sea ice along the coast when a big winter storm rolled in and then watch, measure and record the show.
At the end of the month, our storm event appeared. For three days, 30 knots of wind hounded the region, breaking up the layer of ice trying desperately to take hold. The waves generated by this relatively meek storm (as winter storms in the Arctic go) battered the ice. Then, they hounded the shoreline, amplifying the erosion.
As the ice retreats, more private vessels will ply these waters, testing their grit. Some are successful, many are humbled, all are changed. Everyone I have met who has spent time in the Arctic agrees: It casts an inescapable spell over its visitors. It injects some magical brew of struggle, wonder, humility and mystery, indescribable to anyone who hasn’t experienced it for themselves.
Standing on the deck of Sikuliaq, hair whipping in my face and eyes stinging in the driving wind, I felt the awe-inspiring beauty of this place. As a cruiser, I will be drawn to return for many years to come.
This story originally appeared in the November/December issue of Passagemaker Magazine.