Nares Strait 2012: First Challenges and Petermann Ice Island Coming

Petermann Glacier’s 2012 ice island is heading south, the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen is heading north, and my passport went through the washer. Ticket agents at Philadelphia airport refused to accept my worn passport to get into Canada. My journey appeared at a dead-end, but ticket agents, U.S. State Department employees in downtown Philadelphia, and a Jordanian cab driver got me to Canada with a new passport, a new ticket, and a new lesson learnt in 4 hours. I did not believe it possible, but it was. I arrived in Canada with an entire day to spare.

Over the years I learnt to plan and budget generously for Arctic research, and then improvise with what is available. I was taught to bring spares of all critical equipment to prepare for loss and failure. I learnt to allow for extra time as missed planes, weather, and who knows what always make tight schedules tighter, like passports going through washers. I learnt that patience, civility, co-operations, and seeing the world through other people’s eyes and responsibilities get me farther than fighting. After I got my PhD in 1992, I learnt that the very people who cause troubles by enforcing rules and regulations are often also the most likely to know the way out of trouble. The ticket agent who denied my passport was also critical to help me get a new one. Thank you, Beth.

Our science party of eight from Delaware and British Columbia and the ship’s crew of 30-40 from Newfoundland will meet on the tarmac of St. John’s tomorrow at 4:30am, fly to and refuel at Iqaluit, Nunavut, and arrive at the U.S. Air Force Base at Thule, Greenland. The crew who got the ship from St. John’s to Thule will return with the plane home. It usually takes two days sailing north by north-west to reach Nares Strait from Thule, but this year the ice will be a challenge far greater than getting a new passport in 4 hours.

Western North-Atlantic and Arctic regions with Greenland in the west (top right) and Canada (left). Blue colors show bottom depth (light blue are shelf areas less than 200-m deep) and grey and white colors show elevations. Nares Strait is the 30-40 km wide channel to the north of Smith Sound, Baffin Bay is the body of water to the south of Thule.

The ice island PII-2012 is moving rapidly towards the outer fjord at a rate that increased from 1 km/day last week to 2 km/day over the weekend. I expect it to be out of the fjord an in Nares Strait by the weekend when we were hoping to recover the moorings with data on ocean currents, ice thickness, and ocean temperature and salinities that we deployed in 2009. The ice island is threatening us from the north: Without a break-up, it is big enough to block the channel as another large ice island did for almost 6 months in 1962.

Petermann Glacier, Fjord, and Ice Island on July 31, 2012 at 08:05 UTC. Nares Strait is to the top left. Petermann Glacier, Greenland is on bottom right. PII-2012 is at the center.

At the southern entrance to Nares Strait, lots of multi-year ice is piling up near the constriction of Smith Sound. Winds and currents from the north usually flush this ice into Baffin Bay to the south, however, the same winds and currents will move the ice island out of Petermann Fjord and into Nares Strait. We will need patience, humility, and luck to get where we need to be to recover our instruments and data. A challenge that cannot be forced, we will likely wait and go with the flow rather than fight nature. We will have to play it smart. We are the only search and rescue ship for others. I am nervous, because this year looks far more difficult than did 2003, 2006, 2007, or 2009. In 2005 we were defeated by the winds, but that is a story for a different day.

9 responses to “Nares Strait 2012: First Challenges and Petermann Ice Island Coming

  1. Good luck, Andreas!

  2. Have a safe trip – and beware the hazards of George Street after dark 🙂


  3. Sorry – Thought you might have been getting “Screeched in” at St.John’s.
    Ice looks pretty thick in Smith Sound – hope it doesn’t put a halt to your plans.

    • Oh, I mis-understood you completely. I read George Street as “Nares Strait,” because of Sir George Nares. Furthermore, unlike U.S. Coast Guard ships, which operates 24-hours under military rules without alcohol and overtime, the Canadian Coast Guard operate less hours at full strength with some alcohol and some overtime served. As a result, the cultures aboard US and Canadian vessels are dramally different: US ships are permanently training with a very young crew while Canadian ships are experienced and older crew. The Canadian crews do the same amount of work in 12-18 instead 24 hours with 1/3 the staff. The US ships have much larger “unclassified” electronic capabilities with many more advanced “unclassified” sensor systems. Both ships also have “classified” sensor systems and missions that I know nothing about.

      The CCGS Henry Larsen originates from St. John’s and most of its officers and crew are local to the town or island. There is currently a dispute if prior “screeching-in” certificates are accepted aboard the ship. The dispute is over “laminated certificates” (invalid) and “unlaminated certificates.” The latter may be valid if signed and authenticated by an officer of the CCGS Henry Larsen aboard said ship. There are also arguments that a crossing of the polar circle certified by a Commanding Officer of a Canadian Coast Guard ship or the crossing of the International Dateline north of the Arctic Circle, also certified by a Commanding Officer the CCGS Henry Larsen may superseed the more common “scrreching-in” ceremonies. I am the main person making these arguments facing authorities with powers that exceed mine by far.

      EDIT: No new imagery today, we are supposed to get RadarSat (effective classified, as it is a Canadian product of a profit-making enterprise, ASAR is sadly missed) that cannot be distributed. After waiting for 6 hours on the tarmac, our flight to Thule, Greenland got post-poned by 24-hours for reasons not entirely clear, so we have another day that I mostly spent catching up on sleep that I had little of the last 5 days.

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