OSU Research Tale: Icebound Amid COVID

Dr. Jennifer Hutchings of OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences has made the behavior of sea ice her special area of study. Late last year, she got the chance to spend more time than ever before getting up close and personal with the ice.  

The Polarstern, a research ship carrying an international crew of scientists, went into the Arctic Ocean to do something many other ships have tried hard to avoid: get stuck in the ice. They found out that it’s a lot harder to do these days. 

The research team planned to freeze the Polarstern (German for “Pole Star”) into the ice within the Transpolar Drift, knowing that this would carry them northward, which would allow them to remain with the same ice flow for a longer time. The 19th century explorer Fridtjot Nansen had done much the same in his effort to be first to reach the North Pole. 

“We were following in his shipsteps,” as Hutchings said. 

However, they had to go a good deal further north than Nansen before they reached pack ice forming – a reminder of how diminished the Arctic ice has become. This resulted, among other things, in their getting “closer to the Pole than Nansen did.” 

At last, the Polarstern was successfully embedded in an ice floe, and was slowly carried with the moving ice, allowing the crew to study its behavior as the season progressed. When Hutching arrived aboard a Russian icebreaker for the third leg of the trip, continuing work her graduate student Daniel Watkins had begun in the first leg of the trip, Hutchings was literally in her element, having the chance to study ice dynamics at length. 

As they rode the ice, studying its behavior as it bore them along, they grew accustomed to the unusual nature of life aboard a ship floating in such an unfamiliar, but beautiful, landscape.  

“We were there for the transition from night to day,” Hutchings recalls. “At 87° North, (the Pole is 90° North), the Sun rises and sets for a week, and then – constant daylight.” 

To the south of the expedition, the COVID pandemic was sweeping around the world, but the team aboard the Polarstern knew almost nothing about it.  

“All we had on the ship was a five-page newsletter – three pages of it sports – compiled for us by the Germans,” Hutchings explained.  

Even as the pandemic progressed and all sports, professional and amateur, shut down, the three pages of sports news was still “sports news,” about how various athletes were coping with the situation. That didn’t provide Hutchings and the others much help as they tried to understand what was going on. 

A Chinese colleague told her about the lockdown as his family had experienced it, but she “never imagined it would happen over the whole world.” 

Eventually, as the pandemic spread and there was concern that it might not be possible to extract the research team if something went wrong, the planned stay on the ice was cut short. In April, the remainder of their research was cancelled – and so was their evacuation flight. Instead, they would self-rescue.  

Once again, a Russian icebreaker went north, this time to clear the way for them. This was a tricky proposition itself. A ship couldn’t simply smash its way through to them and then lead them to open sea: as Hutchings said, “an icebreaker can only carry so much fuel.”  

Instead, they drifted until mid-May, and then another Russian icebreaker arrived to lead them to the Arctic island of Spitzbergen, where they were able to fly to Germany. Isolated at the port of Bremerhaven because of the pandemic, they were loaded aboard a bus which took them to Frankfurt, where Hutchings caught a flight to the U.S. 

“By the time we got back [at the end of May], things were almost back to normal,” Hutchings said with obvious relief.  

Even so, it was a strange homecoming. Normally, she said, she’d feel a sense of dislocation, returning to normal life on the mainland after a long time on a ship in the ice.  

“This time,” Hutchings said, “we felt like we were the normal ones,” because life had changed far more while they were gone than they had been changed by time on the ice.  

“Everyone else had learned a new etiquette and we hadn’t.”   

By John M. Burt 

Do you have a story for The Advocate? Email editor@corvallisadvocate.com