The Long, Cold Journey of Ice Station SHEBA

Climate scientists go with the floe

For the past 11 months, and until this fall, teams of scientists from all over the world have been hard at work near the North Pole, using a 300-foot Canadian icebreaker that has been intentionally set adrift in a ten-mile-long floe in the Arctic ice pack. Under the auspices of the National Science Foundation they are engaged in one of the most extensive (and expensive) weather studies ever. Its aim: to acquire enough reliable data to clarify one of the hottest issues of our time - the matter of global climate change and whether what appears to be global warming is a steady and potentially dangerous trend. "Everyone here," one scientist notes, "probably has a private opinion about that, but we have put it aside to do the science."

 Holly Menino's report and James Barker's remarkable black-and-white photographs make the reader part of the curious world of Ice Station SHEBA, where divers collect specimens from under the surface of 1 1/2-foot-thick ice with small vacuum cleaners, and surface scientists muffled in huge polar suits trudge through the snow carrying rifles to protect them from polar bears. SHEBA scientists joke about the "dreaded Arctic brain fuzz," and it is true that in temperatures of -15 degrees F and colder, not only do "hands stiffen and tools fall from the hand," but you have a tendency to talk to yourself. If the scientists do not debate global warming, they do talk a good deal about such things as famous Arctic explorers of the past, and about the detailed raw data they are gathering. "My job is not to wonder where the number fits in," one SHEBA scientist explained to Menino. "I wonder about whether it’s a good number."