Wednesday, August 26, 2009



I have never seen so many ice bergs in my life. Hundreds and thousands of them of all shapes and sizes. We are sailing through an iceberg field - as deadly if not more than a mine field. One wrong turn and the ship could be history. Remember Titanic! That is why perhaps there is pin drop silence as the Captain of Arctic Sunrise Pete Willcox and the Ice Pilot Arna Swerensen concentrate on negotiate the menacing icebergs. One eighth of the iceberg is outside water, looking serene and lovely. But it is the other seven parts under water that worries sailors and captains alike. Ice harder than iron can rip through the ship's underbelly. Even though the Arctic Sunrise is an ice breaker, the captain takes her forward gently.

The ship tears through a thin sheet of ice moving forward. There are no waves in the fjord and a thin layer of ice has formed overnight. It is transparent and deep blue. The actic wind is icy and dry. I am on the bow of the ship admiring different ice bergs. But this beauty is lost on scientists. Dr Ruth Curry, Senior research specialist and Dr Fiamma Straneo, associate scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanography Institute, Massachusetts are busy trying to find out if warmer waters from sub tropical seas is creeping up the fjords and reaching the Arctic Greenlandic glaciers. Their team had left some instruments in these waters last year. The instruments measure conductivity and temperature at different depths. At the crack of dawn the ship comes to a halt. A boat is lowered. Along with the scientists I too am on the boat.

But before we disembark we change into bright orange skin hugging rubber dry suits. God forbid if the boat capsizes the icy arctic waters will kill us within seconds. The rubber dry suits will help us live Godwilling till help arrives. You slip into the orange suits, zip up till the neck. no water no ice can seep in. This is mandatory as per shipping rules. Same applies to you when you fly in a helicopter over water.

The scientists use a GPS device to look for the place where they had dropped the instruments. We spend an hour in those icy waters. In the little motor boat, the water is close enough to touch. But I prefer not to take off my gloves. Despite wearing two pairs of woolen socks, thermal inner wear and arctic jacket I am cold. The ice bergs turn different hues of blue with the changing sun light. The acoustic signal from the under water device is not heard on the receiver in the boat. The area where the GPS device indicates the instruments should be is wrong. The device could have moved some distance due to the waves or ice bergs. The instruments could be buried under ice. With each passing minute the disappointment increases and suddenly behind one ice berg three large orange colored plastic balls are sighted. There is a wave of euphoria. We clap and speed up towards the under water instruments.

For the scientists it is a very happy moment. Something like child birth. New data that will help them understand climate change patterns better. Perhaps. It is too early to say. One year under water the instrument is caked in ice. It has been recording salinity and temperature at 50 metres under water every half hour for the past one year. The other device is not found despite another one hour spent in the icy waters. That was 200 metres under water.

We return to the Arctic Sunrise. There is a lot of clapping and back slapping. The scientists are excited. They will spend the next couple of weeks studying and analyzing the data. But their initial findings indicate below the surface there is warm water. Up to 6 degrees Celsius and it appears to have reached the Arctic glaciers..

I return to the deck. The ship has just scraped past an ice berg. Chunks of ice are on the deck. They are rock solid. We wash the snow. It glints in the sunlight. We leave it on the deck and several hours later, it is just the same. It has not melted a bit. The sun is shining far...far away. It is still early day. The scientists now get back to the second part of their task. Using a special winch they drop more instruments under water. They also collect samples of water at different depths.

Moments later I break off and head to the galley (kitchen). There is an Indian connection here. More on that another day.

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