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RRS James Clark Ross

RRS James Clark Ross.

Arctic expedition 2010

Science writer and broadcaster Richard Hollingham is joining this year's Arctic cruise onboard the RRS James Clark Ross to report for the BBC and Planet Earth online. He will be keeping a daily blog of his experiences for both the Scottish Association for Marine Science and Planet Earth online.

The polar regions have fascinated me since childhood. I think I was eight when I undertook my first expedition to the Antarctic. It was August and I'd loaded up the sledge (go kart) with supplies, pitched a tent (a blanket and two chairs) and set off across the icy wasteland (the garden). My mother claims it was one of the hottest days of the summer but, nevertheless, I was wrapped up in my coat and hat to recreate Captain Scott's epic journey to the South Pole. My younger sister – a reluctant companion – doesn't have such fond recollections of the expedition. Maybe she developed scurvy.

Richard Hollingham

Richard Hollingham as a child (on the left)

For the next few years my ambition remained to become a famous explorer although, unlike Scott, I would live to tell the tale. At some point I chose radio presenting instead, hedging my bets by getting a degree in Applied Biology. However, I never lost my love of the ice and as a science journalist I've been lucky enough to visit Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey and BBC (twice), as well as Greenland and Svalbard.

It's not only the isolated beauty of these places that attracts me, or the challenge of getting there, but the scientific mysteries that remain to be explored. By understanding the Earth's polar regions and the changes that are taking place there, we can learn more about the entire planet. What happens in the Arctic and Antarctic ultimately has an impact on all our lives.

I feel privileged to have been invited on this scientific cruise and hope you enjoy following our progress as we head into the ice. Once we're underway, I plan to post daily updates, as well as a Planet Earth podcast and pictures.

Return to the ice

Dr Jo Gregory, Jen Riley and Helen Atkinson

We're heading back to the ice. We set sail from station KF4 on the Svalbard shelf, where the landers were deployed, around lunchtime. Our destination is a patch of open water in the middle of a huge area of ice east of Greenland. To reach it we need to pass through a lot of ice, which takes time because the ship can travel through ice only very slowly.

One of the scientists on board is especially happy about returning to the ice – here's the first of our scientist profiles.

Helen Atkinson

I'm a third year PhD student at the British Antarctic Survey and the University of East Anglia studying halogen (bromine and iodine) emissions in the sea ice zone.

I'm especially interested in the emission of compounds which contain iodine from phytoplankton living in sea ice. When sea ice freezes, pure water freezes first – the salts are expelled and a concentrated brine mixture forms.

As this brine drains from the ice, it creates a network of interconnected channels which run through it, making it porous. The brine channel network also provides a home to small photosynthetic organisms called diatoms. Some diatoms are known to produce compounds containing iodine, but the link between diatoms living in brine channels in sea ice and the concentration of iodine species measured above the ice is not well understood.

My experiments on board the RRS James Clark Ross have focussed on the sea ice. While we were moored at the ice station north of Svalbard I made many ice cores, to establish the vertical distribution of diatoms and halogenated compounds. I also made daily measurements of the sea water underneath the ice, and the air above it.

So far, I've seen higher concentrations of organic iodine and bromine compounds in the sea ice brine which is really exciting.

I enjoy being surrounded by sea ice – it's the most beautiful scenery I could ever hope to look at, an endless expanse of white and the most beautiful shades of blue, the occasional polar bear strolling nonchalantly past, birds swooping round the ship.

I also love studying sea ice. It's the most fascinating stuff and the fact that it can support lifeforms at the bottom of the food chain is one of the reasons it is crucial to life of earth. I feel privileged to be working as part of this team on board the JCR, everyone's really enthusiastic and friendly. I'll be sad to leave, but only a few days of science left for me now.

Posted on 8 July 2010 | Comments (0)


More Watery Facts

Dr Jo Gregory, Jen Riley and Helen Atkinson

Alongside the hectic science schedule that is currently taking place on board, there are also people working round the clock in the various departments of the ship, keeping us safe and afloat, fed and watered, and living in real comfort. We thought it would be of interest to give you an insight into some of the goings-on 'behind the scenes' and so, today, we carry on our watery theme.

Arctic landscape

Arctic landscape.

Every day the basic activities onboard of washing, cooking, and drinking consume on average about 10-12 tonnes of water and although we can store some water onboard in large tanks, we also have to be able to make our own fresh water while out at sea.

To do this, sea water is drawn up from around the ship, boiled and then condensed to form deionised distillate (ie fresh non-salty water). The JCR is eco-friendly when it comes to water production. It passes the collected sea water into a low-pressure area, so that it boils at a much lower temperature than usual (around 58°C in an 85 per cent vacuum), hence saving energy, and it also recycles the waste heat produced by the engines to do the water heating.

This fresh distillate is perfect for scientific use and can be transferred straight to the scientific tanks, but in order for it to be safe to drink, it needs to be passed through a mineraliser. It's a process a bit like all the bottled mineral water you can buy, although for our water, as well as providing it with a degree of 'taste', it is also essential to help us maintain all the required mineral levels needed in the human body to protect our bones, amongst other things.

In 'ideal' conditions the ship makes about 20 tonnes of water each day, which is more than enough to cover requirements, but there are times when the ship cannot produce fresh water. When stationary or within 12 nautical miles of the shore, the ship cannot produce water for fear of taking in sea water contaminated by sewage or bacteria. Also when the ship is in ice, the sea water suction system has to be switched off for risk of being blocked up by chunks of ice and slush.

This brings about water shortage problems on our current cruise, as we are often stationary doing science; sat in or travelling through ice; or working just off the shore of Svalbard. So, we're all having to be careful with our water usage and hoping the storage tanks are big enough to cope, or it'll be no showers or laundry for us – and using the clothes pegs for our noses instead!

Posted on 7 July 2010 | Comments (0)


Water Water Everywhere

Dr Jo Gregory, Jen Riley and Helen Atkinson

Much of the science we do involves sampling water. This can involve coring through the sea ice (as we did on leg two, when Richard Hollingham was onboard), but also often involves sampling the sea water with an instrument known as a CTD.

CTD sampler

CTD stands for Conductivity, Temperature, Depth.

We have mentioned the CTD many times before but many of you reading our blog may not know what it actually is, how it works or even what CTD stands for. So here is the low down on what it's all about in less than 200 words...

CTD stands for conductivity, temperature, depth

It consists of a large metal frame holding 24 10-litre airtight bottles which can collect water from any depth we choose in the water column. We take all the water we need from these bottles for lots of different tests looking at physical, chemical and biological properties.

Attached to the frame is the really clever part of the CTD which is basically a computer recording the conductivity, temperature and depth of the water. This is used to understand the physical properties of the oceans such as ocean circulation, currents and different water masses.

We need a whole range of people to help us deploy the CTD. The ship's AB (able-bodied seamen) team, led by George, lower the CTD over the side of the ship using a very strong wire and winch system. Up in the lab Paul, our in-house CTD guru, controls the computer telling the CTD what to do, whilst Estelle frantically writes down all the measurements that are being made and tries to get a sensible answer out of the rest of the science team as to what depths they all want to sample.

Since the beginning of leg one of the cruise the scientists have, to date, undertaken 44 CTD castings and so they form quite a large component of the science work done onboard. The length of time taken to analyse the samples collected in each CTD is very much dependent on each particular scientist's area of research, but with just one CTD often providing them with a subsequent whole day's worth of work in the lab – it explains why we often don't see the scientists much between breakfast and bedtime.

Posted on 6 July 2010 | Comments (0)


Leaving Svalbard for the next leg

Dr Jo Gregory, Jen Riley and Helen Atkinson

Today is the first day of sampling on leg 3 of JR219, or Arctic expedition 2010 as it's become known, and also the first day for the new blog team. We've said a fond farewell to Richard and some scientists from the previous legs (we left them in a bar in Longyearbyen watching a world cup match).

Leg 2 was successfully completed last Friday – we hope we have enough samples to understand the sea ice and associated biology... time will tell. After two days of 'rest and recuperation' moored in Svalbard, science has now started in earnest again.

Overnight we sailed to Kongsfjord and are now currently sat at the base of a glacier flowing into the sea. So far we have deployed landers (oceanographic measuring platforms which sit on the seabed) and megacorers, as well as the usual CTD and snowcatchers. We'll sail from Kongsfjord to Greenland and back over the next ten days, hopefully seeing some more sea ice along the way.

Jo, Jenny and Helen

Jo, Jenny and Helen.

The aim of this leg of the cruise is to investigate interactions between the seabed sediments and the ocean above, relating the carbon and nutrients to the biological organisms and physics of the seawater.

Over the next week the new blog team will try to explain some of the science on board, the reasons behind it, and introduce you to the scientists on board. First let's start with us – Jo, Jenny and Helen.

Jo's the BAS (British Antarctic Survey) doctor on board. She does an excellent job of keeping the scientists in good condition, which includes jobs as onerous as removing splinters! Jenny's in the second year of her PhD studying at the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) in Southampton working with the snowcatchers, looking at sinking particles in the upper ocean; and Helen is a third year PhD student from BAS/UEA (University of East Anglia) measuring emissions of iodine compounds from sea ice algae.

Posted on 6 July 2010 | Comments (0)


Richard finishes his leg of the expedition

Richard Hollingham

Richard Hollingham

Richard Hollingham

So here we are back at the rough end of Longyearbyen. We berthed at the coal dock this afternoon. Standing on the monkey deck, I realised the coal conveyor was almost immediately above my head.

The journey here was unremarkable (and very calm) and I won't mention much about last night's party. You can draw your own conclusions from the fact that there were only three people at breakfast this morning.

For me, this is the getting off point but when you look at the itinerary you realise there is plenty more science to be done. The next leg will see the ship head towards Greenland before returning to Svalbard for some further work off the northwest of these islands. And there's some serious hardware on deck waiting to be dropped into the sea, including a yellow robotic submarine and 'landers' which look more suitable for a space mission.

Leaving the ice

Leaving the ice.

To find out more, you'll have to keep reading this blog which, after a couple of days rest, is going to be taken on by scientists Helen and Jenny, as well as doctor Jo.

So what are my impressions? It's been an incredible couple of weeks and I feel immensely privileged to have been involved in this expedition.

To stand on the Arctic ice, within 1000 km of the North Pole, was remarkable in itself. But then to see all the life that far north was a revelation: from the polar bears and the almost perfectly white ivory gulls, to the clumps of algae under the floes and microbes in the ice itself. To have walked on snow that no-one's ever walked on, and never will again, and to look out over the constantly shifting landscape of ice floes are experiences I will never forget. I even enjoyed the bear watches.

Everyone on the ship has been welcoming and the scientists have gone out of their way to explain what they're doing. I've learnt a great deal and must say a particular thanks to Ray Leakey for inviting me on this expedition. The Planet Earth podcast featuring the work on the ice was posted today, Monday 5 July – see the link on the right hand side of this page.

Now, I'd better turn my attention to packing. How on Earth did I get it all in the suitcase?

Posted on 5 July 2010 | Comments (0)


An army of bears

Richard Hollingham

Richard Hollingham

Richard Hollingham

After almost eleven days in the ice, it seems strange to be moving again. We were out of the pack in no time, the floes getting smaller and smaller until open sea lay ahead. Because we've drifted so far south, it will only take a day or so to reach Longyearbyen, Svalbard.

The morning hadn't started so promisingly. The worst fog we've had so far this trip enveloped the ship.

Every so often someone would remark that it was lifting or the Sun was breaking through, only for the fog to close in again. We imagined an army of bears surrounding the ship, ready to pounce if we dared venture onto the ice. Maybe we've been here too long.

Eventually, just after lunch, the fog cleared enough for people to get onto the ice for the final time. There were still a couple of experiments to be retrieved – most notably a line carrying a string of instruments hung through a hole in the ice.

I was able to take the opportunity to do some final recording. Now the ice is melting, it makes a lovely sound as you walk – the top layer partially collapsing to give a very satisfying crunch. We've also been shooting some video to show Ray's students what life is like on the ice.

Ship in ice

Ship in ice floe.

With the final instruments gathered up and the marker poles collected, the floe was clear. The only changes to when we arrived were a few more holes, footprints and the tracks left by the skidoo. It won't be long before the floe has completely melted into the sea, leaving no evidence that we'd ever been there.

Colin holds the distinction of being the last one off the ice – although there was some debate among the crew as to whether they shouldn't leave him there. With an increasingly out-of-control beard and a gun slung over his shoulder, Colin looks like he belongs.

The moorings were untied, the decks cleared and we slowly moved away from our ice station at 16.18 (14.18 GMT). We gathered on the aft deck for a group photo of the trip so far and started preparing for an end of leg two party.

So, now the news you've been waiting for: the results of our bear watch competition. Third Officer Ben has compiled the total (although no one apart from him quite understands the method) and here is the final tally.

With the third most bear watch shifts: Richard, second is Jo and first – by a substantial margin – Jeremy. Heiko and Helen receive honourable mentions for actually spotting bears.

Tomorrow will be my final day at sea.

Posted on 2 July 2010 | Comments (0)


Who's spotted the most polar bears?

Richard Hollingham

Richard Hollingham

Richard Hollingham

All around us the ice is breaking up. As I write, small, broken fragments of ice gently nudge the ship. Another floe bumped us this afternoon and the moorings were adjusted as we pushed past. Our ice station is stained with grey patches of meltwater and slushy pools.

Anyone driving the skidoo has to take a tortuous route around increasingly deep ponds. Near the ship, the ice looks perilously thin and the crane has to winch people ever further onto the ice.

The science on the ice is also coming to an end. Final dives were made this morning and instruments packed away. A few bits of equipment remain on the ice, along with poles and a rope that disappears down a hole. This is strung with instruments to be retrieved tomorrow morning.

Ice breaking up

Ice breaking up.

The science teams have been given today to remove crucial instruments. The rest need to be off by midday tomorrow when we break free and start heading back to Longyearbyen for the next leg of the expedition.

In the labs meanwhile, the work continues as normal. I watched Jenny analyse zooplankton faeces under the microscope and Soren is studying ice crystals. Heather's still frantically filtering, and out in the lab on deck, Deborah is feeding microbes.

I don't mean to sound flippant, there's some fascinating – and completely new – science going on here. Certainly makes for interesting dinner conversation, even the plankton poo.

There's a bit of a competition going on over who's done the most bear watches. I reckon it's between Jeremy (IT specialist), Jo (doctor) and me (media). I'm pretty certain Jeremy is the winner but then Heiko weighed in with the claim that scientists should be given extra points for having to break off from their science. As if IT, medicine and journalism aren't as important. I countered with the suggestion that those who've actually spotted a bear (like me) should also be awarded bonus marks. I'm off now to do another watch so I can bump up my total.

Posted on 1 July 2010 | Comments (0)


Return of the polar bear

Richard Hollingham

Richard Hollingham

Richard Hollingham

Two things happened today which served to emphasise the perils of working on the Arctic ice sheet. At around five o'clock this morning, a bear entered the ice camp. After investigating a mooring, it headed straight for the dive holes and the metal box that had briefly contained the Mars bars and coffee.

Giving the box the sort of thorough going over that even airport baggage handlers would be impressed by, it managed to knock a large dent in the side and force the clasp to get at the contents.

Unfortunately for the bear, there were no longer any tasty snacks in the box – just a first-aid kit. Disappointed, it headed off to look at some of the experiments. The ship's horn was blown several times but to little effect, suggesting perhaps that this bear had visited before.

Bear damage

Bear damage.

It occurs to me that if you're a polar bear, there aren't going to be many things you're frightened of.

For a lesser ship, the other event could have been much more serious.

All day on the port side of the vessel there has been open water, with the nearest floe some 200 metres away. However, during the evening, an ice floe started moving towards the bow of the ship on the port side. As we were tied up on the starboard side, this pancake of ice had the potential to tear us from our moorings. A small boat would have been crushed between the two floes.

Experienced at dealing with this sort of thing, Captain Graham powered the ship forward against the ice, allowing the floe to pass by on the port side and our moorings to remain intact. I happened to be on the bridge at the time but otherwise, like most people on board, I wouldn't even have noticed.

Apart from the occasional drama, we've got into a comfortable routine over the past couple of days: breakfast at 7.30; deploy the snowcatchers and CTD; start the lab work; get the first bear-watchers started before winching people onto the ice; 12.00 lunch; more work on the ice; 6.30 dinner; more ice and lab work.

Although the weather sometimes disrupts the plans, that's essentially how the days have been panning out.

But this is all about to come to an end. Last night, Ray posted a sheet on the board in the lounge: experiments need to be off the ice by the end of Wednesday. Seems it's almost time to leave.

Posted on 30 June 2010 | Comments (0)


Life under the Arctic ice

Richard Hollingham

Richard Hollingham

Richard Hollingham

After only a little over a week, the RRS James Clark Ross is starting to feel like home. I know my way around, recognise all the people and even know where the pens are kept (which is more than I do at home).

I think I'm getting a sense of what the ship feels like to the crew who spend four months on board and why they have such affection for the vessel.

Second officer Simon reckons one of the great things about life at sea is how the view changes every day. Certainly here, the ice is shifting all the time – leads open, floes collide and ice gets piled up in ridges. Each morning, the view from my window is slightly different.

We woke to fog which postponed operations on the ice. It didn't stop the science though. As usual, just after breakfast, the CTD (conductivity, temperature, depth) was winched over the side. On the way up, it collects water from chosen points.

CTD being lowered

CTD being lowered.

This water is destined for a selection of experiments on board including Heather Bouman's. In her lab, she's set up a series of devices to extract algae from the water. Resembling inverted milk bottles, the water is sucked through filters.

Heather then analyses these to work out how much life there is and, as far as possible, what it is.

What's surprising is that while there appears to be a good deal of life immediately beneath the ice, matted together in clumps, there doesn't seem to be so much in the water column itself. Certainly nothing like the amount normally found in temperate waters. It would make sense if there wasn't much life at all – after all for a substantial part of the year the sea isn't only covered in ice, it's under 24 hours of darkness.

But why is there life beneath the surface and not the water column? What happens to this life in the winter? Does it adapt somehow or die out?

This is a unique environment and investigating the effect the ice cover has is fascinating. The bigger question is: what happens when you take the ice away?

With this year heading for one of the lowest amounts of Arctic ice coverage on record, an ice-free Arctic is not such a crazy notion.

Posted on 29 June 2010 | Comments (0)


Living with polar bears

Richard Hollingham

Richard Hollingham

Richard Hollingham

The scientists and crew on the ship have mixed feelings about polar bears. They're magnificent, beautiful creatures, completely at one with the terrain (the bears, not the scientists). On the other hand, they completely mess up the day (again, the bears).

Our eighth polar bear of the expedition was spotted just before 10 o'clock this morning, some 3km off the bow. Twenty minutes later, the creature was sufficiently close that the captain decided to recall the teams from the ice. Within nine minutes everyone was back on board and the bear was most definitely heading our way.

A beautiful morning

A beautiful morning.

Those who weren't on the bridge gathered on the deck as the bear approached the end of the mooring line, intent on having a chew. The ship's horn was sounded, sending the startled animal trotting off towards the diving holes.

After peering in a hole to see if there were any divers (fortunately, safely back on board), the bear had a go at the lock on one of the nearby equipment boxes. I happen to know that this box had contained Mars bars and coffee flasks, suggesting the bear could smell evidence of them even through the metal.

Gavin's laptop was the next item to be investigated. Every time Gavin goes back, there are footprints to remind him of the virtues of having vigilant lookouts on the ship. The animal was finally scared away by the horn before it could damage any precision equipment.

The threat of bears means that we're also at the mercy of the weather. Although today started out as one of the clearest and brightest we've yet had, this afternoon a band of mist has been swirling around us restricting visibility from the ship.

Working on the basis (and evidence) that bears have an excellent sense of smell, if we can't see a good distance then whenever the cloud comes down everyone returns to the ship. This afternoon, this meant the divers had to cut short their work under the ice.

But then no one ever said that doing science on a shifting, melting sheet of sea ice at 80 degrees north was going to be easy.

Posted on 28 June 2010 | Comments (1)


Drifting in the ice

Richard Hollingham

Richard Hollingham

Richard Hollingham

We've been moored up on the ice for five days. But all that time, we've been moving. We started at 80 degrees, 53 minutes north, now we're at 80 degrees and 30 minutes. In fact the ship has drifted some 26 nautical miles (at between 0.1 and 0.6 knots), although not in a straight line.

Driven by the wind and currents, the ice is constantly shifting - and us with it. Looking at the charts with third officer Ben up on the bridge, we discover that today the ship's progress has traced the shape of the right hand side of a heart: we've drifted north-east, then south, now south-west.

I suggested to the captain that we could just stay here and let the ice take us to open water. He pointed out that there was a good chance that if we did that, we could end up marooned in the ice east of Greenland. That's why he's the captain.

Ice coring

Ice coring.

But the idea of allowing the ice to carry the ship is a tried and tested one. It was employed by some of the greatest explorers including Nansen and Amundsen (who pioneered the North West Passage that way) but also brought disaster to other expeditions.

The captain has lent me a book called 'In the Land of White Death', an account of a disastrous 1912 expedition frozen in the pack ice north of Siberia. Something to keep in mind as the ice shifts around us.

Meanwhile, our ice floe is definitely melting. The ice station is getting distinctly slushy and the skidoo track has had to be diverted around two substantial pools of water. However, the work continues with more diving today and experiments deployed in the water.

Bernard has also recovered his hi-tech monitoring instrument - I still need to talk to him about exactly what it does. Out on deck CTDs (conductivity, temperature, depth) and snow catchers are lowered into the sea. In the labs, the other scientists pipette, filter and measure. No nine-to-five working on this ship.

Posted on 28 June 2010 | Comments (0)


Birthday on the ice

Richard Hollingham

Richard Hollingham

Richard Hollingham

As birthdays go, this one will take some beating. Heiko spent his 30th jumping into a hole in the ice floe and diving underneath to collect samples of algae.

The two dive holes took almost two days to cut with the largest chainsaw blade money can buy. The ice blocks were dragged out using the skidoo and now line the, increasingly slushy, track between the ship and the experimental stations.

Heiko under the ice

Heiko under the ice.

The divers are kitted out in drysuits and attached to a rope, so they can always find their way back to the hole (or be hauled back if something goes wrong). Then they jump in and gradually sink into the clear, still and very cold water.

Two people can dive at once, with buddies on the surface to pay out the rope and keep a check on the time.

You can, hopefully, see from the photo (taken by Hugh) just how beautiful it is under the ice but don't take my word for it. Here's part of the transcript of an interview I recorded with Heiko after he emerged from his 30 minute dive. I asked him what it was like:

It was stunning! As I went in my whole face was just burning because it was so cold. And then I got used to it. I was planning to catch algae with Tesco zip-lock bags but it's really hard because as you breathe out, the bubbles travel along underneath the ice and disturb the algae.

Every move you make disturbs the algae, so you try to hold your breath and try not to disturb the algae.

How much algae is there?

It looks like an inverted landscape, so you've got valleys and hills. You've got little fist-sized clumps of algae which are buoyant and all over the place. There's a lot of light coming through the ice - it's really amazing.

You can hear the interview in the next Planet Earth podcast which should be posted on July 5th (or shortly afterwards).

Those of us who've never come to this remarkable part of the world before have been amazed at the amount of life there is. From these clumps of algae under the ice, to the microscopic organisms living in the brine to the gulls and terns that follow the ship and, of course, those beautiful bears.

It's Heiko's birthday party tonight so I'll let you know tomorrow if there's any gossip to report.

Posted on 28 June 2010 | Comments (0)


Science under a white sky

Richard Hollingham

Richard Hollingham

Richard Hollingham

Rarely does the progress of science run smoothly. Take Jenny's sampling device for instance. Known as a snow catcher, it's designed to take samples of the 'snow' of organic material dropping through the water column. Consisting of a 2m-long cylindrical canister containing a plunger arrangement, it's a relatively simple mechanism that's lowered into the water on a wire. The first one went fine – winched back successfully onto the aft deck. The second emerged spewing water in all directions.

'Is it meant to do that?'

'No.'

Out on the ice, Bernard's also facing challenges with his instrument – a sophisticated tube of electronics designed to move up and down on a wire beneath the ice, making measurements as it goes. I was out with him yesterday and helped as it was lowered into the water (I don't want to overplay my contribution – I mostly tried not to get in the way). But then, it refused to sink. After some in-situ remedial work (see picture), we hauled it back out and onto the ship for further testing.

Bernard's out there again this evening so I'll keep you posted.

I promised to write more about polar-bear watch. Whenever there's anyone on the ice, two volunteers are posted with binoculars on the monkey deck at the top of the ship. One each side, they have to slowly scan the horizon for bears. Each shift lasts half an hour and it's not easy.

Bernard in the ice

Bernard in the ice.

Quite apart from the concentration required, there's a jumble of broken ice to contend with and bears can seem to emerge from nowhere. There's also the problem of visibility. When the sky is misty, spotting a whitish polar bear walking on whitish ice against a whitish sky is quite a challenge. Whenever the visibility gets too bad, everyone's brought in off the ice. I've just come from my fourth watch of the day but even as I write, there's a polar bear a few hundred metres off the port bow of the ship.

The other drama today involved a practice evacuation of an injured diver from the ice. Jo, the doctor, was despatched with her medical kit to the dive hole and the patient (a dummy with a couple of bits missing, known as George) was stretchered off and lowered into the foreward hold to be carried to the decompression chamber. It was an impressively smooth operation, all controlled via radio from the bridge.

I'm off now to check on that bear.

Posted on 25 June 2010 | Comments (0)


The first polar bear

Richard Hollingham

Richard Hollingham

Richard Hollingham

Third officer Ben spotted our first polar bear at 22.32 on Tuesday night, 800 metres off the starboard bow. Cream (rather than white) in colour, the bear seemed to ripple across the ice – completely at one with the landscape. It padded towards us, head high, sniffing out the giant red iceberg that had suddenly appeared in its domain.

As the bear walked towards the science experiments the team had spent a long day setting up, it was decided to blow the ship's horn to scare it off. It was a useful lesson in how fast these beautiful creatures can move, as it lolloped away across the ice. Deck engineer, Simon, took the picture.

The second bear (or was it the first returning?) was seen today by Heather who was on polar-bear-watch on the deck area above the bridge, known as the monkey deck. The bear was coming up from the stern, only this time there were people on the ice.

Polar bear

Polar bear.

Everyone was winched onboard quickly and we all gathered on the aft deck to watch the animal heading away. It looked pretty large so maybe it was happy feeding on seals rather than scientists.

I've been lucky enough to spend most of the day on the ice. It's given me the opportunity to see the challenges of working in this sort of environment but also the enthusiasm amongst the scientists. Take Helen Atkinson, for example, who's collecting samples of sea ice brine.

Usually this is difficult to collect but with enormous chunks of ice being cut for the dive holes with a chainsaw and then held over a bowl, the brine poured out. 'To get a bucket full of sea ice brine that contains phytoplankton is really exciting!' she exclaimed.

Helen's studying the emission of organic iodine compounds from the phytoplankton that live in brine channels in the ice. These are thought to contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer.

Further out on the ice, Ronnie Glud's team has been drilling holes and lowering sensors to measure oxygen concentration through and underneath the ice. The idea is to calculate where the gas exchanges are taking place between the air, ice and water. This, again, has global significance.

In recent years, they've discovered that the Arctic ice acts as a gas pump carrying carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the deep ocean. So the ice helps remove CO2 from the atmosphere. This isn't included in the current theoretical models of climate so the question
is: what would happen without the ice?

Finally for today, I should make a quick mention of communication to and from the ship. There isn't much. Our only contact with the outside world is via an Iridium satellite phone which means any pictures we send can only be low resolution.

We also have no idea whether England are still in the World Cup. Not that many on board seem to care.

Posted on 24 June 2010 | Comments (0)


1000 kilometres from the North Pole

Richard Hollingham

Richard Hollingham

Richard Hollingham

Welcome to our new home: 80 degrees 51.5 minutes north, 4 degrees
55.6 minutes east. Or put another way: 1000 or so kilometres from the North Pole. Ice stretches to the horizon in every direction, flat in parts but jumbled and jagged in others.

Never rising more than a few metres, the frozen sea blends into a grey band of cloud and then blue sky. There's little wind and, in the sunshine, it's comparatively warm with the temperature hovering around zero. One of the scientists, Colin Griffiths, is even wearing shorts.

After breakfast Ray Leakey, Head of Arctic Research at SAMS who's leading this expedition, convened a meeting in the conference room.

The decision had been taken to moor up alongside the ice floe and start setting up the experiments. This may not, however, be our home for long.

Basket to the ice

Basket to the ice.

The worst case scenario is that because the ice is melting, it could break up quickly or the ship could come loose. The even worse case scenario is that we're surprised by a polar bear.

Any trip onto the ice is therefore carefully planned. Up on the highest deck of the ship – known as the monkey deck – two volunteers are positioned with binoculars to look out for polar bears. They have walkie-talkies to communicate with the bridge (I'll write more about this another day).

The team that's going on the ice is kitted out with warm clothes and buoyancy aids. One of them also carries a gun – the final option if a polar bear attacks.

When the first team is ready to go, a crane winches them off the ship on a conical rope basket which is then lowered onto the ice... ice that no-one has ever stood on before. Even from the deck, you can see the smiles on their faces as they mark out where it's safe to walk, where to take samples and where they can drill the holes for the divers.

This expedition has been months in the planning and the scientists on board can't wait to get on with their experiments. Everyone hopes that the ice will hold and we can stay in this position for a while.

Personally, I can't wait to get out there.

Posted on 23 June 2010 | Comments (0)


Heading north from Svalbard

Richard Hollingham

Richard Hollingham

Richard Hollingham

Heading north out of Longyearbyen on Svalbard, the RRS James Clark Ross follows the coast – a long line of jagged snow-capped mountains rising from the water. The sea is calm, the blue sky streaked with white cloud. We couldn't have hoped for more perfect conditions.

I joined the ship this morning, docked at the rougher end of town next to the old coal wharf and scrap metal pile. It's immediately apparent that the ship is no ordinary vessel – if the coat of arms on the side of the funnel featuring a penguin and the words 'research and discovery' isn't enough to convince you, then all the scientific equipment laid out across the deck is a giveaway.

RRS James Clark Ross

RRS James Clark Ross at Svalbard.

The ship has already been at sea for seven days and many of the experiments have already started. I'll write more about the ship itself in the coming days but I've been speaking to the chief scientist onboard, Dr Ray Leakey from the Scottish Association for Marine Science, so let me bring you up to date with the story so far...

The RRS James Clark Ross cast off from the dock at Immingham on 13 June and headed north. One of the aims of this first leg of the voyage has been to give the equipment a 'shake-down' – check it all works before we're isolated in the Arctic ice. At the same time, the scientists on board have been able to gather some valuable results.

One of the things you'll find a lot of people on this ship muttering about are CTDs which, I now know, stands for Conductivity, Temperature and Depth. They lower these circular arrangements of tubular tanks over the side of the ship to collect water and take measurements of the water column.

When they pull the CTD back onboard, this water can then be tested to assess, for example, the amount of chlorophyll and therefore algae present. Sea water is also being continuously monitored. It's pumped into the ship and analysed every ten minutes in one of the ship's laboratories.

Coat of arms

British Antarctic Territory coat of arms.

By taking regular samples between the (relatively) warm waters of the North Sea and the cold, deep waters of the Norwegian Sea, the scientists have a useful transect of measurements. Add that to transects already taken between the UK and Antarctic, and you can analyse the physical and biological properties of sea water on a line between the North and South polar regions.

And this isn't only interesting for the sake of it; when you think that half the world's biomass is in the oceans, it's important to know what it's doing and how it's changing.

For this science cruise, those questions relate to the Arctic – as the ice retreats, how will the biology and physical properties of the seas change? Put simply: What happens if we take the lid off the Arctic Ocean?

Tomorrow we should hit the ice.

Posted on 22 June 2010 | Comments (0)


Into the ice

Richard Hollingham

Richard Hollingham

Richard Hollingham

I saw my first Arctic iceberg at 7 o'clock this morning. It was only small: a slither of floating ice melting away into the sea. By 9, the ship was surrounded by ice although there was still plenty of open water.

As I write, it's getting towards dinner time and it's hard to believe the ship can move any further. We're completely surrounded by a fractured desert of ice. As we surge forward, the ship lurches, scrapes and crunches, sending a shudder right through the vessel.

But then we seem to find reserves of power to smash through the bergs, ripping the ice apart to send it toppling in fragments along the sides. Occasionally, we do get stuck but then we reverse back and have another go. So far, the ice has always yielded.

I've spent a lot of the day on the forward deck at the bows of the ship doing my best Kate Winslet impression, looking down on the ice. But let's not think about the Titanic.

I've recorded and photographed and attempted to film our progress but I fear my efforts won't do justice to the vastness of the landscape. That and my frozen fingers kept missing the record button.

Sea ice

Arctic sea ice from the RRS James Clark Ross.

The place to be at times like this is up on the bridge where everything is calm and quiet. When I visit, Ben the third officer is keeping lookout through binoculars as Captain Graham steers the ship through leads between bergs. He explains how the winds keep pushing the rafts of ice, narrowing any channels – the trick is not to get pulled along with them.

Apart from our remarkable progress through a seemingly impassable landscape, I've also been surprised at the wildlife we've seen. As the icebergs split apart and topple over, they reveal fish feeding off the algae and plankton.

The fish are quickly spotted by seabirds that swoop across the bows to feed on them. We've also seen two sets of polar bear footprints; I suspect it's only a matter of time until we see a bear.

Posted on 22 June 2010 | Comments (0)