Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Last Degree

July 1, 2017

The Last Degree

At the time of our briefing yesterday afternoon, we had reached 85° North latitude on our way to the North Pole which is of course 90° of latitude. Each degree of latitude represents 60 nautical miles, so at the time of our briefing we were approximately 300 miles from the North Pole. There were a number of very interesting statistics presented during the presentation. It was observed that over history 129 known vessels have reached the North Pole, of which 107 of them were nuclear icebreakers. As of this day, a total of 25,405 people have actually set foot on the North Pole, but in truth, that number is actually somewhat inflated. For example, our expedition leader has visited the poll on 30 occasions, and on each of those occasions, he is counted as a new person visiting the Pole. The same would hold true for members of the ship’s crew, and other members of the Poseidon, and expedition teams. So in reality the number is less than 25,000.

It is expected that we will arrive at the North Pole shortly after lunch, and that it will take the ship’s personnel several hours to prepare the area for us to go ashore. For one thing, they have to insure that the area is free of polar bears, although a polar bear this far north is a rarity, it is not unknown. In addition, they have to ensure that the surface on which we will be allowed to walk is safe. One of the first things that the ship will do after reaching the North Pole is to have it verified by the ship’s photographer taking a photograph of the onboard GPS. Then the ship will be repositioned into firm ice that will allow us to have a ladder put down so that we may actually walk on the ice. Prior to us doing that, each of the ship’s anchors will be lowered to the surface. Since each anchor weighs over seven tons, if the ice will support the anchor, then it certainly will support our weight.

When we arrive they have requested that all passengers gather on the bow so that the ship’s photographer may take one of the official photographs of our arrival. After that, the actual North Pole will be identified by a decorative stake, and we will all then be asked to go outside and form a giant circle so that a group photograph may be taken by our photographer using the helicopter. At that point, as I understand it, we are free to walk anywhere that we wish. To me it would be very exciting to walk right underneath the bow of the ship, but for many they want to grab a rope that is hanging down from the front and have a photograph taken as if they are pulling the ship through the ice. Lisa has secretly admitted that her hope is to be able to make a snow angel, but we are not sure how much snow they actually have. Whatever, our time on the ice is a time to reflect on why we came to this most desolate of locations on the planet Earth, and to just take joy in the fact that we are here and safe. At the end of the day, the ship intends to offer a cookout on the ice before we depart for our return southward.

I have had to continually remind myself when I look out the window that this is truly a destination through which I will pass only once in my lifetime. They will have each of us stand in a circle holding hands, and after the Captain gives a short speech, there will be a moment of silence so that each of us may reflect on why we are here, and what it means to us. When I thought about that, it actually brought tears to my eyes. It has taken me a while to understand why the emotional outflow, and I think it goes back to when at age 26 I was told I had only a short time to live. Somehow the idea that almost 50 years later I would be standing on one of the most desolate places on the planet Earth brings out emotions that I had not reflected on in many years.

So this afternoon should be quite an adventure. I can tell you this, last evening was certainly an adventure. During dinner it was obvious that the ship had become stuck in the ice on several occasions, and it had to back up and go forward again. About halfway through the meal the ship came to a complete stop and there was a general announcement advising all passengers to go to the bow immediately. Everyone dropped what we were eating, and ran out front to find that the ship had notched up close to an iceberg that was perhaps twice our size. This is a most unusual sight in these latitudes. What the ship deals with for the most part is sea ice. In other words the water is so cold that the salt water actually freezes into layers that are 2 to 3 meters thick. Each year during the summer, the ice melts around the edges, but the oldest and hardest ice remains in the center mostly around the North Pole. Over time, this ice can build to be quite thick, and as large pieces run into each other they form giant ice ridges, which is the problem our ship is beginning to encounter. But, an iceberg is another matter altogether. Icebergs are formed in glaciers, where they break off and eventually float out to sea. There is no way to know where this iceberg was actually formed, but clearly it somehow got caught in the northern currents and is drifting around in the far North.

And so we come to “the last degree.” When I awoke this morning, the GPS on my TV screen shows that we were at 89° 31 minutes north latitude. That means that we are about 30 miles from the North Pole. As they explained to us last night, the last degree is perhaps the most difficult for the ship to navigate. The ice at this latitude is at its most thick, and the weather is highly unpredictable. You would think that it is a simple matter for a ship of this size and capability to simply drive straight for the North Pole. In reality, it weaves wildly from left to right seeking cracks in the ice and small Polynyas where the ice has started its summer melt. Because of the intensity of the navigation and the maneuvers involved, this is the first time since leaving port, that the bridge will actually be closed until we reach the North Pole itself. Another complexity in the navigation is the fact that we are sailing within a huge mass of ice that is itself moving. So if the ship simply stops and does nothing, over time it will drift as the ice mass itself is drifting. Add to the effect of drifting ice, the surface winds, which can be quite variable, and you can get a sense of the difficulty in putting the ship at exactly the 90th latitude; the stated goal of this cruise. I gather that there have even been a few occasions in the past when it was impossible to actually get to that point, only nearby. So we will keep our fingers crossed as we move forward.

The other thing, of course, that all of us are hoping for is a beautiful sunny day with light winds. Right now we have anything but. It is very foggy with limited visibility, but it is our hope that this will break up in the early afternoon.

So stay tuned there is a lot more to share.


PS Our ride at times during the night has been quite violent, which has made sleeping difficult. At the best of times, the ship is merely vibrating constantly. At other times it hits large pieces of ice and can lurch in any direction and without any warning. Since our room has a window that looks out front, I can see how the ship is maneuvering left and right in an attempt to follow the best ice patterns possible for its transit. Then I began to wonder how in the world the ship operates in the dark of night? I am reminded that this is the summer season, with 24 hours of daylight. However the primary operational environment for the ship is during the dark of winter with no daylight at all. During winter temperatures can range from about -50°C to -13°C. I can see in looking around the vessel how it is designed to be completely closed to the outside world so that the people operate only within the safety of its heated and sealed interior. Tomorrow should be interesting!!

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