The Cape Farewell Expedition's Brush with Disaster


Image courtesy of Cape Farewell.
This guest post was written by Joy Guillemot, an ecological anthropologist and environmental health scientist currently completing a PhD at Johns Hopkins, as part of the Cape Farewell project.

"Bring only your passport and dress extremely warmly. The helicopter will arrive in 40 minutes."

Before it was announced, I had already prepared my things to abandon ship. Danger was not retreating against the running clock, and the highly skilled crew was anxious. I felt a bit silly being hyper-prepared, but flashbacks of working in high-security and humanitarian emergencies simply told me the eventuality of evacuation was likely this afternoon. Time to think ahead and find my flashlight. If we had to airlift 24 people off the ship, the crew would need help preparing for a night bivouacked in the Arctic.The sails had been raised in an effort to give the ship more fighting power against the force of the icebergs locking in around us. And lowered in defeat. The icebreaker ship needed to crack the compressing ice sheets was 20 hours away. With the engines churning at full capacity, the arsenal of techniques and options out of this situation was being exhausted.

If we couldn't push through to clear waters fast enough, the danger of being locked in the ice was clear to everyone. Whether we were making headway against the ice flow, or only being swept along with it was impossible to sense. The crew had little control over the direction of the boat, but resisted submission to the ice that seemed to push us steadily away from the clear waters of safety and toward an outcropping of rocks.

How much time did we have before we hit the rocks? Twenty to thirty minutes maybe? Were we advancing fast enough against the force of the ice flow to miss them? Hard to tell.

The multidirectional movement of the ice distorts all sense of direction, time and distance to the untrained eye (and later I discovered even to the trained crew). It was hard to judge the probability of the boat being crushed against the rocks by the ice with any greater precision than "very possible." The Norwegian coast guard was notified of our position, and a helicopter dispatched for our rescue.


Image courtesy of Cape Farewell.

In a comical reprieve from the tension on deck, our attention turned like children at the zoo to the polar bears that had also started to surround the boat. As if somehow the presence of fluffy white bears made the prospects of the boat being cracked open by ice or rocks somehow less dangerous...but nonetheless, we snapped amazing pictures and reveled in the energy and beauty of this hopefully once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Despite their grace and deceivingly docile demeanor, the proximity of the bears called for "all rifles on deck." A polar bear on deck is to be avoided. Yet even our guide with a rifle over the shoulder, a flare gun in one hand, had his camera in the other, and like us all was amazed by this beautiful creature who struggled to keep her eyes open as she rested her head on her paws, like a cocker spaniel lying on the hearth.

Now dressed like "penguins of the North," in every layer of wool and gortex we owned, and with passports in our pockets, we cheered on the crew to reach clear waters before the helicopters reached us. The prospects of being lifted in a harness and flying hundreds of meters above the ice in the arctic wind sounded exciting, but certainly not appealing. Particularly knowing our "safe location for the night" would be the abandoned wooden sheds of a 1960's Swedish science base seen the day before.

We fell into this situation because the behavior of the ice simply exceeded the captain's 16 years of experience in these exact waters, and his unfathomable instinct and knowledge of the sea. Our first mate told us, "We can normally read the ice and understand the movement of the flows and which maneuvering techniques should be used." The combination of the wind, currents and possibly pressure from another ice sheet was pushing the icebergs in an unexpected way none of the crew had seen before.

The summer of 2007 currently holds the record for the smallest surface coverage of the Arctic ice cap in recorded history. The summer of 2010 is proving to be the runner-up. As the ice cap covering the North Pole melts, vast amounts of loose icebergs are being pushed southward and whirled around the Svalbard peninsula.

In the explanation of what was occurring by our resident oceanographer Dr. Simon Boxall, "Yes, we have found the North pole, it's just drifted a long way." For the navigation of the Noorderlicht, it means there is much more loose ice than expected for September, and it is moving unpredictably through the straits and fjords we are sailing.

The amount ice is jeopardizing our ability to circumnavigate Svalbard as planned, which is normally possible this time of year. Already sailing along the northern coast was impossible by the southern drift of the icecap, and now the channel separating the two landmasses is choked and dangerous. We came on this trip with Cape Farwell to witness the impacts of climate change—today we got the message.

Today proves again, in a changing climate we cannot count on the future being like the past. Adapting to climate change means we sometimes have to accept the limits of our existing knowledge, and start to adjust how we seek and use information to make decisions.

Although the ship had a number of different instruments and the best information available, it wasn't adequate to give us enough early warning of the dangers ahead. The ship receives daily feeds of satellite imagery that show the density, location, size, and movement of the ice flows around Svalbard. However, this color-coded guide to safety and danger had two limitations.


Image courtesy of Cape Farewell.

First, the satellite only passes once a day at noon. The break up of the ice sheet is now happening so quickly that an image 12 or 18 hours old gives much less reliable information on the location of the ice. Second, it was Saturday. The Norwegian Meteorological Office doesn't update its website on the weekend. The information available was not timely enough to be an accurate guide out of these dangerous conditions. Although theoretical knowledge and scientific principles could predict the rare phenomenon of how the ice behaved, knowledge of such a possibility was not even in the lexicon and toolbox of an experienced sea crew and captain.

Fortunately, as soon the polar bear lay down to wait for the shipwreck, the ice began to shift and open up allowing us to reach the open water. The helicopter arrived a few minutes later, checked our safety with a low fly by and headed back to Longyearbyen.

Our narrow escape was due in equal parts to luck, sailing skill, and a favorably changing wind. But today's experience certainly reiterated the critical importance of applying scientific knowledge about what could be possible and making better use of information for early warning about complex changing conditions.

It seems along with the flashlight and gortex, we need an arsenal of information to prepare for and safely navigate the surprises that climate change has in store.

Follow the Cape Farewell voyage on the 2010 expedition blog.
Read more from Cape Farewell:
Reconciling Arctic Expectations with Modern Realities
DJ Spooky Tells the Political Tale of Two Poles
DJ Spooky at the Ends of the Earth

Tags: Arctic | Global Climate Change | Oceans