Maps of the World

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
March 31, 2015

Thinking of Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends and his observations of a child’s need to make maps describing their world, territory, neighborhood, backyard.

Mike Stewart, Elliot, and Steve Roberts at the windows, plotting a course by radar and high beams. Photo by Roger Topp
Mike Stewart, Elliot, and Steve Roberts at the windows, plotting a course by radar and high beams. Photo by Roger Topp

Exploration. Adventure. Discovery. Growing up. The need to know. The need to go beyond the ear shot of parents. The need to get into trouble and find a way out again. I’m thinking, not for the first time, that for some people at least, map making never ends. It takes many forms. Exploring a new cave system in China, building a better model of a crater on Mars, mapping where the critters live at the ice edge, where they find homes in the ice. We always want to know where and what this place is. We want to look down on it as if it too were map that could be folded into a pocket and brought out again when we need to find treasures.

There is magical satisfaction in correlating radar images with satellite images with what we see out the windshield. This isn’t typical ocean going and the ship isn’t an eleven year-old’s bicycle, but it can get us almost as far.

Sam carries a chunk of ice back into the lab. It’s just small enough for the gallon-sized ziplock bag. He carries it carefully, like a prize, like a boy finding a cool rock in the wilds of still-undeveloped suburbia. There are a lot of other rocks in the forest but this one is a good one and we know where it came from. We have a map even if it keeps changing on us, because it keeps changing on us.

rt_blog_231When the ice is new and thin, inches to fractions of inches, looking down on the landscape from the Bridge is looking down on the winter country from 30,000 feet. Everything is a map of coastlines and ridges, inlets, coves, valleys and towering ranges off into the distance. Then you look up to the horizon, and there’s heavy ice and the scale goes up by an order of magnitude, and you realize you’ve been looking at only a model of the real world, a doomed little continent, plate drift and uplift. Summer is coming. The heavy, older ice is crusted with snow, the ridge lines are a complex tale of violent histories. The mountain ranges do not run north to south or east to west. They corral and honeycomb great plains and fiefdoms.

When I remember exploring the edges of my neighborhoods it was never a matter of mapping the streets, finding the extent of a park or a surviving plot of woods between a ball-field and a stream, a school yard and a farm. They were always too big anyway. It was only ever to find a small place, out of the way, where the rocks and the sticks and the trickles of water could be imagined as worlds in miniature. Maybe because that sort of map felt temporary, private, changeable. Or may I could throw rocks at it. Make a splash. Save a stick. Divert a flood.

 

Sea ice as maps and landscapes
Sea ice as maps and landscapes

It’s easy to look down at the ice-sheet and see worlds. Here, now, the laptop perched on the non-slip pad on the windowsill, starboard side Bridge, I can type and look almost straight down at coastlines and folded mountain ranges. A little farther out, Pangea is awaiting breakup.

Instead of pushing our icy debris under the thin, clear sheet, we’re pushing it under. The cloud of ice is a jagged, billowing fog spreading under a sheet of frosted shower glass. I imagine how that will refreeze and create a delicate habitat, a fortress of short-lived knives canyons and caves.

If past Septembers are any sign, all the ice this far south will melt prior to the Autumn Equinox. The animals that depend on the ice will move north. Next winter new maps will grow and be dashed against each other, build continents and fracture into tiny islands to fade away or be trod underfoot by a ship looking to explore.

rt_blog_225Nighttime. Home by midnight. High beams all the way, knuckles on the thrusters, navigating a channel between the floes. Wait! “Where the heck are we.” The computer can give us geographic coordinates to a serious number of significant figures, but any maps made before yesterday aren’t going to be of much help. We are a stomper of ice floes, a minnow darting between terranes of frozen ocean — and the last good picture from above was from the Aqua (satellite) earlier in the day, where the clouds had already begun to obscure the image like a hand trying to clear wet snow from a windshield, leaving yesterday’s sharp edges blurry. Everything has shifted, rotated, widened, narrowed. The streams have broke their banks and a new neighborhood has gone up overnight.

We stop the car, making a little pond of emotion and halogen light. The snow settles here like it does anywhere else. Get out of the car. Stare up into the night and the snowflakes settling on your face. Put an instrument into the water because the world is deep as it is wide. It’s not distance. It’s how much you have to push through to sink closer to the unknown. The horizons are dark whether they are forests or ocean. But here — here we are. Still. Ah. “There we are.” We go that way. Bring a handful of cookies up from the mess. What tunes do we have? We come through this lead here, turn right, follow that edge, skirt that heavy stuff there — until we find that polynya, if it’s still there, then directly across from it is our floe. We park and take a look in the morning.

Load Handling System deployed in a quiet, ship-made polynya. Photo by Roger Topp
Load Handling System deployed in a quiet, ship-made polynya. Photo by Roger Topp

— Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Exhibits, Design, and Digital Media Production)

Pressure Ridge

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
March 30, 2015

Ship seen from the ‘headstone’ along the line of the performance test. Photo by Roger Topp
Ship seen from the ‘headstone’ along the line of the performance test. Photo by Roger Topp

Washed my clothes at the ship’s Laundromat / sound booth.

$2.00 a load, and a quarter for every 2 minutes of dryer time. I knew ship time was expensive, but… maybe I’m exaggerating. Nothing much to report about the laundry room(s) on board (no, we don’t have to pay per load), except perhaps the washers, which (and Bern warned us about this at the outset of the cruise) once you select your type of wash, you’ve committed. No going back. No opening the door because you left a lens cap in a pocket. The thing commits like a downhill skier or an episode of your favorite TV show. Until its 34 minutes are up, you’re not going anywhere.

Sue Moore at the hydrophone hole.
Sue Moore at the hydrophone hole.

The laundry also doubles as Ann’s sound booth. Ann has made a few pre-printed signs. When we start crashing through ice of a hardness, she grabs the right one and goes to the laundry room where she has a good place to post it where she can record it as video as the ice in question crashes against the hull. “Listen! This is HARD ice.” Anything hitting the hull will completely drown out any dryers in use.

Another bright day on the ice. With the new snow, I find it slippery for the first time. Right off the gangway I have to regain my balance. I warn John that it’s slippery, only because it’s the first time it has been so. I wonder if we cleared this particular flat patch whether we could skate on it. I have a feeling it’d be too soft — but it’s a thought. Not that I skate, but I did notice someone’s hockey stick in the Baltic room. I take extra care as I seek out the safety of harder, older snow. I sprained an ankle my first winter in Alaska, on lake ice, trying to learn to skate, by myself. Had to hop back to the university my x-country skis over my shoulder, and using the poles as a crutch. Twenty years ago. I still remember big parts of that long slog back up to the Ridge. No pressure. Just have to get back before you get to cold, that’s all. Later that night, once a doctor saw it, he said I probably shouldn’t try to walk on it for (a few months? I remember the color of the light in his office better than what he said.) If I ever want to do competitive sport again, I’d let it heal. That’s the sort of warning that makes sense to me. You want to walk again. Listen up.

So, ice and dire warnings. The ankle’s never been the same since, but we adapt, and living in Fairbanks, you learn to walk on ice, you learn to take the right kind of steps, ones you can just about tell yourself you can pull back from when necessary.

I’m not against committing. Far from it, but it’s good to recognize that moment the next step is going to make a strange difference. I haven’t thought about that journey home in many years, needing to get somewhere, barely equipped to do it, knowing I was going to make it but cursing a lack of people on the trails, cursing that I hadn’t thought everything through. Maybe I’ve been a little more cautious ever since? No. Back to the ice. I take chances, just not with my ankles, if you ever see me hesitate to kick a ball before doing so.

Measuring ice thickness as seen from underneath.
Measuring ice thickness as seen from underneath.

A bright day, first day everyone felt hot inside their Mustang suits. First day I took off my gloves and left them in my pocket. Light flurries where we were, but by the look of every horizon, more snow was on the way. John recorded the sounds of the ice operations, the chatter, the “man, I’m boiling”’s while I tried to blindly capture Alice and Lorena’s measurements from the underside of the ice. We use a neat, little, brassy tool perfect for the job, Paddington’s buttons again, but these buttons know how to collapse like a utility knife when you want to get them back through a two inch hole six feet long.

The target at the end of the performance run.
The target at the end of the performance run.

The regular ice station was only the start of the hours we spent at that floe. We moved the boat a little farther into the flow from the station, and then using the basket to get back to the ice, Evan, Mike, Alice, and Perry set up a transect along the ship’s current axis, measuring ice thickness and hardness along a route the ship was going to take going forward. There were a couple ridges in the way of the ship, and hitting these known quantities at speed was going to provide data on ship performance. They painted a dotted, red line on the ice so the pilot could see it, ending 284.3 meters away in a X-marks the spot. Three football fields, not a quarter mile but felt like it with the toddler-toppled block-fort topography that needed crossing.

 

Perry Pungowiyi, Alice Orlich, and Mike Neville measure the ice for the performance test.
Perry Pungowiyi, Alice Orlich, and Mike Neville measure the ice for the performance test.

The reduced visibility. The intense silence. Out there we could hear the ship, three fields away, but it sounded very quiet and very distance. Somewhere along the line someone wrote ‘UAF’ in the snow, in paint, and off to the side, scraped letters less visible, ‘Nanooks.’

The ice along the line was anywhere from 10 to 20 inches thick and then 2 to 3 times that where the ice sheet was rafted. We could see this on the underwater camera earlier at the station, the chipped edges of ice sheet driven under others, welded together, thickening the floe. The ice sheet is relatively peaceful at the moment, but at some point earlier in the Spring there was a lot more energy running through here — wherever here was. Now there are significant built-up ridges, chucks of ice like eroded Saracens, places where the new snow has drifted to a couple feet deep, and one place where after drilling it’s clear that spot is below sea level.

The Sikuliaq making its performance test run at the heavy ridges.
The Sikuliaq making its performance test run at the heavy ridges.

My boot goes down like I’ve stepped in a hole and comes back out like it’s been half-caught in mud. I wait a moment for the sting, but either the slush is slow or the boots are tall enough. There was still ice, hard bits, blocks, down there, somewhere, and nothing got twisted or sprained. On one of the ridges Alice measured an ice thickness of 9 feet or more — with voids, or this would have been beyond the ship’s capability. Climbing over the ridges going out was overly cumbersome in the work suit with bag and tripod and four cameras. A sled might have made it easier.

At least we were going to leave three of the cameras and the tripod behind on the ice. Three cameras in two positions, aimed at recording our retreat to the ship, the basket carrying us back aboard, the swells running through the ice floe, the ship reversing so it could make a run at the line and the ridge and the cameras — at speed. On the video you can see a pulse of dark smoke leave the stacks as we get underway. As we reverse, the ice knife (below the waterline) leaves a mark in our path in the shape of an arrow. By the time we hit the ice, Juha has the ship up to 10 knots. There were no guarantees we would be able to keep the ship to the path. The ridges in the way were picked because they would test the ship’s performance and as such they could very easily change the ship’s course.

Backing up to make a ‘high-speed’ run at the ridges. The ice-knife has cut an arrow pointing the way.
Backing up to make a ‘high-speed’ run at the ridges. The ice-knife has cut an arrow pointing the way.

On the betting table, it was difficult to see the odds for the debates and binoculars, cameras and doubts and ‘how are we going to get them back’s and the Third Mate asking for all four engines to be brought online. All the people were back aboard. Not all the gear. Most of the predictions seemed to incline to at least one of the cameras being driven over by the ship. It’s quite possible were going to be okay with that. I shouldn’t say what happened. There’s a video after all…

But we got video back from two of three cameras. The third got cold feet and a bad memory but has since recovered and has been ordered to take it easy.

The nearest camera to our line, the one we thought would most likely get wet or get run-over was fitted with a waterproof case, a float, and a line pulled off (far?) to the side and staked into the ice. Even if the camera went in the water, even if it went under the ship, we had a chance to get someone on the ice to drag it out again. The biggest camera was on a tripod, a somewhat safer, drier distance away, but from the Bridge hitting one camera or the other seemed like a very minor adjustment in course, or a slight deviation decided by the thick pressure ridges.

A successful commitment, a calculated risk, the right kind of step. Which of course only means we’ll have to try it again, perhaps with a camera under the ice as well, closer to the line. We’d fly a drone, but sometimes there are more rules out here than in Washington. So if we don’t hit something with the ship and have to drag it back from out under the hull, we’re just not trying hard enough.

— Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Exhibits, Design, and Digital Media Production)

Grey Days

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
March 29, 2015

Grapes from the Galley
Grapes from the Galley

We are more than half way through our cruise and the food’s running low. Last evening Annie told us there were no more chips. She’s from Wisconsin so I suppose chips doesn’t include Cheetos, because those appeared today as usual. But this morning she put out a single grapefruit. Carin snagged it immediately, saying she was going to save it for tomorrow. She also said she would give half to John the Bosun. I think she hopes in turn he will share his grapefruit knife. This could be our last grapefruit until we return to the hot, sunny coves of Dutch Harbor. Or perhaps another single grapefruit will appear tomorrow? Mysteries in the grey.

I don’t trust the grapes anymore, and there’s a sneaky huge amount of cake and cookies and muffins, and pastry, and cinnamon rolls, and ice-cream bars always within hands reach. So, maybe food’s not running low, as there are always 2-3 options for dinner and they all must be tried — so someone’s compensating for something.

Fulmars over sea ice.
Fulmars over sea ice.

This afternoon I was recording the hull breaking ice from over the starboard upper gangway when I saw a seal high-tailing it away from the boat. It was only half a ship’s length away and the camera was two decks uphill. The seal was booking. I think I’ve shot fewer photos today than any other day at sea. That’s all right, I’ve caught up on other things. Been making sound recordings and this evening after dinner, to compensate I did go up to the Bridge and shoot fulmars as they buzzed the boat. I understand they are related to albatross so what could go wrong.

Seal running away from the boat.
Seal running away from the boat.

It’s not the most comfortable spot to record sound, putting my arm and a mic over the steel gangway (because it’s cold and my coat is a half a boat length and a floor downhill, but the starboard rail is in our wind shadow today. So while elsewhere else the wind is shouting, “What the hell are you doing out here?” on the lee side the snow drifts down without a care in the world. It settles on my microphone just the way it’s supposed to collect on a friend’s fur ruff as you walk a lake shore in fall. “It’s all right,” it says. “Winter’s coming and it’s okay.” By morning the snow will have collected and there will be ice on parts of the deck.

So, I missed photographing that seal, but this seems to be their neighborhood, so there are many others. We keep catching them out on the ice, scaring them into a high speed, floppy sprint away from the boat.

I also missed seeing the snowy owl this morning. The observers on the Bridge noticed it because it was being mobbed by a hooligan gulls. It had an animal in its claws. Fur. A tail. A lemming? I fully believe the animals were happy to get into a tiff over the only low-salt meal in twenty miles. Perry tells us about the time the wolves scared a small herd of caribou across from Russia to St. Lawrence Island. Stories of seeing fox tracks on the ice, following the bears. Wolverine. Looking for food. Trying not to be food.

We talked about the ‘outside’ world a little today. Plans have to be made for shipping gear back from Dutch, back from Seward. Who needs what when? How long will it take? There’s a rumor of a disaster somewhere. Someone’s looked at the news. It’s only rumor because, really, no one’s asking for details. We’ve trekked out into the ice, trying not to think too hard about the world back on shore. Nothing else is happening out there besides baseball scores. Or it basketball? So hard to tell. Right! Baseball starts soon. I think that’s the most beautiful piece of ephemera I’ve heard in a while. A nugget of information that means nothing. I couldn’t care less about baseball season. So that works for me. That’s news. John says this is one of reasons he likes to be at sea.

Of course family’s different. Any bit of information from Carrie is cherished. I hear that William (<1 yr) has begun to be the climber we knew he would be. He pushes milk-crates and cars about with sound effects. For months we’ve used a couple chairs turned on their side as a barricade between living room and library. I understand he’s figured out the holes between the briar legs are bigger than they need to be. Kaelin (<5yrs) is reading Tintin this week. Adventure! Precious, I’m listening to ‘Uncatena’ by Silvan Esso as I write this. It’s been my favorite song of the Winter. I think, yes, it is the perfect song for grey skies and long distances.

Several of the crew have said their wives, husbands, friends, colleagues have read the blog. “It’s good people know what we do.” This is a very different part of the world. It’s a different experience for me, writing about events as they happen, editing the same day — deleting all things I really want to say… Haha. When I write this much, it’s usually fiction — and I take weeks anguishing over paragraphs before posting stuff to that blog. Link redacted. I’m on a boat, in tight quarters, and cannot get away quick enough if anyone reads something.

Look over there! Another seal thinks we want him for dinner.

rt_blog_208As we make our way slowly through the ice, in the galley I take pictures of Matt chopping vegetables for taco Tuesday (on a Sunday). I should take pictures of the food every day. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner all excellent. Matt apologizes for the seafood pasta, polenta, and zucchini side not being the most photogenic of dishes. Tony got it right with the bagel bar earlier, and Matt knows how to hold out fish salad on pita for a camera. So, potentially more food porn later. Already I could probably give a slideshow just on ship cuisine.

Full stomach. Back up to the Bridge where the day has been good to me so far.

The Bridge’s windows angle out, allowing you to look down around much of the boat. More sea ice, sheet after sheet mottled by pancakes about the size you could eat, if only just one or two, sheets so thin when the boat pushes them aside the pieces cut into each other. A coin is tossed. One sheet becomes a knife, the other paper. If thicker, maybe a quarter to half an inch, and if the ice is smooth as glass, the pieces shatter like crockery and scoot across the ice sheet like a thousand hockey pucks kicked by a boy across a road on the way to school. Behind the pucks, a thin fan of water, foaming at the lips. Sometimes the overflow and the energy of our displacement crack the sheet like a windshield battered by Spring gravel. Tiny white streaks race through it like lightning, flash brightly for a moment and dim to a dark hairline.

Sea Ice
Sea Ice

We stopped for our fourth ice station today. The crew got out on the ice to set the anchor and promptly came back aboard as massive cracks began to open in the floe. Even though boat had cut a fresh driveway, it was rolling as if in open water. The swells were significant and you could see from the working deck the ice rise and fall in waves, opening up new cracks the longer we waited. No ice station today. We drive on into evening, heading towards established stations on the 70m isobath. As Carin said over dinner, “We’re switching from relative to geographic coordinates.” Less floating in the grey, more paying attention to the hard world underneath.

Before night fell, Liz saw three belugas from the Bridge, first a white calf and then two (greyer) adults just behind. Quick. Then gone. We we were in a tight lead with ice all around. We watched for them after we had passed but saw nothing more. Everything out there today is shades of grey, but the height of the Bridge and the fulmars and the ice sheet made for some fun, moody photos, like I had an assistant quick flipping abstract backdrops behind the sporting wildlife.

Bowhead whale
Bowhead whale
Bowhead wale (enlarged photo)
Bowhead whale (enlarged photo)

Oh, and Sue spotted our first bowhead, swimming towards the east across the surface of a great, wide lead. I should mention that shouldn’t I? Despite all the work on Arctic Currents these last couple years, this was the first bowhead I’ve laid eyes on. Enlarging the photo, we see a nice, big, fat hump is clearly visible behind the blowhole. It’s a poor replica for being there, but a big whale, in good shape, and definitely well fed.

— Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Exhibits, Design, and Digital Media Production)

Dear Guildenstern

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
March 28, 2015

Neighborhood walrus. Photo by Roger Topp
Neighborhood walrus.

I saw a walrus I could have hit with a snowball. We are talking about a walrus. Weighs a ton, more than a car. It’s huge. But it was also close.

We were parked. Mike maneuvered the spotlight to light him up a little with the edge scatter. He only seemed more interested. Everyone was chanting, “Get up on the ice. Get up on the ice.”

It was still early morning, the horizon just a thin line of blue, and we were already cheering on the play’s perfect moment. The walrus remained in the water.

The ship’s searchlight. Photo by Roger Topp
The ship’s searchlight. Photo by Roger Topp

The ship’s searchlight is intense, an eight-inch, collimated cylinder, like a laser, thick as a flagpole, a robot giant’s broom handle, sweeping mechanically across ice and water. The walrus was hanging around through a good part of the night, said Mike, close enough, consistently enough he spots it quickly when it surfaces again.

Over breakfast Sam and I come up with a plan to follow up on Brandon’s test of an under-ice camera with a simple rig derived from recent advances in selfie-stick technology (Chance et al., 2011). What begins as pure, joyful, aesthetic design devolves quickly into a a discussion of how the camera can be employed semi-scientifically to gauge ice thickness via light transmission. It’s not the first time in a week I’ve wished I’d cobbled together a stereo video rig for this journey. If it happens again I’ll likely have to inquire what the machine shop can cook up in order to mount a couple of the GoPros.

Camera being lowered into an ice core hole.
Camera being lowered into an ice core hole.

The best feature I’ve found for the newest GoPro’s 4k video mode is the fantastic latitude for image rotation and cropping. Take the center 50-70% of the frame and you get an HD image with very little lens distortion. Put two bodies side by side (and they can be put very close together, the intraocular distance is darn perfect), and you get binocular vision that can be processed for 3D (Experiments, 2015). For once a post-process digital zoom that isn’t outright evil… But what can you do? Any effort following this line of aesthetic inquiry will no doubt be perverted by the forced labor camp of science. If you are going to hang with scientists, they are going to figure out ways to sequester art for the sake of better describing the world, as if a sequence of sunset, cirrus, floating-point derived jpegs could ever be as revealing as a temperature-salinity profile (Method, 1971). It’s not a bad thing when a chance idea at a opportune video angle becomes subjugated by the interests of science and engineering.

When we start to move the boat, the walrus moves alongside until we start pushing into fresh ice. Got a few photos off despite low ambient light, high iso, and reflections from one of the navigation consoles in the window. It’s not poetry but it is proof of life curious. Zooming the image on the camera-back, I can make out the texture of the animal’s skin, and someone aboard can no doubt estimate his length and weight out of water, with or without the EXIF metadata. My aforementioned resolution to spend more time on the Bridge got jumpstarted this morning.

Broken ice seen from the floe.
Broken ice seen from the floe.

Turns out all that bumping around and closet door and drawer rattling last night was us meeting ice we could not handle. In this case, a rubble field, ice previously broken and pushed back together by the vagaries of wind and ocean currents. We want ice that’s a approaching a few feet thick, but we want it to be flat — and consistently approaching a few feet thick. Then we can quantify the power output we need to cut our way through it — or at some point, not be able to. Ship performance testing. When we come to that wall, we need to back away and find a route around. Last night, retreating from the ‘log jam’ took a little time wiggling back and forth, using finesse and force to knock the wedge out from under that door.

At the moment we’re not trying for the Polynya. We can probably get in there by going around one rubble field and between others, but the winds have been blowing consistently from the north for a while now. If they change direction, they could quickly push the currently spreading ice-edge floes back together, potentially capturing us in an area it could take us a Spring to escape. Perhaps I overdramatize? Perhaps not.

This morning we’re maneuvering among floes and getting into position for the 3rd ice station. Going to try that under-ice video and image the algal covered butt-side of the ice. And maybe snap some portraits of the boat, just because — sun. Wondering if the coin toss is going to come up heads again.

It was tails, but this probably had something to do with human intervention dear Guildenstern. Got to take control of your destiny. Got to pay attention to conditions and change them. Adapt. Speak your mind. Listen. Think new things. Influence. Be influenced. When someone says the ground is moving, shut up and take a pause. This might be important…

Sam Laney ice coring. Photo by Roger Topp
Sam Laney ice coring. Photo by Roger Topp

We spent a bright couple hours on the ice. Finally some ship photos with the sun at our backs. Cameras like light, especially ones sunk under 20 inches of ice and drifted snow. The water down there is ‘antiseptic’ clear. Sam refers to it as ‘drinking water.’

The crew checks the ice.
The crew checks the ice.

I’ve sent a video to shore compiling some parts of 3 days ice coring activities. It’s tiny but that’s bandwidth across the high seas net. For the moment only the ship can re-watch in HD. In the clip, from under the ice, we can see the coloration of the algae and variations in ice/snow thickness (if not infer precise values). A piece of gaffer tape helped point the camera in the right direction (Forethought, 2015). We see the coring drill penetrate the ice sheet, the shadows of people walking in daylight. The camera’s microphone picks up some crazy, whistling creaks from the ice and even a bearded seal off in the distance. Detritus floats quickly past the lens. There’s a significant current moving under the ice — or is it the ice moving over the water. We’re at sea. Everything is moving somewhere. Perspective is all.

Ice Corer seen from under the ice.
Ice Corer seen from under the ice.

Ann mentioned soon after we got off the boat that she could feel the ice moving under her feet. I said I thought that was just from spending time on a ship, a residual inner ear and gut sensitivity. But we stopped, stood still, waited, and watched the distant parts of the floe. Could have been my eyes playing tricks on me, but it sure looked like those mountains (ridges) were moving up and down (very slowly) like waves coming into a beach. While we were waiting for our under-ice camera holes to be drilled, I set up a video camera and aimed it at the horizon. Best use of a tripod all voyage (so far).

The ice floe undulated under our feet as ocean swells passed beneath it. We could feel it while we stood there, just, but in time-lapse you can see the entire sheet of ice flex as it rides the ocean. Of course enough energy, enough ocean swell, and the ice begins to break apart, snapping at the weak points, the ridges, the seams where smaller pancakes and polygons have been glued together to form the greater floe.

If I get a chance next station, I’ll put up a camera parallel to the swells for what might be a better shot, but I’ve sent the current video to shore, documenting the ice swells in real-time and 10x time-lapse. Perhaps from the camera data we can figure out the wave height, or maybe not. Should have used a 3D rig. I don’t think Scott is imaging a big enough area from atop the Bridge to see the waves. Should have recorded heading data so we know what direction the underwater camera was facing during the video. I can just about picture it thinking back, the pattern of the holes, the position of the ship and the sun and the orientation of the slot (2 holes) we needed to get the camera down. I can just about picture the direction of the current—.

The crew and Sikuliaq
The crew and Sikuliaq

There are better ways. That big machine off behind us. The Sikuliaq might look like it just sits there, idling, waiting for us, but it’s ingesting data all the while, packing it, storing it, archiving it. Its hydrophones are recording just as Sue’s are, its temperature probes, its gyroscopes and GPS. Our cameras on and under the ice show us a few wondrous things, but by no means express the rigor of scientific measurement. I find that comforting.

Note to self: Next time we try to animate sea ice at the museum, we model it as a flexible semi-surface-conforming membrane, not a stiff board (Topp, 2017). It is affected. It has effect. Oh, that would be beautiful. What’s that they say, ‘Truth is stranger than fiction?”

Truth is still stranger than fiction.

Roger Topp and Sikuliaq
Roger Topp and Sikuliaq

Out on the ice, Ann made a snow angel. Perry laid down in the ice flow and watched the clouds and listened to the bearded seal on Sue’s hydrophone. A small crew led the way beyond the science perimeter, testing with Perry’s ice-sticks so I could photograph the ship from off the bow. Ethan would have guided me out a quarter mile from the boat had I put a lens in my pocket to make the trip necessary. He was disappointed. I was too, but with the ice heaving, that was all right.

After the science, the Captain gave the crew liberty and most everyone took the opportunity to walk down the gangway to freedom, kick drifts, take photos, and chat in threes and fours between the four flags. Elliot asked which way the bar was. Turn left and keep going, and going, and going. Remember your galoshes. Orange suits. A no-go perimeter. It looked like a ‘prison yard.’ A strange, different kind of liberty, still trapped within the story.

— Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Exhibits, Design, and Digital Media Production)

 

A Day in the Life

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
March 27, 2015

Boat and crew. Photo by Roger Topp
Boat and crew. Photo by Roger Topp

‘Eight o’ clock, got out of bed dragged a comb across my head.’ Except it was 7:30, getting up was more like getting down, and I most certainly do not have a comb with me. I’ve determined the ‘one’ thing I forgot for this trip was a hairbrush. Groggy like a sailor low on water.

7:45. Breakfast. Just like at home, I have to go a few dozen feet to find it. Unlike at home, I don’t have to climb any stairs — yet. Unlike at home, the trick is to try and avoid the sausage and the eggs, the bacon, the hash browns, the French toast, the Wisconsin maple syrup, the cheese danish.

Yogurt and fruit, Yogurt and fruit. I have a feeling tomorrow’s a bacon day.

Orange juice. Coffee. “No thanks, maybe tomorrow,” when Tony offers to cook me up an omelet.

8:00. Find a camera. Remember where all the new images from yesterday are still awaiting copying and backup. How many GoPros need downloading? Charging? How many are ready to go? Check the lenses. On the wall monitors, the wide-angle cameras are picking up the blues of early dawn. Make sure a hat and gloves are in the bag. Shoulder the bag. Climb four flights of stairs to the bridge. Think, ‘I really wish I could have brought the Fitbit (sorta, kinda useless without open Internet). Talked to Mike about where we drove last night. Mike’s on the night shift, having breakfast while we’re having after dinner snacks. He shows me how our course matched the leads and ice edges (which look to have shifted NE as we have drifted SW while parked for the last half dozen hours). When you shift it with your mind’s eye, the curves and angles match up nicely to the satellite image from the day before. It’s not as bad a trying to navigate to a friend’s potluck using a map that’s somehow shifted to the left by about 10 miles.

Mike equates our night transits to driving down the Parks Highway from Fairbanks and pulling off in someone’s driveway for a couple hours to catch a nap before continuing on down to Anchorage. Same thing. He drives the boat until our ice pilot (who has been awake all day) needs sleep, pulls off, cuts our own short driveway, and holds position until morning when he can tell us about all the crazy stuff he saw staring out at the ice all night long.

Bering Sea Sunrise on March 27, 2015. Photo by Roger Topp
Bering Sea Sunrise on March 27, 2015. Photo by Roger Topp

8:30. I set up one video camera to capture the rising sun and shoot a round of panoramic photographs every ten minutes until the ship is moving. I take care of some file management four floors below and roll my eyes when I think about that just what I shot this morning will now take a couple hours to copy and select and process and file. Then back to the Bridge to shoot the dawn (and the stiff breeze) now the sun is up.

9:30. The ship is on Alaska time, which is not local for this part of the Bering Sea. Sunrise and sunset happen just when they are supposed to, but our clocks are off by several hours.

9:50. Carin updates the Board of Lies. Pre-ice meeting is set for 12:00. 12:30 it’s science in ice. I’m on the list. Two hours to get ready.

And like that it’s 23:50. The day has evaporated in net and CTD casts, meals, computer work, and our second ice station. A bright sunny day, but the Bridge keeps parking the boat so our station puts the sun on the stern and port side, which means we’re on the side looking back at the boat — and into the sun. We only work the ice on one side of the boat. Off the stern is water and off the bow is potentially fractured ice less safe to cross. Probably also helps the Bridge to keep all the orange jackets together on one side of the boat (the side with the gangway) in case of emergency evacs. I have a request in to park facing East or Southeast next time. I’d leave this to a coin toss but if we get into a surreal run of ‘heads,’ that’ll just create tension and drama.

Sunset over open water. Photo by Roger Topp
Sunset over open water. Photo by Roger Topp

It’s late. I don’t want to look at the clock. Starting to hit some heavier ice now were transiting towards St. Mathews polynya. This time of year, this is out best chance to see bowheads and let Sue catch them on the hydrophone. The rest of us will be using our eyes.

Thin ice. Photo by Roger Topp
Thin ice. Photo by Roger Topp

Sue put her hydrophone down her own private hole at the far end of the ice station this afternoon, but heard naught for animals. Just the ice. The ice makes a lot of noise if you stick your head down and listen. Or better yet (because who remembers a towel for a day on the ice (funny you should bring this up (I’m not naming names (I’m sure just to dry off instruments)))), a hydrophone. Sue went out at a distance from the rest of us because the ice acts as a giant drum head and a bunch of little people walking on it and drilling in it produces a lot of noise. There’s something crazy special about humans and exploration — where we can be all the way out here and setting up a nice simple system for keeping everyone together and maximally safe, and then Sue or Rob or the Captain, or Perry or myself, or anyone comes up with a slew of good reasons we need to go out a little farther, and be alone, away from the group and ship. Of course I want to take pictures from far afield. Rob needs his virtual clean room for trace metal analysis. Sue has the perhaps the most poetic of reasons. No people. It would be better if the boat and everyone else just motored on out a ways (miles) and came back for her later. Not that she’s suggesting that. Separation from the ship is high on the list ‘bad things’ while working an ice station.

I can imagine what Sue hears down her hole. A couple years ago I was able to kneel on fast ice (stuck to the coast) and listen to the sounds of shuffling feet — just a couple dozen feet from a hydrophone hung offshore of Barrow, and the grind of snow machines from a ways off. Sounds like someone rubbing bricks together a foot from your ear. Objects in hydrophone are farther than they appear.

Alice Orlich not measuring ice floes. Photo by Roger Topp
Alice Orlich not measuring ice floes. Photo by Roger Topp

No snow machines out on our neighborhood-sized ice floe today. One driveway. One parked boat. The scientists took their samples and the crew trained and auguring holes for ice anchors. The day was bright and sunny and folks mugged for the camera. We discussed our ‘plans’ for hoisting the picnic table, the deck chairs, and the barbecue out on to the ice (no, we would not use the barbecue). We think it might make a nice picture. “This is why you want to be scientist!”

Sam laughs and then says, we don’t want to make it look too much fun.

We were on station for a short enough time we didn’t use an ice anchor. Just spun the port side prop slowly to keep us in the pocket. Half a dozen hours of the day. A short stop.

Lorena Edenfield and Alice Orlich measuring ice thickness along a transect. Photo by Roger Topp
Lorena Edenfield and Alice Orlich measuring ice thickness along a transect. Photo by Roger Topp

Somewhere in the day, I put together a five minute compilation of ice breaking footage. Probably not even the best bits, but at times, the laptops were threatening to chatter themselves off the bench, screens flapping like perimeter flags in a gale, keys dancing like water thrown onto a hot skillet. Advanced work trying to keep the mouse steady on the edit point. Mouse pads even harder to control where they click, how far a packet of photographs get moved. I’m going to find strange things in odd folders for the next week. Sent the video to shore. More soon.

Bed tonight as the boat is shaking like a really long series of aftershocks, rattling like pair of marbles in a tin can. We’ve started to do more than turn ice floes into shattered dinner plates — we’ve started to make ice cubes, chunks almost as thick as they are across. They clink about in a tall glass of ocean, but the sound underwater must be like sledgehammers making cobblestones.

— Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Exhibits, Design, and Digital Media Production)

Fish and Dentistry

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
March 26, 2015

I’ve never been one to fish, which is terrible considering I always order the surf over the turf. “Always the fish,” I said yesterday to Matt, our cook, about choice of meals on Sikuliaq. But my guess is fishing’s not so different from standing on the bow with 10-20 feet of painter’s pole, a goPro strapped to the end, and extending it out to see down where the ship is breaking the fresh ice. You spend your time in paradise and maybe come away with something for dinner.

Roger about to go fishing.
Roger about to go fishing.

Today’s video was okay, but the pole wasn’t far enough out. I’ll try and stick the thing closer to water/ice tomorrow. The shape of he bow makes it hard to see round to where the hull meets the ice. Sikuliaq is designed to break ice, which means she’s designed to ride up on top of the ice, crushing it underneath her weight as she goes. She does this well, moving forward or backwards. Which, yes, got a little creative when we were reversing at speed today. Will see how that video turned out tomorrow.

Sikuliaq Bow, Tip of the Spear.
Sikuliaq Bow, Tip of the Spear.

Couldn’t take a break from taking pictures so I took a break from working with them on the laptop. Caught up on some of the week’s earlier video and so missed seeing a pack of walrus we passed by. No dearth of cameras though. Lots of great pictures came out of that sighting and have made it back to the mainland. I know a couple can be seen at Brandon’s blog at icefungi.wordpress.com.

Mid-water trawl recovery.
Mid-water trawl recovery.

Since we’ve found some wide leads and polynyas, thick with birds and hopefully fish, we put a couple nets in the water today one after the other. We in put a mid-water trawl, looking for juvenile fish an inch to two inches in length.

They didn’t catch anything this time. The Van Veen and the Haps Corer were both temperamental but brought back samples, more animals that really didn’t want to see the light of day.

Ethan and Ann retrieving the benthic core.
Ethan and Ann retrieving the benthic core.

That’s why we have a machine shop, an electrical shop, an electronics shop… When it breaks we have to fix it. No going back because we need a bolt or a really long selfie-stick. The wood-working tools, though, are stored in the van, and the deck in most weather serves when the crew needs to make a box, a work bench, a park bench, a swing set, or an ice anchor.

Important to note that we also have a hospital. I have a couple bruises from hitting one shin on a cofferdam and another on something I don’t remember what, and I’ve seen a couple bandaged fingers walking around (with electrical tape naturally). But I doubt “Ship Medicine” will make it as a TV pilot. Still it sounds pretty high-tech in there, meaning that hospital. I haven’t seen it but John or Adam said something about the hospital’s automated help system or something. It has a fancy name/acronym. I’m pretty sure it does things like say, (audibly) “Step One: Connect electrode A to the…,” if you suddenly find yourself with a patient, or maybe it’s just a dedicated sat-phone line, but if your mind wandered during the safety briefing back in Dutch, it could sound more like we have the auto-surgeon from Prometheus onboard.

I made a joke to my dentist last month about perhaps us finally taking care of that problem tooth before I went to sea (the one that’s been complaining since October). The joke was that the Captain would likely need to be my dentist if I had a problem out here. Not sure if it really would be the Captain, but it would need to be one of the crew and — yeah. My dentist agreed quickly, and suddenly all sorts of appointment slots became available. Modern medicine suddenly felt modern again. X-rays were delivered. Phone calls happened. My travel schedule seemed to matter more than office hours.

We took care of the tooth (removed that money-pit!) allowing a little bit of time before the cruise in case there were any post-op problems. Brought antibiotics with me just in case, not knowing when my jaw would stop aching — for a week and a half, right up to Dutch Harbor. The flight into Dutch was fine, but the Horizon Air turboprop to Anchorage made two attempts (blamed it on another plane — but we’ve all heard that one) to land and I swear the cabin pressure was changing the whole time. My sinuses were not up to it — but all good on getting to Dutch. All moisture, all happy to be there. Like visiting a spa. I haven’t thought about it much since, but Carrie reminded me in a email yesterday, asking how my mouth felt. Maybe I just don’t grind my teeth on ships. Maybe this was the life for me. Ah, nostalgia.

Sunset over sea ice.
Sunset over sea ice.

I told my dental-surgeon-person that I really wasn’t nostalgic (about losing my tooth). I was in the chair and she was going into an explanation about how all other options were really off the table (the patient’s dead Jim), and I interrupted because I just wanted to cut the sorrows to a minimum, get it out right there, get back to work, and give me the maximum number of hours between extraction and the boat leaving the pier.

Funny how a tooth feels like a small thing and yet the hole left behind feels like it could hold two of them. Let’s not get into why we can’t just leave the gap — because the teeth and bone are moving parts in check…

Sikuliaq Bow, Sea Ice Nursery.
Sikuliaq Bow, Sea Ice Nursery.

These are the things you (I) think about standing watching the ice floes crack and split and be pushed together. The little foot-width green-black ribbons of water are not melt-water streams you could splash across. They are opening. They are closing. They are 60 meters straight down. It’s easy to imagine the ice as just another snowy stretch of (very flat) tundra. But imagine walking across the ice and breaking through — just for a second — just one foot, one knee, one leg. How quickly you’ll snatch that leg back, sensing all that sudden space beneath it, like it could get lost down there while still attached to your hip. There’s a lot of world under the ice to swallow it up. And the cold numbs fast. I think about what will happen to our track after we are gone. Areas will freeze up. Areas will welcome summer. But every time we take a floe and make two floes, both can move independently. A small cut, a healing, or a great big gap?

I did see the oral surgeon a second time so she could do her best at a, “Still aches? Ok,” optimistic thumbs up, have a good trip, “Here’s my number, call me Sunday before you leave if there’s a problem.”

No problems. No worries. Another day of Arctic Odyssey. Surreal. Today, instead of walrus I saw Alice measuring ice thickness while we were underway. Pictures later, but it was sort of a cross between puppeteering and arcade asteroids. Today I learned that a dinoflagellate cyst is basically a gobstopper with jazz hands. I did get to see a seal hauling itself over ice, mad to get away from this crazy, tech ship. I saw my second sunset in two days, but this one was over water so, dull. Oh, hardly. That’s a heck of cold wind when we’re making way. Step outside. Snap. Snap. Snap. Step inside. Repeat to taste. I learned that pecan pie is the easiest pie to make and that the secret to polenta is cheese, milk, cheese, butter, and more cheese. Now, a cooking show? On ship. I’m sure it’s been done.

Clear skies means 250m resolution MODIS satellite images.
Clear skies means 250m resolution MODIS satellite images.

And concerning cheese. Rumor has it we might be looking at our second ice station tomorrow. Time for coring to turn another floe into Swiss cheese, and then, well, drive a ship into it, smash it up, and fish in the holes we’ve made. Salts, trace metals, Plankton, juvenile fish, benthic worms. Small, important stuff. We’ve been out here a week with two to go. Hard to imagine we’re just getting started.

— Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Exhibits, Design, and Digital Media Production)

On the Ice

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
March 25, 2015

Sikuliaq moored at Ice Station Juha on March 25th, 2015.
Sikuliaq moored at Ice Station Juha on March 25th, 2015. Photo by Roger Topp

This was the “big day.” The first time Sikuliaq puts scientists on the ice.

Ice Coring at Ice Station Juha on March 25th, 2015. With Sam Laney and Brandon Hassett. Photo by Roger Topp
Ice Coring at Ice Station Juha on March 25th, 2015. With Sam Laney and Brandon Hassett. Photo by Roger Topp

The ice was ~14 inches thick. The sun was cooperative.

Research Sam Laney is with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Brandon Hassett is a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Sikuliaq moored at Ice Station Juha on March 25th, 2015. Photo by Roger Topp
Sikuliaq moored at Ice Station Juha on March 25th, 2015. Photo by Roger Topp

 

Ice Station Juha

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
March 25, 2015

Tonight we’re transiting. Lying in my rack on the 01 deck, this is something like sleeping/reading/typing on a very narrow bed bolted to the inside of a shipping container made of aluminum suspended by a crane in a windstorm consisting of cannon-shot bowling balls. We’re not swinging about per se, but we are being pushed side to side with seeming deliberate meteorological force. On this deck, crushing through ice 12 – 16” thick at about 3.5 knots also sounds a whole lot like a windstorm, with all the hail you can pack into it. Who doesn’t like a good storm when you’re dry inside a box made of steel plates?

Ice Station Driveway. Photo by Roger Topp
Ice Station Driveway. Photo by Roger Topp

Today I solved the mystery of the locked door. Didn’t stop me from locking Perry out of the stateroom this evening, but at least we both know exactly why our door keeps locking ‘itself’ — and locking one or the other of us out of the room. “This never happened to me before,” I told him couple days ago. Meaning, this is my third stateroom on the same boat, but first time even realizing there’s a button to lock the door on the inside. Thought maybe I’ve got a strange of way of gripping the lever handle this time out. We don’t have keys. We are not meaning to lock the door at any time of day or night.

Because two staterooms share a common head, Perry was able to use three doors to get into the room instead of the one. I was up in the rack, and because it’s a contortion (while under attack) to get down, I was waiting to see if he could navigate the three doors before getting down to help him with the one. “Roger, You locked me out of our room!”

“And yet here you are.”

He goes back into the head. I tell him he’s welcome to use the front door. He says, “Yes, but I have to use the bathroom.”

This makes sense. Earlier I noticed and showed him the error of our ways. The door button is suffering from cabin fever — and getting depressed by the wall when the door is pushed back. The door, when opened all the way, pretty much bangs right into the door to the head. I found the dent. Before he left to head back to the Bridge, Perry conducted his own investigation and found where the now missing doorstop had broken away. All mysteries explained.

But that wasn’t all that happened today.

The Sikuliaq in the ice at Ice Station Juha. Photo by Roger Topp
The Sikuliaq in the ice at Ice Station Juha. Photo by Roger Topp

We had our first ice station. Ice Station Juha, named after our Finnish ice pilot, Juha Varis. We spent the night in our tiny, half ship-length self-made canal, moored with an ice-anchor. Ever had one of those Paddingtonesque coats where the buttons are basically little sticks on a loop that you push through the eyes and when then turn they hold fast? Yep, basically like that. Perry led the way on the ice last evening, probing for weaknesses with an ice stick. Ethan followed with what looked to be a five foot length of 8×8 timber. That was our buttoning down for the night. By 10:00 this morning the crew had re-lowered the gangway and reflagged a safe perimeter for the scientists to work within. Didn’t stop the Captain, Alice, and I following Perry (this is key) out beyond that to get a good look at the ship from out beyond the bow. Perry is Yupik from St. Lawrence Island. He knows walking on sea ice.

Alice and Perry measuring ice thickness. Photo by Roger Topp
Alice and Perry measuring ice thickness. Photo by Roger Topp

Within the flagged perimeter, Alice and Perry ran transects, drilled holes, and measured the ice thickness. Rob took cores and collected water for a trace metals study. Brandon and Sam took cores to measure salinity and temperature in order to gauge ice strength for Evan and algal habitat for Brandon. Evan and I walked around taking pictures and distracting the bear guard. Ethan stood as bear guard, and up on the Bridge at least a couple observers stood bear watch — even if we were a little far south to see much in the way of bears. Sorry, no actual bears. It’s a good thing.

Sam and Brandon drilling cores. Photo by Roger Topp
Sam and Brandon drilling cores. Photo by Roger Topp

The ship looks good in ice. I like how the new lead behind the ship started to freeze up overnight, the rubble knitting itself together again, kinda like a bone graft, the bits of ice teaching the water in the in-between how to crystalize and seal around the wound of the ship. I like how the sun decided to come out and stay out all day. Just got back down from sunset (22:00) on the Bridge. One seal, two walrus, clear skies, and a mind-numbing number of photographs in just the short hour I was there. That star made the cleanest exit I have ever seen in my life, melting and then shrinking, orange, to a point and then gone. The sunrise this morning wasn’t bad either.

The Sikuliaq in the ice at Ice Station Juha. Photo by Roger Topp
The Sikuliaq in the ice at Ice Station Juha. Photo by Roger Topp

I like how there’s ice on three sides of the ship, that the boat’s a knife stilled mid-cut. I like that I got a picture of the Captain looking back at the boat, a picture of Perry pretending he had snagged a fish in one of the auger holes, a picture of Bern with Herculean cloud rays coming off his shoulders, a picture of the ship with what looks one of the science crew hauling it across the ice by the mooring rope, a picture of the ship with the nameplate in focus. The big, 36-frame spherical photo turned out well, and a whole lot of else went perfectly as well. I haven’t had time in the last 17 hours to take even a look at the video. The laptop (yes, that intrepid laptop) is chugging through some of it now. Still transiting in the morning, so provided the weather looks dismal (it won’t. It’ll be perfect I just know it), I’ll do some catching up.

rt_blog_133

Now. Navigating by Radarsat, somewhere in the Bering Sea south of St. Mathews. We’re looking for some good leads that will let us bear north and move more quickly. Parking in a floe is all well and good, but the ice field is moving southwest at about 1 knot and taking anything not under power with it. The better ice is north. So we drive on into the night.

— Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Exhibits, Design, and Digital Media Production)

 

Poetry is More Important than a Working Laptop

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
March 24, 2015

Roger Topp with game face on.
Roger Topp with game face on.

You have to watch out for water when you are on a ship, because really, water gets everywhere. In Puerto Rico the humidity was so high it collected in the ceiling of the Main Lab (from a ventilation duct probably) and dripped down onto the floor and splashed a workbench. And when I say dripped, think collected puddle of water on surface where surface suddenly tips, like ships do, and all the water gets caught up in the excitement and goes to some new place fast and unexpectedly.

I have this sudden image/memory of a run of cold water going down the back of my neck — but I can’t quite figure out where the water’s coming from.

In the Caribbean, the department laptop was on one of those benches just a couple hours beforehand. Luckily it escaped catastrophe and remained safe for the rest of that cruise.

At the outset of this cruise it was revealed to me one of my dry bags (ferried down the lumpy road from Seward) had been thoroughly doused with sea water. Bit of an issue with a valve not being closed after repairs in the Wet Lab. No harm done, not because it was a dry-bag or an advertised “Wet Lab.” More that airport baggage handling has long since caused the “dry-bag” certification to be revoked.

Except for some level of embarrassment for the crew at having to unpack a bag with potential “underwear” inside (false alarm) to dry things out, nothing was damaged. And let me just say, this crew is professional — I would not have known anything had happened – so well was the repack – if someone (Carin) had not said something.

So today — I was outside this afternoon diligently working away in my office on the fantail when a great jet of water took out the department laptop. These things are unfortunate, unexpected, and they are rare, but they happen none-the-less, and in 3s. The deck crew was oblivious, busy, suited up against the 30 knot wind, and hard-hatted under the cranes. Strange — given there were no hosepipes in evidence at the time and we’re definitely becalmed in a sense of a lack of immediate open water.

I was oblivious too, because while I was outside where the water should be, the laptop was “safe” in the Main Lab (yes, that lab), and as I said, the boat wasn’t rocking – at – all.

The imagination’s “jet” of water was later refined down to “at a guess” three good squirts with a water pistol. Steve left me a note. The errant blast of (sea?)water stuck from one of the water supplies in the lab. Steve was definitely in the vicinity. Lucky too. The patient was treated with isopropyl and has been incubated in a space bag with desiccant. We were not required to unlock the hospital, and I am confident we will see a full recovery by morning. I will have to ask Steve if it was seawater that struck our “currently resting” department laptop. It SHOULD be seawater. I would prefer it, even if the salt makes a recovery more difficult. It can handle it dammit! Because poetry is more important than a working laptop. When things will end, they should end well. When stuff changes direction, there should always be a tease that everything could come back around. Chekhov’s gun, Murakami’s field well, white whales. Everything returns to the sea.

Typing as I am — now — is no strange magic after all. I have two laptops with me. I have back-up everything (never know when a dry-bag may be discovered storing water on the inside) — even after I throw the pair of jeans I’m currently wearing in the trash tonight. The hole in the crotch went from nothing to all encompassing in half a day. I brought 3 pairs. This happens to everyone right?

And I expect the laptop will pull through. I am hoping it had time to finish rendering the one-minute video of the ship breaking ice before the emergency shutdown — and I’m looking forward to sending that video to the shoreside server tomorrow. See! Now, if you see the video, it’ll mean so much more.

Grease ice. Photo by Roger Topp
Grease ice. Photo by Roger Topp

Poetry is more important than a lot of things. Like if I hadn’t quit oceanography 20 years ago, it’d be no big thing to be out here right now. Sure, new ship. New opportunities for exploration, big deal for the university —but 20 years returning to the near-very-thing that brought me to Alaska and UAF in the first place? That’s special.

Actually, I came to Alaska to work on acoustical oceanography, specifically a project to calculate ocean temperature using sound transmitted over long distances – like ocean basins. You know, acoustics! That was the key word in my letter that caught the eye of my to-be advisor. I wanted to work with sound. He had a new grant-funded project. And…as happens it went nowhere because turns out use of such noises in the water could ill-affect marine life. So, changing tacks, I did current meter research on data collected under a polynya west of Greenland. Never saw that polynya, but I thought about it today as we cruised around a big puddle in the Bering Sea ice field. Pleasant day’s sailing back and forth. We dropped nets and attracted gulls that must think the Sikuliaq is one poor fisherman. They can’t quite figure out how we got so big catching nothing bigger than a bath toy (and that was the jelly no one was interested in).

Benthic worm (upset). Photo by Roger Topp
Benthic worm (upset). Photo by Roger Topp

We cored! Twice! and pulled up a worm who vogued for us (who is really pissed off in the picture I am told — kinds sorta sticking his tongue, teeth, and throat out), and a couple of stars who were lucky enough to be captured intact atop a foot-deep, six-inch diameter cylindrical core, and ultimately unlucky enough to be captured by a scientist named Ann Knowlton, who said I could just leave them on the bench after taking their picture. She would subsequently, “Take care of them.”

Sea stars. Photos by Roger Topp
Sea stars. Photos by Roger Topp

They were a pleasant pair, all waving their arms about for a while and then quieting down remarkably, but — I digress.

Today I most appreciated seeing the grease ice. That’s the looks-blurry sheen collected into windrows on our puddle polynya. That’s baby ice-sheet, still conforming, stretching magically over the larger swells but completely damping the smaller wind-waves. It’s completely out of focus, coming into being. Hurry up kids. Spring’s already got most places.

Grease ice and gull. Photo by Roger Topp
Grease ice and gull. Photo by Roger Topp

So, it HAS been a good day despite a biting wind and the surprise (sea?) spray indoors. A good day thinking about previous cruises (3) and previous walks on sea ice (3), and living in tents for weeks at a time (3), and the number of new books read in February (3), and the number of other scientists sharing my head (3), and the number of empty chairs around this table. Despite the evidence of at least one of my previous lives, I’ve never really been into numbers. I mean, linear algebra is a trip and who doesn’t appreciate quaternions, but fluid dynamics is just ugly (okay, and elegant in a way). You pretty much have to set up these (doubtful) equations which are mostly (totally) partial derivatives and Greek (totally hazed), and then rationalize away most of it into something manageable/solvable. I’ll take a few kind words over that any day. Still, it’s sweet to be out here again. Watching textures on the surface of the water, admiring the sea birds for just not worrying about the windchill, capturing a setting sun! In the tropics, the sun sets every day. Here, things are thinner, greyer, more blurred, stretched out — seasonal.

The Board of Lies
The Board of Lies

Station #5. Ice Station Juha. Breaking news. The Board of Lies says I’m on the ice tomorrow. Hasn’t steered me wrong yet. I’d walk the ten feet and take a picture of the Board, but I’m too comfortable. Instead, thanks to the inflight entertainment system, I’ll just pull it up on the 2nd laptop (the one for words, not numbers) and take a screenshot. I’d stick a leg in the picture but I can’t quite reach out far enough and still hit the crazy function key three-finger combo.

Answer: It was seawater. The universe is just.

— Roger Topp (feeling exclamatory tonight!)