Breaking Ice

Somewhere beyond the sound of splintering ice and the streetcar traffic in San Diego, there’s a noise, burrowing into my head. It’s sweet and melodious, like a harp gently played, but there’s treachery in its tune. I try to block it out, try to keep listening to the enchanting young lady on the trolley who is telling me about a Jamaican folk art revival, but the music from the harp swells to the point where normal conversation is futile. What is this, some sort of downtown Baroque street rave? No – I recognize the tune now: it’s…the alarm on my phone. It’s 11:45 p.m., Chilean Summer Time, and I’ve got 15 minutes to get up, feed myself and report for my shift.

The sound of the ice these past two days has been different. I’d gotten used to what it sounds like when we’re moving through pancake ice (someone swirling water around a tub) and pack ice (heavy rain shower on the roof), but some time early yesterday morning I popped out of my coding reverie and thought “Hmm, that’s new…” The sound was that of car tires slipping on snow, and the accompanying gentle ricochets as it rebounded off grooves in the road cut by other vehicles.

We were…. we were breaking ice. Whoosh – I was five flights up, camera in hand faster than you could um, recite the preamble to the Constitution.

So here’s the thing: those inscrutable letters at the front of the ship’s name – the RV/IB Nathaniel B. Palmer – stand for “Research Vessel/Ice Breaker”. While we’ve been doing a lot of research these past couple of weeks, we haven’t been doing a lot of ice breaking. None, in fact. In spite of appearances, we’ve just been “pushing ice”, shoving our way through loose pack ice and pancake.

Now, though? Heading south in the lee of the Shetlands toward the Wedell Sea, we’d finally encountered real ice that needed a bit of oomph breaking.

It was full dark on the bridge when I got there, with Chief Mate Chris at the helm.

“We’re breaking ice?”

“We’re breaking ice.” I couldn’t see his face, but I could tell from his voice that he was grinning.

Breaking ice isn’t particularly good for doing science – it takes much longer to get anywhere, and we need open water to drop CTDs and pull nets. But it seems to be a challenge the mates enjoy. In the ice, Chris tells me, you can’t just push your way through: the ice is always telling you where to go, and you have to learn to listen.

I watched as he backed us up a little then, sweeping the spotlight through the darkness, looking for leads or cracks in the sheet that our push opened up. There – about 20 degrees to port. Engines forward and we picked up speed, 15 million pounds of diesel and steel bouncing off the sides of the channel we’d cut. Our bow hit the crack on center and split it wide open, a dark gash in the icescape, beckoning us to follow where it led. It was a good opening – we probably made it another quarter mile before we settled in a jumble of mixed-year ice that sucked away our momentum. Chris backed us up, and swept the spotlight looking for the next lead, and pressed forward again. The ice, he said, isn’t something you force yourself through – it’s a puzzle, asking to be solved.

I watched for probably a half hour (yeah, I was on shift, but it was slow downstairs) before I realized there were stars out, and excused myself to the deck behind the bridge. The sky was alive with unfamiliar constellations – all I could pick out was the Southern Cross high overhead and Orion doing a handstand on the horizon. The moon? Oh, I’d just missed the moon, Chris told me – was beautiful earlier, but now there was just a faint glow behind the clouds to the west. It was still breaktaking. And to the east, just a faintest glow of orange on the horizon; oh yes, this was going to be a good one.

By the time the sun did come up, word had spread and it was practically a party out on the bow. To the east we had sea ice and a sky on fire; to the west, the evocatively-named (not!) Clarence Island, rising well over a mile out of the sea in windswept majesty.

Yes, we all had work to do, but this was special – even the old-timers were out snapping pictures. And when first light hit the island it came alive in watercolor streaks for which pictures can do no justice. Yeah, today may be rough, but yesterday? Totally worth it.

One response to “Breaking Ice

  1. Next time you go stargazing, look for the large and small Magellanic clouds. They’ve like nothing we have in the northern hemisphere.


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