Pack Ice North of Svalbard

It is always an incredible experience sailing into the Arctic pack ice north of Svalbard. Utterly mesmerising and continuously changing, it is like staring into the flickering flames of a fire, at once comforting and yet hostile. The landscape is bleak, inhospitable and yet for me, thoroughly alluring. It is one of the primary reasons I return time and again to the high northern latitudes and enjoy every minute spent in this unique environment.

I first broke ice on the Royal Navy’s ice patrol ship, the HMS Protector on it’s maiden polar voyage to the Antarctic peninsula. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of sailing on the UK’s ice breaking research vessels as well as some of the ice strengthened ships in the tourist sector. Whether it has been in the Arctic or Antarctic, the fascination of travelling by sea through icy landscapes has never diminished. Such an arena evokes images of times gone by and of the so-called golden age of exploration and its various expeditions striving to reach the north pole. Whilst we feel like explorers at times, can one really imagine what it must have been like to venture this far north one or two centuries ago. With no access to weather forecasts, ice charts and satellites to hold course, clothing that was woefully inadequate and on a diet based on dried rations supplemented with what little meat could be caught. It could be described as character building…

Landing on an ice floe recently whilst working on MV Hondius for Oceanwide Expeditions was a very special experience. However brief, it gave us a chance to see this unique environment at eye level and give us a snapshot of the terrain these early pioneers encountered. As is customary, we scoured the sea for an appropriately sized floe and then landed to check it out. During the melt season, the ice can be relatively healthy looking from above but completely rotten underneath and it’s considered sub-optimal to lose tourists through the ice. The first floe we landed on proved more than adequate but even in the 20 minutes or so we were on the ice, the surrounding pack had started to close in and a relatively hasty departure was called for. We proceeded to our second option, a floe with a large area of open water on it’s leeward side and began operations.

Such a landscape is distinctly unique to the poles and even within that, the sea ice of the Arctic feels different to the sea ice I’ve experienced in the Antarctic. Certainly the geography of the Arctic region means that here, the sea ice is currently far more susceptible to our warming planet and is decreasing rapidly - a fact which few will not be aware of now. It is sobering to think that within most of our lifetimes, there will no longer be summer sea ice and staring northwards over a vista of interconnected ice floes it is frightening to think how fragile this region is.

Svalbard, June 2019

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