Thursday, 26 January 2017

Arctic Blog: Thursday 6th October - scrapings, swayings and bangings

Thursday 6/10/2016 -2°C,  2m/sec, Sunrise 09:13 – Sunset 18:15   – 1°C
It’s dark and I’ve been awake for sometime. I have no idea what time it is but so far it’s been a night of little sleep, kept awake by things sliding back and forth, scrapings and swayings and bangings. The door that I propped open with the bin to allow some air to permeate the stuffy cabin (and to stop me feeling totally claustrophobic) has been crashing to and fro into the wall for some time. I hunt around and find my watch, 5am. I have to go out and look (I don’t think my cabin mate is too please at the disturbance as I scrabble around for some clothes). Creeping along the passage clinging to the sides, I make it up the stairs. In the darkened saloon two legs protrude from one of the benches. I make out the form of a prone body lying face down fully-dressed, even his hood up. Another non-sleeper who has finally passed-out. I identify the body as belonging to Leonard Sussman; I think he’s still breathing. 

Out on deck sky and sea are dark; there’s a heavy swell, the horizon dipping and rising as the boat is pulled and pushed, pitching heavily from side to side, heeling at a 30º angle. Rigging slaps on creaking masts, the boom swings wildly above my head, the repetitive sound of something metallic hitting something else. I think about how many seas this ship has sailed, how many storms it has weathered. Nothing new - we’ll be fine - and really it’s pretty exciting out here, an experience not to be missed. I feel as though I need to make use of every minute of my time here, I want to stay out here and feel and see everything.
6 am (I think). It's starting to get light, a soft orange-pink glow appears in the sky. The moving lights of Longyearbyen still flickering on the horizon, the boat hasn't made much progress; although it seems as though we've been traveling all night we’ve not got very far, the wind’s been too strong, the swell too big to venture out to open sea. I return to bed – difficult to sleep, but I need to try. At some point shortly after this in the early morning the boat turns back retracing our journey returning to Isfjorden and enters less wild waters and the boat stops heaving.
Before breakfast
We take shelter at Ymerbukta 78°18,0´N, 013°57.2´E and drop anchor.
After breakfast
Sudenly there's bright morning sun shining on glacier Esmarkbreen now; amazing how the colours change so fast. After breakfast (and there are not many takers) some of us land and trek through the mist between the mountains, following the line of Esmarkbreen that disappears over the horizon above us. 
I look back. A low sun glows orange, it's a lot calmer now, amazing contrast after the winds of last night.  it's about 9.30 now although I'm pretty confused about the time - is this boat time or Norwegian time or UK? Not that it really matters....
From the top of Esmarkbreen
In the burnt umber rock-strewn landscape the ground looks barren, but look closer, a mass of tiny mossy plants hug the ground; we are walking on tundra.  
Tundra is defined as a treeless area between the icecap and the tree line of Arctic regions, having permanently frozen subsoil and supporting low-growing vegetation. Yesterday Sara showed me tiny Arctic trees growing horizontally over the frozen ground, their branches no more than 5 cm high, surviving somehow on what little water there is stored close to the surface above the permafrost.
Arctic trees
At the top I look down on the rough surface of the vast glacier that’s 200 maybe 300 years old, into deep crevices, sharp irregular ridges formed by wind erosion and the sediment and rock picked up as it moves slowly downwards; flow lines leading towards the sea.

A glacier isn’t an ice field, but a relentless and insistent flow, responding to the constant pull of gravity. There are traces on the ground where the glacier has passed dragging stones and sediment with it, leaving a path of rubble strewn in its wake. 
trace of glacial path
They’ve come from many places high up in the mountains, some fantastically patterned. I’ve already been in trouble for pausing to photograph and told to keep up as if I’m some naughty school child, so I try not to dawdle but I can’t resist….

We are walking close to huge chunks of ice veined with delicate traces of red and brown rock. They lie scattered around us, smoothed and glistening, pitted and rippled. At the sea edge a mass of pale turquoise ice twists and turns, pushing upwards as if trying to maintain its last hold on the land resisting the pull of the ground beneath; each piece awaiting its turn to calf and join the sea. They are extraordinary.

Bunching together and curling around the edge of the land these vast shapes look as if they are crawling towards me.

Lunch back on board, then once our armed lookouts are in place another trip to shore to do our own thing. More time to draw - to attempt to capture the delicate lines of the glacier against dark black/brown rocks of the mountain; it’s so difficult and I am so tired. I’m not impressed with the drawings I make but I have to make an effort since I might never have this opportunity again.
Path left by Esmarkbreen, pastel & charcoal on paper
pastel & charcoal on paper
Edge of Esmarkbreen,
pastel, graphite & charcoal on paper
Mountains above, pastel & charcoal mixed with glacial water on paper
A lot colder today, there is pancake ice floating in a still pool close to the shore. 
(Pancake ice. Predominantly circular pieces of ice from 30 centimeters to 3 meters in diameter, and up to about 10 centimeters in thickness with raised rims due to pieces striking against one another. It may be formed on a slight swell from grease ice, shuga, or slush or as a result of the breaking of ice rind, nilas, or under severe conditions of swell or waves, of gray ice. It also sometimes forms at some depth, at an interface between water bodies of different physical characteristics, from where it floats to the surface; its appearance may rapidly cover wide areas of water). I've found a list of different types of ice and descriptions -  will post them at some point; there's a lot of them.
Pancake ice
A seal swims to and fro watching us, disappearing abruptly as Sara’s dog bounds down to the water’s edge.
The glacier calves periodically, ice crashing, a short pause before waves break on the shore. Predicting when this is going to happen is impossible, so recording the sound is a hit and miss business. But it's always a startling sound in what is now an almost silent landscape. I love the way that the weather changes so fast. but then that's also the case in Shetland where I spend so much of my time.

From where I'm sitting - which is pretty much 
right in front of the glacier - I can see back to the ship and our watchful guards perched on vantage points around us, ever alert for the stray polar bear that might come wandering by, although it's not very likely. We haven't caught sight of one yet. I still can't quite get used to having guns around.
Ella Morton appears in front of me and sets up on the shoreline, shrouded she gets busy photographing with her large format camera and plate film she's soaked in various acidic solutions to degrade. (You can see some of the results on her Blog:

Packing up I wander back to the beach peering into the lumps of ice lying on the shore - some of them are so beautiful; smoothed glistening transparent shapes, others with dark interiors filled with air bubbles.

I find a pattern of frozen iced ground - it looks like an intricate monochrome drawing of a plant.

Heavy sky now, mist has begun to pour over mountains tops; the wind changes direction, now southerly, even stronger winds are expected tonight, so it’s decided that we should move east and anchor in a bay nearer the entrance to the fjord. Mid-evening anchor goes down at Ymerbukta, 78°16,6´N, 013°57.6´E.
Later lying in my tiny cramped bunk, there’s the sound of sea lapping against the side of the boat; outside it’s dark and raining. A lot less noise tonight; think I’ll probably sleep. Earlier today I could see traces of where the glacier is retreating; we are witnesses to this dramatic melting of the Arctic, it's a sobering thought. Tomorrow we make a break for open sea to continue northward…...