American Adventures Abroad: The Four Germanies

I am American and damn proud of it. I was born in Germany, left almost 30 years ago, and, like a plant from another ecosystem, I am exposed to the new Germany for the first time. I know the difficult histories of both West and East Germany that since 1989 are one united country. The 100 people aboard the research icebreaker R/V Polarstern perhaps represent this new country well. Most crew and scientists were born and raised in either East or West Germany, extinct countries which each had a range of characters to form a distinct and diverse German fabric:

The first person I met when boarding the ship in dry dock was X. After introducing myself as an American scientist to sail the FS Polarstern in stilted if decent German, he revealed to me that he volunteered in the NVA, the soviet-style Nationale Volks-Armee for more than 10 years. Like many low-level Nazis a generation or two before him, he argues that not all was bad in the regime that he served. While this may be true, it strikes me odd, that this is the first things one reveals of oneself and a regime that created walls and killing zones to prevent its own citizens from leaving. Suspecting an uneasy history of guilt, I did not argue despite strong feelings to present different perspectives. Hence his next move is to state that American activities in Europe, Asia, South-America, Middle East, and Africa are the root source of all the problems in these regions. Again, not taking the bait, I listen, ask gentle probing questions to expose more detail, however, not much follows after the first rant that, perhaps, reflects a general feeling more than fact. I heart variations of this theme often in Germany both at sea and on land.

Our nurse and stewardess Kerstin also hails from the former East-Germany where she grew up the same time that I did in West-Germany, but unlike X., she embraces life as it presents itself without resentment, regret, or judgment. She signed on for a year working aboard Polarstern for a sense of adventure and to see the world in a different way. She is naturally curious on all things that relate to people, science, and life. She has little interest in politics, ideologies, and theories on how the world works, but she uses her own mind, experiences, and stories to make everyone around her laugh often. People like her should run the world.

The second Mate, Felix, was in charge when I boarded the ship. He is probably in his early 30ies and gave me the first tour of the ship in dry dock, a task that revealed a deep pride in the ship, its capabilities, and all it represents in a forward-looking modern Germany. He has clearly sailed to many ports and dealt successfully with people of different countries, cultures, and educations. Despite cursing and cussing of an ol’ salt, he is a hard-working, no-nonsense guy who gets things done efficiently. He also smokes like a chimney and likes to drive the ship while breaking sea ice. He did this often and smartly throughout the expedition.

A wonderful surprise to me aboard this ship is the large number of foreigners. There are three Danes aboard one of whom hails from New Zealand; two Canadians, two Belgians, and two Englishmen are aboard; while Brazil, China, Netherlands, Poland and the USA are each represented by one scientist. The two Canadians may as well come from two different countries, as one hails from English-speaking British Columbia and the other from French-speaking Montreal. Catherine’s Quebecoise language and perspectives are the most beautiful of all on this diverse ship. I could listen to her for hours …

Then there is a fourth group aboard who are perhaps the largest: They are the very young Germans who were born after the collapse of the communist empires in the East and they will become the new Germany. It is a foreign country to me, one I like from the distance, and it is a very young country with much potential to make a positive impact in the world.

Science party aboard R/V Polarstern after 4 weeks at sea in July 2014.

Science party aboard R/V Polarstern after 4 weeks at sea in July 2014.

Arctic Oceanographers Ashore In Tromso

Oceanographers are a bit crazy. This is especially true after sailing and working 4 weeks aboard a ship in the ice and fog and snow and drizzle that characterize summer in Fram Strait between northern Greenland and Spitsbergen. The one color one does NOT see is green, there just is none. So, when we got off FS Polarstern last thursday, what did we do? Walk … lots.

View to north from Tromsdalstinen with Barents Sea in the background and Tromso in the center

View to north from Tromsdalstinen with Barents Sea in the background and Tromso in the center

Thursday Nicole and I walked with all our luggage about 2 miles from the ship to our hotels in downtown Tromso. Each of us had a hand-held GPS for navigation to make sure we did not miss the Botanical Gardens. It was a marvelous rock garden to admire with an amazing blend of colors and plants both small and large. We are about 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle, so the plants that do well here are a hardy local bunch. A few even originate from as far as Tibet, some only recently discovered, but never described, so one of the gardeners tells me.

After we drop our cumbersome luggage in our hotels, Nicole and I set out for a geocaching expedition to explore the southern part of this island. There are 24 hours of day light, so no need to sleep while the sun is up.

Friday was a blur as it drizzled and rained all day in Tromso as it usually does; or so I am told. So, I pretty much sleep all day, get in touch with family and friends, and study the weather forecast for the weekend. It is supposed to be sunny again and two young German Physical Oceanographers and I plan for a big trip up the mountains the next day. Starting at our hotels, we cross the bridge to the mainland at 9am and start climbing up towards 4055 feet (1236 meters) high Tromsdalstinen. We make it up and down without any major mishap, but it took us 11 hours. I let the pictures we took along the way do the talking. Rarely tastes a beer this good even at the $10 for 3/4 of a pint. Good sleep after that to rest a sore and aching body.


Posted on borrowed time from a hotel in Copenhagen.

Men and Women on Edge 2

Bruce Chatwin came up during a late-night party aboard FS Polarstern this morning after all work and packing was completed this last day of a 4 week expedition to Fram Strait, a deep connection of the Arctic to the North-Atlantic Oceans between Greenland and Spitsbergen. I admire Bruce Chatwin for his keen eye that saw unusual patterns among people and places and the gently way that he puts it all into fine prose. “Patagonia” was perhaps his most-read book of small stories set within a grand landscape sparsely populated, but “Songlines” is his master-piece where he traces the way ancient mariners of the Australian interior bush and desert found their way home.

Bruce Chatwin never made it to the Arctic with its endless horizons of ice, snow, fog, and water. If he had made it, he would have found and described a strange group of people who work and live here on borrowed time. His spiritual daughter, Sara Wheeler, did make it to the Antarctic where she lived for seven months as a writer-in-residence supported by the US National Science Foundation. She lovingly describes scientists, technicians, cooks, and pilots with deep insights and detail. I often felt as if I had met her characters in different incarnations on ships and in camps of the past and present. I recommend Sara Wheeler’s “Terra Incognita” to anyone who has or will spent real time aboard research ships or in science camps. You will find every one of those weird mates whom Sara describes for you on your ship and camp. It is a book full of laughter and forgetting. No, no, Milan Kundera does not fit here.

We are all sailors on the edge of the civilized world on FS Polarstern, myself included. We are a diverse and potentially volatile mix of skills, languages, countries as we come together for a short moment to work together. We are considered weird, strange, and at times even socially unacceptable as we all push limits of both science and culture. This can be dangerous, but excesses are buffered when women wield power besides men. Closed societies such as ships or people stranded in strange places are more stable with women than they are without them. The Donner Party of 1846/47 serves as an example, there are others.


And Sara pokes gentle fun of closed male-dominated societies that often are also rigid, autocratic, and absurdly out of date. Reporting from FS Polarstern in 2014, I can say, that change for the better is on the way, but areas exist where improvements can be made. Change takes time, sometimes a generation. Germany is a country in transition the same way that most dynamic and democratic countries are. The large presence of foreigners on FS Polarstern moderates, modernizes, and modifies otherwise stagnant views and perspectives. German scientists study abroad and intermarry with “foreigners” in increasing numbers. This mixture of people of diverse countries, cultures, and continents bears much hope for the future. It was very exciting for me to see those changes 20-30 years after I emigrated from Germany to the United States of America.

Thank you, Germany, for giving me this opportunity to work, observe, and be part of a great expedition to Greenland.

EDIT: Original post was too long and rambling. On advice by wise female council, I decided to turn this into two separate posts. This is the second. July 5, 2014.

Men and Women on the Edge 1

EDIT: Original post was too long and rambling. One advice by wise female council, I decided to turn this into two separate posts. This is the first. July 5, 2014.

The “Quiet American” is not a popular book in the United States of America, but to me it described the dilemma and dangers of being American very well. The book by Graham Greene can be read as a simple love triangle between an old and corrupt French colonial officer of Indochina. His mistress is a young Vietnamese girl. She is delicate and beautiful, but also full of youth and potential who is eager to please her masters whom she shapes subconsciously. This relation becomes a volatile triangle when a young and innocent American enters full of good intentions. He falls in love with Indochina, sets out to free it from all the shackles of a corrupt past, but being ignorant and well-educated, his actions destroy all corners of the triangle in an unintended violent crescendo of people who follow their emotions that nobody can control once the equilibrium is disturbed.


About 10 years after Graham Greene wrote his book, a friend of mine, Ron, served as a 20-year old as the door machine gunner with the First US cavalry. He does not talk much about his time with this Army helicopter unit that was fighting hard in Vietnam along many honorable Vietnamese most of whom, he says, vanished. Ron credits the war in Vietnam to have saved his life as it provided him a way out of the gang-infested poor neighborhoods of Los Angeles that he grew up in. The Army also provided him with an education and element of temporary stability that gave him one basic element for a somewhat crazy but happy life. He did not go to Vietnam with intentions to change the world, and he did not, but he came back with an education more profound and deeply human than any arm-chair writer or sailor could ever wish for.

Ron’s education is not as formal as that of almost everyone aboard FS Polarstern a German research icebreaker where I spent my last 5 weeks working off Greenland, but Ron’s mechanical skill, common sense, and independent spirit matches several people aboard who have not had the privilege or luck to go to university, graduate school, and all that follows. Nevertheless, Ron, Jo, and many like them do know and care deeply about nature and people and how to make things work that are difficult to penetrate for most academics. Great new things happen, however, when the formal and the informal, the male and the female, the pacifist and the warrior come together with respect and humility to listen to each other without blowing screens of smoke into each other’s faces.

Sunset over the North Sea heading to north-east Greenland.

Sunset over the North Sea heading to north-east Greenland.

And a happy 238th Birthday to my adopted country on this 4th of July.

Of Moorings, Elephants, Norwegians, and Codswallop

The oceans are cruel, unforgiving, and destructive. Microbes, algae, plankton, fish, and whales all evolved slowly to make the seas their home. We men and women of science and technology race to catch-up with our steel, our sensors, our computers, our hope, and our wishful thinking. We place ourselves on powerful ships to lower fancy rigs into the water that poke the deep and icy Sea to reveal her secrets. We often wait a year or two or three to pick up our litter of machinery hoping that the sealed battery, electronics, and computer containers are still there with added data. There are thousands of small things that all must go just right to be successful, but one only needs one failure, one oversight, one faulty wire, one scratch or one hair on a rubbery seal, or one wrong letter in a deployment command code and the entire enterprise is doomed to fail. Sisyphus of the Greek tragedies come to mind as does Captain Ahab and his insane quest to control nature. We need time to evolve.

Less than 100 years ago Harald Sverdrup was the first to deploy a machine in the Arctic Ocean off Siberia to measure ocean currents. He used these data to write about tides, forces, and balances to make predictions on how wind and ice drive ocean currents and vice versa. This was many years before he transformed ocean-research to ocean-going research as director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California during the Second World War. As a “Resident Alien” from Norway he helped the Americans win the war by organizing scientists into skilled ocean-going groups to better predict waves, weather, and acoustics. Revolutionary measurements and advances were made with minimal bureaucratic overhead and results were used immediately to land troops on African and European beaches, to send planes with bombs to raid on Germany and Japan, to equip destroyers with sonar to hunt and sink submarines. After the war Sverdrup returned to his home country to direct the Norwegian Polar Institute with a deep sense of duty to help rebuild a Norway devastated by war and occupation. The basic design of his current-measuring device still exists today, made by Aanderaa. This Norwegian company has a stellar reputation for simple yet robust design that transitioned into the computer age.


It is very easy to deploy ocean moorings by slipping them gently into the water. In contrast, it is not so easy to get the sensor package back years later, because they have to respond to commands sent via remote control, a metal rod has to turn a motor to release a set of buoy and floats from iron anchors, the buoy has to raise everything to the surface, the sensors and the water-sealed computers driving them must be hauled onto the ship with ice, fog, or waves all complicating matters, and finally, there must be working connection to the data storage unit that must have operated correctly. Each step appears simple enough, but the long drawn-out sequence of many such steps, each critical, makes this such a risky and tricky business. Corrosion of metals in seawater, too, attacks any unprotected surface, hence many sacrificial pieces of metals are placed on any mooring with metal components. The pin to a shackle rusting away can endanger an entire mooring line. It boggles my mind that anything ever comes back, as often it does because of people like this one:


Olaf S., Benjamin R., and Agnieszka B. successfully recovered two moorings yesterday that were placed in 2012 in water more than a mile deep. It speaks to their skill and that of the crew they are with both now and 2 years ago. It was a good day’s work without much time to sit down for meals, Olaf told me on deck where he was in the weather all day. Ben made the fateful decision the day before not to release the moorings for much fog and ice would have endangered the mooring once at the surface, but he was there the following day at 4:30 am to decide on the release that was successful. Those are hard calls to make. There are 9 more such moorings that need to come back and one that will require lots of additional attention: The day prior we had sailed through fog and ice all day only to find one mooring collapsed into a messy pile of rope, imploded buoys, metal, and sensors about 8000 feet (2600 meters) below the surface. The cause for this failure is not known, but speculation is, that a 30’’ steel float got crushed when an iceberg or some other failure depressed the float below its breaking point. It was a frustrating day, but a little less fog, a little less ice the following day, and Ben, Olaf, and Agnieszka led several successful recoveries yesterday. It was also the last day of our expedition.


We still have a long way to go in our attempts to describe or understand the oceans to better predict how it impacts present and future climate. I compare this task to three blind men poking an elephant: One near the back notices a bushy tail that appears to correlate with a smelly source of gas, the second gets under a foot, describes a very hard woody surface that subsequently crushes him, while the third in front notices a rubbery pipe that wiggles like a snake. Their individual descriptions are costly, accurate, incomplete, and misleading. I often wonder, if our physical descriptions of the ocean do not have similar qualities, never mind more complex areas that involve living things such as elephants. Codswallop!

Posted by Pat Ryan for Andreas Muenchow