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Scientists skirt ice and politics in Arctic

Biologists, chemists and physicists from former Cold War foes take a 16-day voyage together to study polar climate and biology.
This map traces the voyage of the Professor Khromov, a Russian research vessel engaged in a U.S.-Russian Arctic climate research project, as a thin orange line. The pink and red areas indicate regions of enhanced ice melting in the Arctic Sea between 1970 and 2001.
This map traces the voyage of the Professor Khromov, a Russian research vessel engaged in a U.S.-Russian Arctic climate research project, as a thin orange line. The pink and red areas indicate regions of enhanced ice melting in the Arctic Sea between 1970 and 2001.RUSALCA / NOAA
/ Source: Reuters

The ship crawled through the fog as if on a slow tour of frozen ruins, trying to avoid ice chunks of every size and shape off Russia’s far northeastern coast.

The latest charts showed clear sailing in the north Chukchi Sea, where scientists aboard the Russian science vessel Professor Khromov prepared to take dozens of water samples as part of research to gauge the effects of global warming on the little-studied area.

But the ice was there regardless of what the charts showed. It was late summer, and time for the joint U.S.-Russian Arctic expedition was running short. Occasionally, the Khromov, a 213-foot (65-meter), Soviet-era ship, rammed a big floe, jarring all aboard.

“Without a helicopter to give you close ice observations, you have to trust your instincts and hope for a bit of luck,” said Terry Whitledge, science chief for the mission.

This was the northern leg of a voyage that began in Nome, Alaska, 10 days before, aiming to travel 3,730 miles (6,000 kilometers) and reach latitudes far above the Arctic Circle.

The vessel, with 36 scientists and 28 crew, zigzagged across the U.S.-Russian border, passing rocky coastlines, native villages, humpback whales, polar bears and puffins.

Diverse gathering of scientists
The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Russian Academy of Sciences gathered biologists, physicists and chemists for the 16-day study of the sole gateway for Pacific water flowing to the Arctic. There have been other joint voyages, but none with such a diverse field of experts.

Scientists hope to glean better a understanding of the rising temperatures and warming currents that are believed to be causing polar ice cover to shrink. Recent NASA-funded studies of satellite pictures have shown that year-round Arctic sea ice is melting at nearly 10 percent a decade.

First the Cold War, then government resistance to joint studies, had stymied scientists’ efforts to assemble a solid picture of the important ecosystem that straddles the U.S.-Russian border.

“Exploration of this area has been caught in a political morass,” said Kathleen Crane, NOAA’s expedition coordinator. ”One of the goals is to gather benchmark information about marine life. It’s just basic oceanography.”

The expedition is named RUSALCA, or Russian-American Long-term Census of the Arctic, a word that means “mermaid” in Russian. After a year of preparation, scientists planned 118 stops to sample zooplankton, fish, crustaceans and water.

But now, Whitledge, a University of Alaska chemical and biological oceanographer and veteran of more than 100 expeditions, had to rework his plans on the fly.

Ice slowed the Khromov in some places and prevented work in others. The ship was due back in Nome, more than 40 hours sailing away, in six days.

Risky business
The team knew the risks. Just south of here in the 1930s, 111 people aboard another science vessel, the Chelyuskin, were evacuated after the ship was hemmed in by ice. It later sank.

Already, Whitledge, 61, was blindsided by a storm that delayed the start, then by bureaucratic wrangling with Russia’s defense ministry over a U.S. mooring in Russian waters, costing him two days of a cruise he saw as short to begin with.

The pace of sampling — with nets, dredges and state-of-the-art instruments that measure water temperature, salt, chlorophyll and currents — was grueling.

A net’s rich haul would leave the deck covered in marine life and mud. Researchers pulled on gloves and rubber boots to pick through the wriggling mass and scoop up what they needed.

In cold drizzle or under midnight sun, University of Alaska researchers Katrin Iken and Bodil Bluhm painstakingly measured and weighed thousands of starfish, crabs and other sea life.

It was crucial to make use of the rare opportunity, Iken said. “It’s not just what we live from — it’s what we live for,” the 39-year-old said over a bowl of borscht, one of many during the trip.

Smoke, sweat and onions
Researchers slept only sporadically, in cabins that smelled of years’ worth of cigarette smoke, sweat and fried onions.

Any cultural differences melted slowly with the help of an occasional shot of vodka. Old political tensions rarely came up in mess-hall chat. “I think (the Cold War) never took place between scientists,” biologist Ksenya Kosobokova said.

The ship escaped the ice after one day, and the team quickly ran numerous water tests over an undersea valley northeast of Wrangel Island, the first such work at the feature.

Whitledge deemed this a major success, but the delay meant the team would make fewer stops than planned.

In the end, the Khromov sampled at 77 stations. Given the politics and weather, the results thrilled the organizers.

Said Marshall Swartz, engineer in charge of the expedition’s water sampling equipment: “Like so much of science, you take what you’re given and make the best of it.”