"WINTER COMES TO THE NORTH"

September 28, 2013


It snowed last night, and it’s cold and slippery on deck. The mooring ops complete, Lance is quiet, hardly anyone topside. In several days, we’ll head for Tromsø, her homeport, a three-day steam from our present position. She’s been parked on that position for the last 24 hours of repeated CTD casts in order to measure local tides. Though of small moment to mariners, tides ebb and flow in the open ocean, but they only become visible when they encounter land features like bays and fjords that constrict and accelerate tidal flow. Vladimir and Bob need to know the set (direction) and drift (velocity) of the tides in order to separate those signals from the more slowly varying currents of interest to this study.

Herulf Andreassen, Lance’s bosun, is leaning on the transom rail tossing sandwich meat to the fulmars. We’ve both been stricken by the shipboard cold, but he says he’s feeling better today. It’s a funny thing about bosuns, the men in charge of all deck operations and machinery—none of those I’ve known look like brothers, except that they tend to be big and strong, but they share a distinctly salty commonality as if their genetic material has been shaped directly by the sea. When I first came aboard Lance at the dock in Longyearbyen, saw several guys in hard hats and identical one-piece work suits doing deck chores, I knew immediately that the sturdy round-faced man with the white beard was her bosun. (The antique word is boatswain, the Norwegian, arbeidsleder.) More water’s washed over Herulf’s sea boots than I’ve even seen. The other commonality among them is a sweet kindness that belies their tough, salty exterior.

“These birds,” said Herulf, smiling at feeding fulmars below, “they live to be fifty years old.”
Really?
“They found one with a—how do you call it?” He ringed his right wrist with his thumb and middle finger.”
“Banded?”
“Yah. That one was seventy years old.”

"Except for short periods when breeding and nesting, fulmars spend their entire lives at sea, sort of like bosuns. "

We watched the thick-necked, gull-like birds for a while, flapping and squabbling, things of the Arctic. They’ve been with us the entire trip. As we steam from station to station, they soar along like miniature albatross. When we stop, they stop, bobbing on the wavelets…. Seventy years old, imagine. Except for short periods when breeding and nesting, fulmars spend their entire lives at sea, sort of like bosuns.
“It’s cold today, huh, bosun?”
“Minus three this morning. Winter comes to the North.”

There are various kinds of oceanographers, but perhaps this broad categorization is applicable. One group stays ashore (the modeler and the theorist); the other goes to sea (the observational oceanographer). Both are essential, symbiotically related. The former views the ocean, one might say, symbolically, often depicting its dynamics on powerful computers. Suppose the question is, how does the warm Atlantic water flow north of Svalbard? Once the current clears the Fram Strait, it encounters complex bottom topography (“bathymetry”) that steers it in certain ways not yet clearly understood. The modeler might construct a picture of the bathymetry and then “send” water flowing through and around it. Likewise, the modeler might “remove” the bathymetry to see how water might flow without it. Test this, add that, remove or change a parameter—this is virtual ocean exploration.

The observationalist goes to sea, often for a month at a time, and, using the range of devices at his service, measures the actuality. But suppose the at-sea oceanographer’s data reveal some inexplicable aspect of the current’s behavior. He (or, as always, she) might then turn to the modeler to say, essentially, “Here’s what I observe, but I don’t exactly understand how it’s possible.” The stay-ashore oceanographer doesn’t either, but he can run various possibilities through the computer to see which best matches the actual measurements. But the results are not “real,” and as modelers say, all models are inaccurate, because they’re just that, models, sort of symbols of the actual ocean. Likewise, the modeler can produce “better” results when supplied with the observationalist’s real-world measurements, thus their symbiotic relationship.

With all possible respect to the modeler, my heart lies with those oceanographers who actually go to sea. I’ve done so with Bob several times in the Arctic. And I hope it doesn’t embarrass him to say that he seems the very paradigm of an observational oceanographer. Almost immediately after the dock lines go over the rail in Tromsø, he’s heading to the airport for a flight to Dutch Harbor, Alaska. There he’ll join the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy for another of his projects, this in the Beaufort Sea on the other side of the Arctic—where incidentally he’ll measure, among other things, the same warm Atlantic water that enters the Arctic Ocean on this side. Bob’s not at sea in any given year as long as Herulf, but close. And aboard Healy he’ll depend on another bosun to help acquire his real-world measurements.

We’re underway again, steaming into a wintery wind, the fulmars in hot pursuit. A couple of land birds, snow buntings, have taken refuge aboard Lance. They’ve probably been blown off course (that’s how the Vikings discovered Iceland and Greenland). Land birds usually don’t survive when trapped aboard ship far from their natural habitat. I just went topside to leave some bread for the buntings on the transom and found that someone else had already done so. Herulf would be my guess.

-Dallas Murphy

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