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)


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