August 24: Whims of Nature

Not our best day.  Today we are subject to the whims of nature.  We can bring all the technology we want, but we must adjust to fit reality.  The world is bigger and stronger than we are.

Our detailed plan of operations looked great last night, but then it started snowing. Hard.  For about 12 hours.  Our plan fell apart under the weather.  We are just lucky that we picked up the shelf team and all their gear yesterday in sunshine and calm winds, because low visibility this morning grounded the helicopters (anticipating the weather come in, the pilots wrapped the rotors in protective canvas and everything is tied down).

08-24_SnowBow Early this morning we cancelled trips for the boulder team and the beach team, and headed out to map a still uncharted area in Hall Basin near Ellesmere Island.  Fine plan change, but the devil fooled with this one too. The ice was heavy there with multi-year ice still streaming out of the Lincoln Sea in the Arctic (impassable, but beautiful with new snow on top – each sea-ice berg looks like we are in the Alps and we dream of skiing). We got about halfway through our planned mapping procedure, picking our way slowly. Finally stopped that too – we will pick it up later if the ice clears a bit.

08-24_Bent_CoreThen we went coring a bit further from the coast where the ice was not so vicious.  And then Mother Nature hit back again; this time with a whim of gravity and glacial rocks.  We lowered the coring gear on a great site off Cape Baird, and it hit bottom (or sub-bottom) with a vengeance; we could see the wire jump. Twice. I immediately thought, “uh oh”! When we pulled up the gear it looked like a pretzel… heavy steel pipe bent at a 90 degree angle, about 15-20 feet under the weightstand.  The only way to get it onto the ship was to cut the pipe in half and lift the parts separately. Sparks flew from the saw. We tried to preserve the core as best we could.  Curiously, the accompanying “trigger” core was perfect.

 What happened?  This was like a rock-scissors-paper game.  Rock breaks scissors.  It appears that our coring device hit a car-sized rock, or perhaps under a thin patch of sediment that we couldn’t see from the ship’s sonar.  The core was buried far enough into the mud to avoid falling over entirely on its side, but not buried far enough to prevent the momentum of the heavy weightstand from bending the pipe to a right angle while the mud held the lower half straight.  Ouch!  This kind of bad day has happened to me four times in 30 years.  Once off Peru we hit a phosphate hardground, once off California it was a thick sand layer, once off Alaska we struck an ice-rafted glacial boulder, and now off Ellesmere Island we probably hit another boulder.  This is actually pretty typical of glacial environments – there are rocks and even car-sized boulders dropped by icebergs, now lurking under the mud waiting to feast on core pipe.  Isolated rocks are very difficult to see in the sonar records, and ship drift in the strong currents of Nares Strait make it almost impossible to know just what we will hit.  It is just random chance.

I can’t complain, really.  Four bent cores in 30 years and 19 expeditions isn’t so awful.  But it doesn’t exactly make for a good day.  At least it stopped snowing in the afternoon; the temperature rose to just above freezing and the decks are melting, and we can see the mountains of Ellesmere Island, Hall Land, and Washington Land all covered with snow, and this highlights the exposed layers. It is a beautiful sight.  Tomorrow we will try again.