What follows is a multimedia portal into a seldom-seen, largely unknown world. The practice of oceanography—particularly in the High Arctic—takes place in isolation aboard small ships far beyond the sight and ken of the shoreside public. This website seeks to reveal that world, its special way of life and work, as well as the science and its relevance to those who remain ashore.
On 13 September 2013 we cast off from the little harbor at Longyearbyen in the Svalbard Archipelago, among the most spectacular set of islands in the entire Arctic, aboard the Norwegian research vessel Lance. We steamed northward through the Fram Strait, between Svalbard and the northeast shoulder of Greenland, beyond most everything terrestrial, to our study area at 82° North, only 489 nautical miles from the North Pole.
Broadly, our objective was to understand how the polar ocean circulates. We’ve named its parts as if they were separate, but there is only one World Ocean linked and unified by currents, like gigantic veins and arteries, coursing through its body. Currents in both hemispheres transport warm water from the tropics toward the poles, while cousin currents return cold water back toward the tropics. That the ocean does so is Nature’s great gift to life on Earth, because by exchanging heat and cold, ocean currents moderate natural climatic extremes. We know about that broad pattern, the global transport of heat by the ocean (it’s called the Meridional Overturning Circulation). What we don’t know so well is the behavior of smaller arcs within the global system and how changes in them ricochet within the larger system—of those in the Arctic, we are particularly ignorant. So our specific objective was to measure the quantity of tropical-origin Atlantic water flowing northward through the Fram Strait into the Arctic Ocean and how that warm water spreads from the continental boundary out into the entire Arctic Ocean basin.
This is expensive research; it requires an ice-strengthened ship with an experienced crew and long range, a bevy of technicians, scientists, and a few people to discuss it with the public. “Why bother?” is a legitimate question. In one sense, the answer is simple: That’s what scientists do, seek to understand how Nature works by measuring its myriad components. But in the Arctic, where the climate is changing many times faster than in the temperate zones, pressing urgency informs their work. This Atlantic water is warm. How much Atlantic warmth is being transported into the Arctic? Is it increasing over time in volume and/or temperature? Will it accelerate polar icecap melting? But to address any of these crucial questions, first we must measure with esoteric oceanographic instruments the quantity and temperature of the Atlantic inflow. That, then, is the scientific purpose—and urgency—of our September expedition. To evoke with video and still photography, with podcasts and text how a world-class, high-latitude oceanographic expedition is conducted will be the purpose of this website.
We’ve had access to all areas aboard R/V Lance from the bridge to the engine room, and to all her nautical and scientific operations. At-sea oceanography is a unique combination of demanding seamanship, fine-tolerance science, and heavy industry. Because the work is highly specialized and because it happens in extreme isolation, a particular way of shipboard life, with it’s own interesting customs and mores, has evolved. So we invite you to join us. This electronic version of the expedition won’t be the same as experiencing directly the ethereal thrill of these waters, the mystical light, the birds and bears, the volcanic snow-capped mountains, and the sea ice, but it’s the next best thing.
Speaking for the rest of the outreach team, who have worked together on three other northern expeditions led by Dr. Bob Pickart from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, it was a great pleasure and a thrill meeting and working with Lance’s crew and officers—and re-experiencing the majesty and mystery of the Arctic seas. And what we’ve experienced, you will experience, if vicariously.
We welcome you aboard.