Hard to believe, but as I write just a few minutes short of midnight on August 27 we are leaving what has become our temporary home in Petermann Fjord and we are heading south down Nares Strait toward Kane Basin, on to Thule, and eventually to our real homes. We had a few very busy days since I last wrote. Yesterday it was snowing and foggy all day. This grounded the helicopters and the land teams except for one very important mission – getting the Swedish biology team out of their camp on Ellesmere Island. They were unable to work effectively in the snow, and reported that the arctic foxes have been turning white and the birds all have departed for points south in the past few days – they know what is coming. After pondering a bit about icing, the helicopter pilots Sven and Johan took the wrappings off their rotors, started up their engines on a snowy deck, and flew under the clouds up a narrow river valley. Success! The bio team is back on board and excited about their results. Their three places (Hall Land and Washington Land in Greenland, and Judge Daly Promontory in Nunavut) have three fundamentally different ecosystems. But why? The follow-up work will be fascinating.
After a bad day previously, the coring team had its best day yet with three perfect sites and their longest cores yet – including core number 50. The cores are all strategically located as mini-experiments, constrained by the detailed mapping of the sea floor, and each one tells a story. We’ve already completed preliminary analysis of most of the cores, and patterns are emerging about different histories in the different ice streams through various phases of retreat. We will have to wait for radioisotope dates to say more about when and how fast things moved, but it looks very promising. We will be busy at home.
After yesterday’s snow, the night (sun now low on the horizon but no sunset yet) turned cold – down to about 9 degrees F, and there was lots of new sea ice in the morning. But the clouds lifted and the wind abated. So the helicopters were out again with beach team in Bessel’s Fjord, boulder team working the islands in Nares Strait. R/V Skidbladner was also out mapping the entrance to Bessel’s Fjord, and glacial features below the moraine at its mouth. The sill is very shallow. No ship can enter, so that will wait for another kind of expedition. In the afternoon the helicopters were out for a longer trip back to the ice shelf for minor repairs to our new weather station and the sub-ice moorings. All are now working perfectly. Not just the instruments; I mean every objective we planned for this expedition. This is a miracle, really. On challenging expeditions like this we declare victory if half of our objectives work – but we’ve had 100% success, albeit with a bit of sweat.
It wasn’t all good news though… we had hoped to get back to a high-priority coring site, which we left to the end because we knew we would be back, but while launching our various operations from the ship today we watched the ice pouring in from the north. It moves stunningly fast. Yesterday Hall Basin was mostly open water. By this afternoon it was completely filled with very thick ridged ice – big blocks jostling around, some starting to stick together, some appeared to be drifting into Petermann Fjord as well. We debated one last attempt to get back to our now ice-covered coring site, but decided that pounding the ship 10 hours through thick ice to make 4 miles wasn’t worth it right now and risked other thing we want to do on our way out. So with some sadness we said goodbye to Petermann Fjord and turned south, surveying our way slowly and looking for a former ice grounding line in Nares Strait. We can’t be sure, but it looks as if Petermann Fjord may now be frozen in for the winter. All the melt ponds on the shelf have frozen again, and the forecast for tomorrow is howling winds from the North. It is definitely time to leave. We may have one more day of operations in southern Nares Strait, but now we must refocus our energy on report writing, lab cleaning, and packing for home. The feeling is a kind of exhausted exhilaration, looking forward to the lab work ahead, and all the comforts of home.