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Arctic Ice On Assignment

Arctic Ice On Assignment

Arctic Ice
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By Jennifer Steinberg HollandPhotographs by Paul Nicklen

Scientists eager to explore the Arctic's Canada Basin find getting there is one challenge. Getting data is another.

Read or print the full article.

Mary-Louise Timmermans fidgets on the bridge, tapping numbers into her calculator and checking data on her laptop. Her brown hair is slung back into a tangled, careless bun, her slender fingers moving at lightning speed. From up here she monitors technicians and crew assembling a 10,000-foot-long (3,000-meter-long) vertical mooring—a string of instruments, some tiny, some hefty, to be anchored in the water like a data-collecting charm bracelet. It will stay put for two years, promising priceless oceanographic information on temperature, currents, and ice thickness and movement—and a research paper for Mary-Louise, if all goes well.

"This gear is worth the next 20 years of my salary," groans the young Canadian scientist. Down below, the crane shrieks, its arm dipping into the ship's hold to retrieve the various devices. Mary-Louise runs the show like the air boss on a carrier, calling down instructions on a walkie-talkie. Each piece must be placed at a precise depth, or the project could flop. Plus, the whole thing is hard to maneuver and the line extremely delicate.

"You can't be too careful," Mary-Louise says. "The strand holding it all together is like dental floss. It can't be snagged or swiveled."

Then, as if on cue, the walkie-talkie crackles with a frantic voice from below. The Kevlar lifeline of the mooring is nicked and could snap at any moment. "We have to put a man over the side to secure the line or we are going to lose it!" someone yells.

Mary-Louise is gone in a flash. She races down three flights to where the crewman struggles to secure the precarious, dangling line. Others scramble to prepare a splice to replace the damaged length. Strong coffee makes rounds. The line is repaired.

Thirteen hours after the team began, in goes the caboose—that last orange buoy—and the massive string of instruments is yanked beneath the surface by the mooring's anchor spiraling to the ocean floor. The deed is done, and the deck explodes in cheers. Arctic field technician Doug Sieberg whips a loonie—the Canadian dollar coin named for the bird that graces its front—across the water like a skipping stone, a sacrifice to Neptune, he explains. He had thrown one in at the start too, to "grease the skids." In triumph, he pumps a fist into the air. "For us mooring folks," he says, "this is the pinnacle." He swivels his hips and shuffles his feet, dancing happily.

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Take to the ice with polar bears, tiny sea creatures, human divers, and more in this online movie.

Send a friend an e-greeting showing the changing patterns of Arctic freeze and thaw.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
The ice at the North and South Poles is melting. So, what does that mean for the global sea level? Perhaps nothing if you're just talking about Arctic sea ice. Because pack and sea ice in the Arctic is already floating on the ocean, its melting won't cause the world's sea levels to rise. However, this is not true for ice covering Antarctica or for ice found in glaciers and ice sheets around the world. These types of ice will raise global sea levels because they are currently on land; as they melt, their water will be added to the oceans.
—Alice J. Dunn
Did You Know?

Related Links
NOAA Ocean Explorer: Arctic Exploration
Follow mission logs, see photos and videos of Arctic sea life, and find out more about what each team was studying on this international expedition to the Arctic's Canada Basin
Japan Marine Science and Technology Center Arctic Ocean Research
Learn about JAMSTEC's current Arctic research activities.
A Study of Environmental Arctic Change
Government agencies join forces to study changes in the atmosphere, ocean, and land, and how they affect the Arctic environment.
State of the Canadian Cryosphere
Get the very latest information on sea ice, snow, permafrost, and more at this interactive website.


Bigg, Grant R. The Oceans and Climate. Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Kerr, Richard A. "A Warmer Arctic Means Change for All," Science (August 30, 2002), 1490-92.
Kerr, Richard A. "Whither Arctic Ice? Less of It, For Sure," Science  (August 30, 2002), 1491.
Sturm, Matthew, and others. "Meltdown in the North," Scientific American (October 2003), 60-67.


NGS Resources
Ousland, Børge. "Across the Arctic: A Norwegian Goes Solo," National Geographic (March 2002), 36-47.

Carter, Jimmy. "Arctic Alaska," National Geographic Traveler (October 2001) 48-9.

Rosing, Norbert. "Giant of the Arctic Ice: Walrus," National Geographic (September 2001), 66-77.

Mitchell, John G. "In Focus: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Oil Field or Sanctuary?" National Geographic (August 2001) 46-55.

Hodges, Glenn. "The New Cold War: Stalking Arctic Climate Change by Submarine," National Geographic (March 2000), 30-41.

Belt, Don. "An Arctic Breakthrough," National Geographic (February 1997), 36-57.


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