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Blocks of ice are building up around the hull of the Akademik Fedorov, a Russian supply vessel on an expedition to the high Arctic. White sheets of sea ice surround the ship on all sides. Even the wake of the vessel, normally a 25m-wide trail of slush and broken ice, has closed up into a neat seam. The ship is caught in an area of ice compression, with sheets moving together like tectonic plates and creating pressure ridges – like miniature mountain ranges being forced upwards. 

Up on the bridge, the captain is concerned about the ship getting stuck. It’s 20:00 and already pitch black outside. Here at 85 degrees north in mid-October, the Sun has not risen for several days now, only coming close enough below the horizon to create a murky dusk for a few hours a day. In the evenings, the screens and instruments on the bridge are dimly lit in a red light so low that it is hard to see people’s faces. By my side, a lever inches forward automatically, as though it has been pushed. 

The ship is old, says Vladimir Sokolov, head of the high-latitude Arctic expedition department at the Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI) and one of the scientific leaders on board the Fedorov. One of his roles in the expedition is liaising between the captain and the other scientific leaders. Right now, that involves conveying that we really don’t have time to waste, and the captain is concerned about whether we will be able to get out of this ice. In both the Arctic and Antarctica, ships face a real risk of getting stuck.

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The ship has come to this area of the Arctic sea ice because the expedition participants on board have been setting up a network of autonomous instruments in a 40km radius around the German icebreaker Polarstern, which is freezing into the ice to carry out a year-long drift experiment. The aim is to find out how the Arctic environment has been affected by climate change and how the new Arctic will affect the rest of the global climate. While Polarstern is set to freeze in for the winter, the Fedorov needs to get out of the ice as soon as the set-up of Polarstern’s network is done. 

Part of the captain’s concern is that the ship is sitting unusually high in the water. Ten days ago, the crew shifted a large amount of cargo onto Polarstern, including scientific instruments and piste-bashers to flatten a runway on the sea ice. The Fedorov also transferred nearly 700 tonnes of diesel to the German ship to see it through the winter until its next resupply. The loss of weight has left the Fedorov sitting so high in the water that the hull reinforcement – 36mm of solid metal at its thickest point – is now floating above the ice pack. Instead, a thinner layer of just 16mm is exposed to the building pressure of the ice.

Wake of the Akademik Fedorov, a Russian supply vessel (Credit: Martha Henriques)

The wake of the Akademik Fedorov, a Russian supply vessel, transformed from a 25m-wide trail of slush and ice, to a thin seam (Credit: Martha Henriques)

It will be the captain’s call to say when we need to get out of the ice

To complicate things further, even when the Fedorov is heavy in the water it is not a true icebreaker. Ships with an icebreaker class have features such as a rounded and flattened hull that can rise up onto the ice and use the weight of the ship to crash down through it. The Fedorov’s reinforced hull allows the ship to break through quite substantial floes, but it is not designed to move through Arctic ice at the onset of winter. 

If the Fedorov were to get stuck, we would have two options, Sokolov says. One would be for Polarstern to leave its position in its “fortress” floe and come to break us out, which would risk damage to the fortress and delay the set-up of the camp. The other option would be to call a nuclear-powered icebreaker such as the Yamal. “They are all busy and you don’t know when you will get one,” says Sokolov. “And of course they are very, very expensive.”

The scientists on the bridge have work planned for the Fedorov before it is time to turn around. The ship has two key assets that have proven indispensable in the expedition so far – two large MI-8 helicopters. When the Fedorov turns back towards land, the scientists at Polarstern won’t be able to make use of the large carrying capacity or long range of the MI-8s. The helicopters on board Polarstern are much smaller BK-117s, which are agile and efficient but have a shorter range and are less robust in the changeable Arctic weather. 

There is a lot left to do, but it will be the captain’s call to say when we need to get out of the ice. The self-propelling handle shifts back to its original position as the team on the bridge briefly considers the options. As we leave the red lit room, there is yet no final decision. 

Going to sleep that night, I hear more crashes and thunks as blocks of ice collide with the hull. As I wrap a scarf around my head to try to block out the sound, the engines growl to life and the crew starts a series of manoeuvres through the splintering sheets of ice.

Russian supply ship Akademik Fedorov, in the ice (Credit: Martha Henriques)

When ice starts piling up around the hull of a ship, the best thing to do is get moving (Credit: Martha Henriques)

“Yesterday you heard the noise?” says Jari Haapala of the Finnish Meteorological Institute, and leader of Mosaic’s ice team. We’re in the mess hall of the Fedorov the next day, and Haapala looks particularly animated. “That was quite incredible.”

Haapala studies how sea ice moves and deforms, including processes like compression. These dynamics are linked to the quantity of sea ice in the Arctic, which is in turn linked to the ocean and atmospheric conditions in the region. The compression that happened here was triggered by a couple of days of -25C weather, says Haapala, which was enough to freeze over any remaining open water in the area and strengthen the older floes. 

“When we have the wind pushing against thicker ice, then we really see these stresses,” says Haapala. “It’s amazing when there are obstacles like a ship, which is a bit different than the ice itself, then we have compression against the ship hull.” When the ice starts piling up, the best thing to do is start moving. If the ship is stationary, it’s difficult to get out, says Haapala. The compression builds a wall against the hull that gets larger the longer the ship is still – hence our late-night manoeuvring the previous day. The crew brought the ship into an area of thinner ice where there was less risk of a massive build-up.

Escaping ice compression strikes me as a game: the crew calculating moves to ease the ship out of danger zones, which themselves shift and move around as the ice continues its unpredictable drift. “This is exactly what I’m doing research on,” says Haapala. The dynamics of the ice are not like those of the ocean or the atmosphere, he says, picking up a series of glass bottles of condiments from a tub on the table between us to illustrate. The pressure and motion is more changeable and localised. He arranges the condiments in a circle and puts a small bottle of hot sauce in the central gap.

German icebreaker Polarstern (Credit: AWI/Stefan Hendricks)

The German icebreaker Polarstern is spending a year frozen in ice in the Arctic (Credit: AWI/Stefan Hendricks)

We have seen already accelerating change in the ice – Jari Haapala

“Say you have a situation where we compress the ice floes,” he says, pressing the outer bottles together until the glass squeaks. “It’s very, very strong and compact. But then we can still have one that is without compression.” He wiggles the loose hot sauce bottle in the middle. The Fedorov has been searching for these loose spots within the overall matrix of compression. “There’s not really a hole in the ice, but a hole in the stress,” he says. 

Haapala is aiming to understand this process in his research at Mosaic, linking up the dynamics of the ice on the scale of hundreds of metres with its behaviour over tens of kilometres. Ships like the Fedorov could benefit from this research through the more accurate sea ice forecasts it would allow. “All activities in the Arctic are increasing,” he says. “There are some settlements in the north, in parts of Russia, where shipping interest in ice cover is increasing. But the modelling capabilities are still pretty vague.”

The research could also help predict how sea ice will affect, and be affected by, climate change. These long-term models are more complex than short-term operation models for shipping routes, in part because of the sheer computational power they require. But what is becoming clear is that the sea ice is getting more dynamic because of climate change. Up until the 1980s and 1990s, the Arctic sea ice was thick and slow-moving. As the ice has thinned, its motion has become faster, more turbulent and more varied. This motion pulls the ice into a vicious cycle of melting. 

“The problem is that the ice is moving faster,” says Haapala. “The floes themselves are not staying in the Arctic for such a long time.” As a result, the ice doesn’t have time to grow thick, so it moves even faster, spending even less time at high latitudes – and so it begins the runaway cycle. Add to that the extra cracking of thinner ice, which opens up more stretches of relatively warm water, and the pace of change steps up further. 

The result is that for every given increase in greenhouse gases, proportionately more ice is lost. 

“We have seen already accelerating change in the ice,” says Haapala.

Helicopter lands on Fedorov (Credit: Martha Henriques)

Helicopter flights to deploy data-gathering buoys on the drifting ice are at the mercy of the weather conditions (Credit: Martha Henriques)

The buoys and autonomous instruments being set up around the ice camp will provide detailed data about this cycle. But getting the buoys out this far requires helicopter flights from the Russian ship. 

A deployment starts with the weather briefing. If there is fog or low cloud, the visibility will be too poor for aviation. In the Arctic, finding the data to make these forecasts is not easy; the nearest land-based weather stations are far away, and there are few satellites focusing in any detail on the region. The ship has its own on-board weather team to help discern if conditions are good enough for flying. Evgeniya Durneva, one of the Fedorov’s three meteorologists, shows me one of the half-hourly weather reports that the crew uses to judge whether or not it is safe to fly. 

“It’s very important for aviation to have information about windspeed and direction, height of clouds and visibility,” says Durneva. As well as the weather reports, the team make a forecast every three hours to predict whether conditions will stay good enough throughout the flight. “In the Arctic, the visibility and type of clouds changes very quickly.” 

I know what she means as I rush up to the helicopter deck in my ice suit for the third time in a day for a flight that is then cancelled as the fog rolls in. Eventually, on a clearer day, I meet Vasily Smolyanitsky, a sea ice expert at AARI on the deck. They have been deploying many of the buoys of the wider network, and today the team is distributing two more. The buoys are simple rounded white plastic cases, and inside them are GPS devices that send location information back to land. As the ice drifts, it will take the buoy with it and ping back information on where the piece of ice it is resting on goes, almost in real time. 

As we take off, I can’t help but be aware that I am flying in a helicopter from a diesel ship in the high Arctic, which is changing so rapidly because of carbon emissions from, among other things, aircraft and vessels. It’s a tension many of the scientists on board are conscious of, but there are few easy solutions when doing research on this scale.

Helicopter co-pilot looks out of window (Credit: Martha Henriques)

Scientists must identify the best floes on which to deposit their buoys, to give them the best chance of staying on the ice and providing useful data (Credit: Martha Henriques)

Smolyanitsky props his elbow against the helicopter window, looking out at the ice. During the flight his role is to help with navigation, identifying suitable floes on which to deploy the buoys and the larger instrumentation of the network. Today, the buoys we are dropping off are small and light, so it should be relatively easy to find suitable ice. For the larger floes, though, the process has been a challenge. Smolyanitsky has been using microwave images from two satellites to get an initial picture of the floes in the region. 

“The best objects should have a shape close to a circle,” he says. When floes interact with the pieces of ice around them, the more angular pieces are broken off. A floe close to a circle or an oval will have survived this and be less likely to break down further. On the satellite imagery, the contrast of the floe with the surrounding thinner ice can also be a useful clue – but trusting satellite imagery alone can be deceptive, as the expedition has already found out. Once the team has found a promising floe using satellite imagery, it’s a case of flying to the rough coordinates and looking out of the window to try and spot it. 

Today, there is no particular target floe in mind. The buoys can be dropped on any substantial-looking piece of ice. “We are looking for the colours – is it white, or whitish, more greyish?” says Smolyanitsky. Young, thin ice is dark grey and gets whiter as it thickens. Thick ice is able to support more bright white snow, as it provides more insulation from the warm ocean beneath. 

Picking out shades of white and grey from the air is getting harder in the dusk of the first weeks of polar night. The ice all looks a dull blueish colour and the contrast between the types of ice is getting harder to see. But after about an hour, Smolyanitsky spots a potential deployment site. 

The helicopter technician puts on a harness attached to a wire inside before opening the door. He tears off the end of a brown cardboard tube and starts the flare using a cigarette lighter. In a few seconds he has thrown it out of the door, leaving behind a singed smell. The technician braces himself with both hands on the frame while he sticks his head out into the wind to watch the flare fall. I look out of the window to see it on the ice below us, letting off streams of black smoke that help the pilot judge the wind speed and direction for our descent. 

We touch down and the scientists climb out and find a spot for the buoy. The pilot doesn’t fully land on the ice but keeps the helicopter hovering, holding most of its weight off the ice. There is no way of knowing whether the floe would be able to support the considerable bulk of the MI-8. The scientists are back inside the helicopter in less than a minute, and we take off again to head back to the ship. 

Different ice types from the air (Credit: Martha Henriques)

In the polar night, the ice all takes on a bluish colour, and distinguishing between types becomes harder (Credit: Martha Henriques)

More dangerous than a large and conspicuous iceberg is a smaller and harder-to-spot ‘bergy bit’

When not searching for thick ice floes for buoys, Smolyanitsky searches for the opposite: areas of thin ice or leads of open water to help the ship navigate a safe passage through the ice. “For every vessel making ice navigation, the easier ice is best,” says Smolyanitsky. Even if the ship is capable of breaking thick ice, this is riskier and requires more fuel. “All captains’ goal is to preserve the fuel for the possible case of emergency. Their goal is to preserve the hull from any damage,” he says. “But anything can happen – you can meet an iceberg, which is ultimate peril for the ship.”

The crew keeps at least three pairs of eyes on lookout for dangerous pieces of ice, as well as using instruments like the ship’s radar. It has been especially important on this expedition because icebergs are becoming more common in the Arctic, says Smolyanitsky. Icebergs – large bodies of ice that split or calve from ice sheets on land – are often held in place by ice attached to the shore, known as fast ice. “But nowadays, practically in all cases in the Arctic, fast ice is broken,” says Smolyanitsky. “It’s drifting ice now.” So now, when an iceberg calves, there is little to stop it from floating into the open sea. But more dangerous than a large and conspicuous iceberg is a smaller and harder-to-spot body of ice – a “bergy bit”.

“At sea, a bergy bit is just one or two metres [above sea level], so it is hard to see. But underwater it could be 10 metres,” says Smolyanitsky. The metre or so that is visible is about the same height as a harmless pressure ridge, but a bergy bit, which has origins on land, is made of more compact freshwater ice. “For the hull of the ship it would be a great shock.”

So far, Smolyanitsky has seen three bergy bits from the ship this expedition – and we have been able to steer well clear of them.

Cracks in the ice and a pressure ridge (Credit: Martha Henriques)

Pressure ridges are relatively easy to navigate, but coming across a “bergy bit” could be disastrous (Credit: Martha Henriques)

But even with the best planning, the ice can be deceptive. One night, the ship runs up to a piece that will not budge. When this happens, the only thing that the Fedorov can do is back up, reversing into the blocks of ice piling up in its wake, and then blast forward again to ram the ice. The crew try this once. It doesn’t work. Then they try it again. 

The next day, Anna Timofeeva, an ice specialist at AARI, points to a chart of the ship’s path through the night. It shows a smooth curve from the north to the south, until an abrupt stop. Then there is a close zig-zag, as the ship rams the same piece of ice back and forth. The drift of the ice meanwhile carries the ship north.  

“This is the amount of attempts,” she says. There are so many tight zig-zags on the map, it would take careful poring over them to count how many times we rammed. “I guess it was 70, maybe.” During those hours of ramming, the ship drifted so far with the ice that it got back almost to its starting latitude to the north before we finally broke through. 

Then the ship gets stuck a second time a few hours later and begins a second period of ramming. That’s when the captain decides to turn on the ship’s reserve engine. The Fedorov has four engines, but rarely uses all at once because this ramps up the ship’s fuel consumption. The fourth engine does the trick, helping the Fedorov break free again.

Scientists setting up an outpost (Credit: Martha Henriques)

A network of instruments has to be set up in a 40km radius around the German icebreaker Polarstern (Credit: Martha Henriques)

A few tens of kilometres away, next to Polarstern, the ice pressure has been closing in too. A series of cracks and pressure ridges have appeared around the ship. News reaches us that boxes of kit and the ship’s large gangway fell into a widening stretch of water, while power lines have been swallowed by pressure ridges. The same inquisitive polar bears who first visited the ship, an adult and her cub, have been back to investigate the site several days running. 

To see how the expedition party has been holding up, I return to Polarstern for one last time.

* Martha Henriques is a senior journalist at BBC Future. She is spending six weeks on board Polarstern and Akademik Fedorov as they embark on their mission. You can follow her progress on Twitter @Martha_Rosamund.

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Frozen North

This article is part of our Frozen North series. Climate change is already transforming the Arctic. In many areas, what was ice is now open water. But in the most inaccessible reaches of the far north, how much has changed? And what will the knock-on effects be for the global climate?

The world’s largest polar expedition has just set off to answer those questions – and BBC Future’s Martha Henriques is one of the lucky handful of journalists onboard. In our series Frozen North, she reports from the Arctic’s floating sea ice as scientists seek to find out how this shifting environment will affect all of us.

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