Nantucket has always been home to adventurers. There is a spirit of exploration to the island that continues to burn in many of the people who live here. Perhaps few more so than Marjan Shirzad, the NHA’s Director of Visitor Experience. In 2011, Marjan appeared on the cover of our Stroll issue, in the pages of which she described her chilling adventures in the Arctic. As with all stories from the wild unknown, Marjan’s only gets better with time.
It is the end of March 2011. I am clearly on Arctic time now as it seems like months have passed since a rugged, ski-fitted Twin Otter plane dropped us off on this particular patch of Arctic ice. Back then it was simply a point on a map. Now it is our neighborhood…no, our home.
Climate scientists have long warned that what happens in the Arctic is a harbinger of what may follow elsewhere; in other words, the Arctic Ocean acts as an early warning system for ocean systems across our little blue planet. However, due to the area’s extreme inaccessibility, the Arctic science model remains largely enigmatic, even today. This is what brings us here now.
A multi-year, international research program, the Catlin Arctic Survey supports Arctic scientists as they study processes affecting the Arctic Ocean, namely ocean acidification and thermohaline circulation. With ocean acidification, scientists understand that carbon dioxide is absorbed faster in colder waters, like those of the Arctic Ocean. The question is how increased acidification affects sea life and marine food chains at the poles, and whether similar conditions may arise in warmer locations.
In the case of thermohaline circulation, one could think of the Arctic Ocean as a central hub for global water currents of differing densities, all circulating, rising and falling at pivotal points. Some of the currents consist of fresh water while others are salty, some are cold and others are warm. As the primary meeting point for these currents, the Arctic Ocean acts like a giant pump, which maintains the overall flow of our vital ocean systems. However, higher temperatures and increased melting sea ice could change the pumping process, with devastating results for the planet.
Hailing from the US, the UK, Canada and Australia, the 2011 Catlin scientists aim to fill these gaps in knowledge and gather data for these models. No other team of scientists is taking ice core samples or conducting field research in the Arctic so early in the season. Therefore, this “pre-season” data is unparalleled in the scientific community, and pushes the boundaries of Arctic research into the realm of “extreme science.”
The Catlin Ice Base is not a particularly natural place for human life, pitched over the frozen waters of Deer Bay off Elef Ringnes Island at 78 degrees north, in the uppermost region of Canada’s Nunavut province. We are a small team consisting of an expedition leader, a few polar guides, a cook, a communications manager, four scientists and our polar bear deterrent and mascot, Tuk, a Canadian Inuit camp dog.
The ice base functions as one tight unit, however each member also performs a specialized role during the expedition. As ice base communications manager, my mission is relatively straightforward: Do not freeze—either myself or my technical equipment—and capture all daily life and scientific happenings at the base via photographs, short films, blog posts and educational videos. I also need to shoot special footage for the BBC, and support visiting journalists like Frank Pope, oceans correspondent for The Times newspaper in London, and CNN special correspondent Philippe Cousteau Jr., grandson of oceanographer Jacques Cousteau.
The team works every day, no weekends off, mostly stopping for meals, chores and sleep. We arrive as relative strangers but are now a community of neighbors, friends, co-workers and confidantes. At some point it reminds me a lot of the community feeling on Nantucket, on a minuscule scale.
Every day, public enemy number one is the cold. It is not your run-of- the-mill, ski-slope kind of cold. This Arctic version bites, burns and is inescapable. It certainly hurts and even has the power to kill. The first time I felt my nose hairs turn into tiny, spear-like icicles or the skin on my cheeks pinch together and sting, I could not comprehend what was happening. Now, a veteran of sorts, I use that feeling as a weather gauge: “Frozen nose hairs? It must be colder than -20 degrees.”
A daily battle occurs between the elements and one’s body, and the only way to victory is by creating warmth from the inside. On a typical day back home, an adult male might consume 2,500 calories. In the Arctic, you need a minimum of 5,000 calories to maintain basic body warmth – and your body tells you when it is not receiving its fair share. At ice base, I don’t think twice about eating an entire tablet of chocolate at both lunch and dinner. I also cave in to a deep, primal voice that orders me to mix copious amounts of peanut butter, maple syrup and bacon into my bowl of morning oatmeal. “Delicious” does not do this dish justice.
Around me lies nothing but the vastness of pure snow and ice in every direction for as far as the eye can see. Our camp sits on 5 1⁄2 feet of frozen sea ice, with 820 feet of dark, cold Arctic Ocean beneath it. I have never wanted ice to remain frozen more than I do now. The lack of running water at camp is barely noticeable, and it is a really good week if we change our socks and underwear every 48 to 72 hours.
No plumbing also means no formal sewer system. The ice base toilet consists of an unheated portable expedition shelter with two 5-gallon buckets, one for liquid waste and another for solid waste.
I sleep in a one-man unheated tent pitched directly on the ice, its floor covered with a few insulated mats to soften the frigid blow. Temperatures dip to -54°F (not accounting for wind chill, which can make it feel like -76°F). My breath freezes across my face as I sleep, and I awake to it hanging from the walls of the tent like fairy stalactites. Some nights I fall asleep wondering what it would feel like to be swallowed by melting sea ice while I lay slumbering in my sleeping bag. Other nights, I wonder how many bites it would take for a polar bear to devour a woman of my size. Both are long shots, but this is the Arctic and seemingly low-probability risks are real nonetheless. I channel my thoughts into positive ones, thank the universe for Tuk the dog, and fall asleep.
We awake to the walls of our tents shuttering violently in the wind. A five-day blizzard descends upon us, wielding howling winds, ferocious temperatures and whiteout conditions. But there is no waiting out this weather from the relative- comfort of our sleeping bags. There is only one lifeline to the outside world and that is the ski- way, a crude runway specially fitted for Twin Otter or DC-3 planes to land with vital shipments of fuel and food. More importantly, it’s our only way off this block of ice. We are running low on supplies, and the ski-way must be protected. Of course, there is no number to dial for emergency assistance, no “them” to call for help – just “us” to get the job done. And it is in these dark hours that the true beauty of the expedition spirit is felt.
Fighting through perpetual exhaustion, each team member gears up, grabs a shovel, and treks the quarter-mile to the ski-way. The challenge in polar regions is that constant winds move snow from place to place, creating formidable sastrugi, sand dune-like, irregular ridges on the snow surface – and a deterrent to safe airplane landings. Reaching the ski-way, we begin the arduous work of flattening and stomping down the sastrugi.
After hours of shoveling, as if to reward our hard work and team spirit, the skies open as they never have before, granting our indefatigable team the most sublime sunset we have yet to see in that Arctic sky. We gather together on a patch of ice, shovels in hand, our laughter permeating the Arctic air. Basking in our trust in each other, all memories of hard work dissipate. The unspoken realization is enough: It is a privilege to be standing here together, suspended in this one moment in time. Soothed by the whisper of calming winds, the horizon aglow with endless columns of Arctic light, we wouldn’t trade these shovels for the world.