Published online 16 July 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.956

News: Q&A

Science on a melting ice floe

After Russian researchers are evacuated from their Arctic base, one member of the team explains what it was like to spend the winter on ice.

Twenty scientists were this week evacuated from an Arctic ice floe after it began to break up earlier than expected. The floating ice was home to ‘North Pole 35’, a research station where scientists lived and worked through the entire Arctic winter. Roughly three kilometres by five kilometres in September, the ice floe is now only a few hundred metres wide and dangerously unstable.

Jürgen Graeser of the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) for Polar and Marine Research in Potsdam, Germany, spent the winter there as the first Westerner ever invited to a drifting Russian station. Quirin Schiermeier asks him what life in the freezer was like.

How was your trip?

It was an incredible experience. A lot of hard work, of course, and at times the weather was extremely harsh. But the Russians were so helpful and warm-hearted that I soon started feeling almost at home. I speak very little Russian, and few of the Russian colleagues understood English or German — but we got along perfectly well.

So where exactly have you been?

We set out in September 2007 from Severnaya Zemlya, an archipelago off the Russian north coast. From there the journey went northwards until we reached 86.5º latitude — less then 500 kilometres from the North Pole. In spring we drifted back on a southwesterly course across the Arctic Ocean. When I left the camp on 10 April, ice conditions were still good enough for an AWI aircraft to be able to land on the ice-floe. Before the premature break up this week we only experienced three smaller cracks in the ice. But the camp was eventually abandoned when it was just 80 kilometres north of Svalbard, because the ice had become too thin.

What kind of measurements did you take?

Mainly atmospheric tests to measure temperature and wind speed, and we also made ozone measurements using instruments carried on balloons. Meanwhile, the Russian researchers took conductivity, temperature and density profiles of the water. The data will be useful to help build better climate models. Because conditions were relatively favourable for most of the time, we managed to retrieve almost twice as many data sets as expected. One of the most striking things we found was the frequent occurrence of extreme temperature inversions, with air at a few hundred metres above sea level being up to 15ºC warmer than on the ground. We saw the same contrasts with wind speeds. These phenomena have never been measured in situ before.

Did you see any polar bears?

Plenty! I guess there were 30 or so close encounters, with bears prowling around our cabins or marching right through the middle of our little village. You have to be a bit careful, but there were no really life-threatening incidents. We used our flare pistols quite a lot, though, to drive them away. The biggest problem was that it took more than a month in the first place to find a suitable ice floe for setting up the camp. By the time the station was fully operational it was the end of October. We had no assistance in setting everything up, so with winter round the corner it really became a race against time. Building an airstrip long enough for cargo planes to land was also a challenge.

The Arctic winter must be quite extreme?

It was actually raining when we first arrived on the ice floe. But winter and darkness came fast as we drifted north, all the while hurrying to set up the wooden cabins, the mess and our instruments. The winter was tough — on quite a few days the temperature fell below -40ºC. Luckily, conditions didn’t get quite as extreme as they might have, and we didn’t get into any really massive storms. But when on 8 March the Sun first appeared beyond the horizon again it was still a relief. We held a little feast, with shish kebabs and all, to celebrate its return. 

You can read more about Arctic research in one of this week’s News Features in Nature: The long summer begins

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