Puzzle pieces of ice stretched across the curve of the earth. Photo copyright Kt Miller/Polar Bears International

8/10/2013 8:08:30 PM

A Vanishing Realm

By Kt Miller

I could feel the chill of the metal rungs through my gloves as I scampered up and up. One of the classic features of the M/S Stockholm is the crow’s nest. I felt a little like a pirate as I ascended the mast via a narrow ladder, nestling into the basket 30 feet above the deck of the ship.

The crow’s nest was my favorite place to pass the time during my recent trip to Svalbard. From my perch I was not only able to visually experience my surroundings, but to really experience it with all my senses, to immerse myself completely: to feel my cheeks become numb from the biting wind, to smell the salty sea, and to listen to the rolling waves as the sea birds called back and forth to one another. I visited the crow’s nest often, bundled up in my parka, soaking in the view from my aerie, absorbing the raw beauty abounding in this Arctic region.

As we reached 81 degrees north a sea of ice spanned the horizon. At this latitude it almost seems as though you can see the curve of the earth. The ice here stretches up and over the North Pole (for now).

After two days in the pack ice we headed south again towards the mainland. It was fascinating to watch the ice change. At our northernmost point the ice was almost completely above the surface of the water, the horizon a vast white, windswept plain. Then a layer of ice beneath the water appeared in various shades of turquoise. Puzzle pieces of snow-covered ice protruded above the water, but the layer beneath was generally frozen in very large pieces. Farther south the lower layer of ice became disjointed until it only appeared along the edges of larger free-floating pieces. Rather quickly the ice disappeared completely.

Ice appeared again, in a different form, along the glacier front. Massive icebergs decorated the deep blue water. Smaller pieces appeared in various quantities sprinkling the void. The sprinkles crackled and popped as they melted into the abyss. I ventured to the bridge of the ship and glanced over Captain Per’s shoulder.  A small dotted line on one of his screens represents the path of the ship. I looked again. “Per, it looks like the ship is on land.” I said in a state of confusion. “Yes,” he replied, “We’re now in open water. That is where the glacier front was last year.”

I was shocked. Last summer, that water was a frozen mass of the ice cap; in the course of just one year the glacier front had calved and receded immensely. Gawking, I returned to the deck of the ship.

We reached the famous waterfalls of the Austfonna Ice Cap early the next morning. Dawn greeted us with blue skies and soft light accentuating the frozen turquoise rubble. Streams slithered down to meet the glacier front, cascading as colorful waterfalls into the Barents Sea. Summer melt was in full effect.

One of the guests stepped down from the crow’s nest and rushed over to me. “You’ve got to go up there, the view is spectacular and the photos will be great!” I padded my pockets, no gloves. Oh well. Without hesitation I once again quickly ascended the bitter cold rungs of the narrow ladder shivering in delight as I crawled back into the basket of the crow’s nest. I pulled the viewfinder of my camera up to my eye, attempting to capture the beauty of this distant place. The wind whirled around me and I was immediately engulfed by the harsh elements of the delicate ecosystem melting before my eyes. 

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