Sea Kayaking / Touring
Nares Strait — passage between Ellesmere Island and Greenland - July 2017
Enduring Ice is the story of a journey and a mission to spotlight the essential role of Arctic sea ice in balancing our planet’s climate.
Like polar bears and Inuit, we are all sea ice dependent species."
Five hundred miles from the North Pole, a scientific expedition is beset by the sea ice it has come to study. Three red kayaks, tiny specks in an austere wilderness, the team is in shock, its way forward blocked by a crumpled and pulverized wreckage of floes. Conditions are unrecognizable, no research can be done. With the Arctic Ocean collapsing all around them, they must escape the chaos by traversing Nares Strait, the most formidable passage of the polar North.
Flanked by rugged polar mountains and uninhabited shorelines, Nares Strait is incredibly remote. Its ice-choked and seldom navigated waters mark the boundary between Greenland and northernmost Canada. As a portal to the Arctic Ocean’s recently designated Last Ice Area, the Strait is a microcosm for an entire region in transition. Across the Arctic, a white, frozen ocean is giving way to dark, ice-free seas, and more of the sun’s energy is getting absorbed instead of being reflected back out to space. The Enduring Ice team understands this well. Like war zone journalists, they are embedded into the front lines of Arctic Ocean change. Studying the breakdown of a frozen ocean, their mission is to explore the essential role of sea ice in balancing our planet’s climate.
The Arctic Ocean has been losing sea ice much faster than experts had predicted. Thirty summers ago, the Ocean’s floating raft of sea ice was vast enough to cover all of South America. Since that time, ice floes have been getting thinner, and the surface area they cover has been dramatically shrinking. Satellite records have shown a loss of nearly three-quarters of all Arctic sea ice volume. No other environment on earth has lost so much mass, so fast. It’s all part of the phenomenon known as ‘polar amplification’. To oceanographers, the Arctic Ocean is becoming unrecognizable, and many predict Arctic waters to soon be ice-free in summertime. This has enormous implications for the Earth’s climate, and for us all. Like polar bears and Inuit, we are all sea ice dependent species.
The white ice of the polar ocean is the Earth’s reflective shield, reflecting incoming solar radiation back out to space. As sea ice cover diminishes, the Arctic Ocean darkens, its open polar waters absorbing the sun’s energy for redistribution around the world. Like the flick of a light switch, the thermal balance shifts — a cooling system becomes a heating system.
On July 2, 2017, for as far as the eye can see, the ocean is covered in ice. We are overlooking the narrow passage between northernmost Ellesmere Island and Greenland, the frozen shore of Nares Strait at our feet. Nine hundred pounds of gear and provisions are piled high alongside three red kayaks. This is what we’ll need to keep us well-fed and equipped for the next five weeks during our hands-on study of ice floes. Our group of five Arctic aficionados includes myself as leader of the expedition, plus four others: polar oceanographer Chris Horvat, longtime farmer Diana Kushner and father and son duo, Mike and Bryce Dillon. We are at nearly 82° North latitude, five hundred miles from the North Pole. And we are utterly and completely alone.
Oceanographic studies indicate that Nares Strait will be one of the final holdouts for the Arctic’s summertime sea ice cover. Part of the World Wildlife Fund’s designated Last Ice Area, the Strait is an oceanic passageway where powerful currents coalesce to drive polar waters southward. It is the Arctic’s most remote and dynamic passage.
To improve climate models, scientists need data to help them understand the way that the frozen ocean is breaking down. Our expedition goals are to conduct research on the fracturing of sea ice floes in relation to ocean currents and wave action, and to track the size distribution of those floes.
Almost immediately we discovered that the Arctic Ocean had become a distinctly different body of water from what we had previously known it to be. Day in and day out, a stream of icy rubble charged relentlessly through the Strait, the ocean surface brimming from shore to shore with slushy, pulverized floes. Confined to the mountainous coastline, all we could do was haul our fully-laden kayaks over the rough, eroded icefoot. Our progress ground down to a mile or two per day.
Based upon my past expeditions to this area, we had expected to encounter ice floes tens of miles wide: sprawling slabs of sea ice bounded by wide open water passageways. To our amazement, sea conditions proved nearly impossible for boat travel. On most days we didn’t have enough open water to even launch our kayaks, let alone get any research done. Where I had once seen thousands of seabirds and seals, there was little wildlife. The question on all of our minds was, “how are we ever going to get out of this mess?”
One morning, our camp woke to the resonating blows of narwhal. It was an incredible sighting — narwhal have never been spotted so far North. Everyone was amazed to see open water where there had only been rafts of ice the night before. It is the first open water we have seen. But before we can get going, the slushy rubble closes in, chasing the narwhal away.
A gust of wind arrived at the end of our first week, building within hours to full hurricane strength. Caught completely out in the open, we retreated into a single tent, and for three days we lay cowering inside while the storm raged. Although the windstorm blew the ice away, the same beaten and crumpled floes soon drifted back in on us, and we had to continue hauling. One day, with steep cliffs rising on one side, and an impassable rubble-field of shattered sea ice on the other, we reached the end of the ice foot with nowhere to go. It was that sinking feeling of being stranded at the edge of the earth.
It took our team five weeks to make it sixty miles to a place level enough for us to call in a small plane. On pick-up day, we awoke to snow on the tents and the first fog of our journey. Our camp was completely socked-in. Around noon, the ceiling lifted and the decision was made to call in the aircraft. Five hours later, visibility still holding, I got through to the pilot. The plane was six minutes away. Three minutes later, however, the fog closed back in. We heard a droning overhead, and then — not a sound. Frozen in silence, we keened our ears for that plane. A half hour passed. Suddenly, a bird-like phantom popped through a tiny hole in the clouds. Seconds later, in a roar of reversing turboprops, the aircraft landed.
Like the Mars rover relaying its first images back to earth, our expedition has opened a window and given us a glimpse into the future for the North Polar region. For me, the Arctic has always been otherworldly and fantastical, but now, watching its transformation, I am bewildered. Chris Horvat, our young sea ice specialist, confirmed that the new year-round exodus of sea ice through Nares Strait means that thicker ice floes are no longer getting a chance to form in the Arctic Ocean during the wintertime. It’s the beginning of a new chapter in polar oceanography. Whatever will remain — whatever will become — of the enduring ice?
Story by Stephen Smith - expedition leader and director, Enduring Ice
all photographs © Enduring Ice
Like polar bears and Inuit, we are all sea ice dependent species."