Connected Even on a Ship in the Arctic

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Not that long ago, going on a research cruise would have meant being out of contact with the world for weeks, maybe months, at a time. Today, though, satellite connections mean that you can easily keep up with the world—and the world can keep up with you—even on a remote ship in the Arctic.

The icebreaker Healy is ferrying 42 scientists this spring through the Bering Sea, where they’re conducting studies of sea ice, phytoplankton and seabirds, among other things. The ship also carries a photographer, Chris Linder, and a writer, Helen Fields (she wrote about dinosaur tissue for Smithsonian in 2006 and snakeheads in 2005). Chris and Helen are onboard to document what happens on the ship, and they publish Today on the Ice daily. Helen is one of a few people Twittering from the ship, and I’ve also been following her on Facebook, her blog Hey Helen and Scientific American’s 60-Second-Science. And when I emailed her last week, she was kind enough to answer some questions.

Why did you decide to take this assignment?

Seriously? There may have been jumping up and down and shrieking when I found out I got this assignment. I thought it would be fascinating to spend six weeks on an icebreaker on the Bering Sea, and I was right. I did worry that I wasn’t quite tough enough, but this has to be one of the cushiest ways to experience the frozen north. There’s a galley turning out four square meals a day, for goodness’ sake. And I’m convinced I have the coolest job on the ship – I spend the whole cruise going around asking people what they’re doing. I’m learning a little bit about everything, from the ship’s potable water system to how scientists figure out what krill like to eat.

Since you mentioned your four square meals, what is the food like?

It’s fine. It’s cafeteria food. I think they do a very good job of feeding 42 hungry scientists and 80 hungry Coast Guard crew members every day. It would be easy to put on a lot of weight on this cruise, with easy access to french fries, onion rings, and pie. I try not to eat pie every day. And I have a new rule: I can eat dessert if I eat something from the salad bar, too. I have been accused of putting carrots next to my dessert so the carrots can soak up the calories from the dessert, then throwing the carrots away, but there is no truth to this rumor. I eat the carrots, too.

What did you find most surprising when you first got on board the ship?

My stateroom is so much nicer than I expected. I can sit up in my bunk and there’s even carpet on the floor.

What has surprised you since?

Pretty much everything. The crew in the galley yells “brown tray” if you use one of the brown trays. (Don’t use one of the brown trays.) A Laysan albatross and a bald eagle have about the same wingspan. The ramp they put out so we can walk down to the ice is really freaking steep. The perfect instrument for moving krill is a Chinese soup spoon. Breaking ice slows the ship way down and is an inefficient use of engine power, so a lot of what you do when you drive an icebreaker is find ways to avoid breaking ice.

How do you spend your days?

I really like to nap. Oh, and work! Work. I’m working with Chris Linder, a fabulous photographer who has a grant to do a series of expeditions like this one, where he takes a writer and they report on a polar research project. Usually sometime in the morning we meet up, chat about what’s going on around the ship, and decide what story we want to do that day. Then we go report the story. He takes pictures and I take notes. After dinner we pick the eight pictures that will be on the web site the next day, then I write an introduction and eight captions. We have some ideas stockpiled – one of these days we’re going to do a story about how the ship moves, from the steering on the bridge to the propeller shafts and rudders in the back of the ship. I do take a lot of naps – being on the ship is sort of exhausting – but I also hate to miss anything, because I only have these six weeks to have this amazing experience. I could watch sea ice all day.

What kinds of animals have you seen?

Ooh! Today I saw my first ever albatross! It was a Laysan albatross. Two of them hung around the ship for a while. I was also excited to see snow buntings and McKay’s buntings in recent days, and to learn to tell a glaucous gull and a glaucous-winged gull apart. I’ve seen a ton of bearded seals and spotted seals, many with their babies. They give birth on sea ice, and some of the pups are so new you can see blood on the ice – once I even saw two gulls snacking on the afterbirth. I know, ew. On the fourth day of the cruise we passed a ginormous conglomeration of walruses – hundreds and hundreds. The bird surveyors on board, who also keep track of mammals, said they hadn’t seen a group like that in years. We’ve seen other walruses since then, but never more than a few at a time.

How do the scientists spend their days?

They work. Then they work, then they work some more. These people have just these 40-odd days to collect a ton of data, and they’re willing to sacrifice sleep to do it. Some also find time to do things like watch movies and knit. (I’m not the only knitter on board!!)

What kinds of science projects are taking place?

Oh golly. Well, the work on board is all part of a big project to understand the Bering Sea ecosystem and how climate change could affect it – for example, if sea ice retreats earlier each year, or disappears entirely. It’s a huge project, incorporating everything from algae to birds and walruses and the people who live in and around the Bering Sea. This cruise is looking mostly at water, algae, and zooplankton. So, the smaller end of the ecosystem. As we go along, we stop at certain set sampling stations that are being used by many scientists over many years. At some stations, the scientists just make observations, like how much chlorophyll is in the water, and what kind of zooplankton, and how salty the water is. At others, a whole bunch of teams start experiments at the same time – for example, to see what krill eat and how fast they eat it, or how fast phytoplankton can suck up carbon at different light levels. Eventually the astounding quantities of data coming out of this cruise will be turned into computer models that will help scientists understand how the Bering Sea ecosystem works – and how it responds to climate change.

You may be connected electronically, but you’re still far from home. What do you miss the most?

My family and friends. It’s pathetic how happy I am when someone e-mails me with news from home. Also, crackers. There are Ritz crackers and saltines on board, but they all taste a little like plastic.

Have you discovered any shipboard romances or feuds?

I haven’t! I probably just haven’t found the right sources of gossip. I heard before I came out that these cruises can be kind of tense, with everyone worried about getting their data or someone getting mad that the other guy got to do his sampling when something else was cancelled, but these scientists all seem to get along really well. There’s a lot of laughter. And occasional profanity-filled tirades, but directed at equipment or ice, not people.

What’s the weather like right now?

Crazy warm. It was 39 degrees the last time I looked, and a few days ago we were getting excited about the temperature getting all the way up to 22. This evening I went out to watch some scientists put their sediment traps in the water and, with the sun shining and the wind blocked by the ship, it was uncomfortably warm for a little while there. (Then the wind found us and my ears got cold.)

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