Cruise Day 28
Speed 0 knots (kts) (on station)
Location North Pole
Depth 4280 m
GO DEEPER DISCUSSION: (see previous journal for the questions.)
Ice is less dense than liquid water, which is why it floats. The thicker it is, the higher it will float above the water line (just like a thicker log will float with more wood above water than a thinner one made of the same wood.) Ice is about 90% as dense as water, so it will float with about 90% submerged. This leaves about 10% above water. So if we had a little over 10 cm floating above the water, this means that the total ice thickness would be a bit thicker than 100 cm (1 meter.)
At 7:47 this morning (Alaska Daylight Time), we reached the North Pole! The Healy was making speedy-enough progress to reach the goal sometime in the middle of the night, but as folks on the crew and science team were tired from the all-night ice sampling station the day before, the decision was made to stop for some ship maintenance and take it easy getting to the pole overnight so we could arrive at a civilized hour. We're on a full sampling station today, the first ever to collect trace metal samples at the pole. From 90° N we could see a large lead about a mile away, so after time for photo opportunities and letting the polar experience set in, we chugged over and parked where sampling off the stern and starboard side would be easy. The lead was newly-frozen over, with maybe an inch of dark nilas ice on it, but some open water portions remained. As we began the GEOTRACES shallow cast, a Ringed Seal surfaced a couple of hundred meters out in the lead to see what our big red ship was doing in its world. On our approach to the pole yesterday I saw polar bear tracks, further proof that the top of the world is home to a marine ecosystem.
The North Pole has long been a target of exploration, and I encourage readers of my posts to look into some of the amazing books and journals chronicling the history of these expeditions and the hardships early explorers faced. Many who failed to reach the pole died in the attempt, and most others only made it back home after incredibly desperate, harrowing journeys. Even deciding who was the first to make the pole isn't a cut-and-dried issue: Navigation was difficult for polar explorers in the days before electronic aids like GPS and the honesty of some claims has come into question. Planting a flag or other evidence at the pole does no good for long-term posterity, as the ice here is always moving and eventually even the oldest, thickest ice reaches latitudes where it melts. Robert Peary's expedition in 1909 is often listed as the first to reach the North Pole but their success isn't completely unequivocal. The first ship to reach the pole was the USS Nautilus, a nuclear-powered submarine that crossed 90° N under the ice in 1958. The first icebreaker to reach the pole was Russia's nuclear-powered Arktika in 1977, and the first non-nuclear powered ships to make the journey successfully were the German icebreaker Polarstern and the Swedish icebreaker Oden together in 1991.
I'm very pleased to have made it to the North Pole. By reaching the pole we became the first US surface ship to do so unaccompanied by another icebreaker. We are also the first surface ship on a scientific cruise to reach the pole via the Bering Strait route, which crosses the Arctic Ocean on its longest axis. We have some incredibly experienced polar scientists and sailers aboard, but only two of the science party and three of the Coast Guard crew had been to the North Pole before this morning. I think that statistic gives a little perspective on the rarity and difficulty of reaching this place. On the other hand, the speed with which we made it to the pole underscores the trend of ever-thinning Arctic sea ice. Last summer saw the record minimum extent of Arctic sea ice since measurements began, and in a few weeks this year's measurements will be released. I don't know how this year will stack up but I'd be willing to bet there won't be a jump back to ice levels of recent decades past.
To put the ice conditions in a bit of a personal context, I asked Jim Swift, Research Oceanographer at the University of San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography if I could relay a portion of an email the team received from him last week. Jim is one of the aforementioned scientists who has been to the North Pole before. In fact, he's been here twice previously, reaching the pole on the Canadian ship Louis S. St-Laurent (accompanied by the US Coast Guard Cutter Polar Sea) in 1994 and again in 2005 aboard the Swedish icebreaker Oden (accompanied by Healy.) Here are some of his comments comparing and contrasting this year's polar trip to his first:
The ice conditions in the area we are traversing border on astonishing to a person like me who recalls the thick, tough, old ice of the Arctic Ocean in 1994. If my memory serves, in 1994 CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent and USCGC Polar Sea were continually looking for a workable course around thick ice floes - the size of football fields to small towns - occasionally necessitating a slow crunch through a tough area we couldn't go around. Helicopters were used to scout out feasible routes. As we know from recent published scientific studies, the older, thicker ice has in more recent years occupied a smaller area of the Arctic Ocean, nearer Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago. Thus much of the ice we are traversing is first year ice, but there is multi-year ice out here, along with thick ridges. The ship is able to follow leads around the ridges and multi-year ice, and motors well through the extensive first-year ice. (I enjoy the "Richter 3-4" jostling as the ship gets buffeted by the ice.)
What direction would a compass point here at the North Pole?
That's all for now. Best- Bill