Cracks in the Ice

IMG_8065The next entry was originally going to be titled “A Year Out” but that milestone came and went in a flurry of travel and parallel projects. The museum opened a new exhibit a couple weeks ago (Denali Legacy) and a couple weeks before that, I had the good fortune to be in Barrow for a few days to speak with scientists and whaling captains about bowhead whales and the sea-ice environment. I also hoped to capture some ambient audio, hear and see the odd whale, and check out the ice first hand to get a better sense of the cracks and leads, the ice ridges, and the water beneath it all.

IMG_8036Unfortunately, the winds were not in our favor the week before I arrived, the week I was in Barrow, and even the week following. That’s not entirely true. When you fly into Barrow, you come across the water and on the monday (April 15th) we did so, there was a fantastic lead opening northwest of the point and clearly visible on the descent. The whaling crews were heading out. Everyone seemed to be excited that the season was finally starting. In the first satellite image below, you can make out the lead, north and west of the blue circle that is Barrow. The dates for the four images are April 15 through April 18, 2013.

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The next day we went out on the ice via snow machine, mapping the trails of the whaling crews and hoping to get out to the ice edge when unexpectedly the whaling crews began coming back towards shore. The ice was coming back in. It may have been a mile wide at the start of the day, but by evening it had snapped shut. It essentially stayed that way for the next couple weeks.

Two days later we went back out on the ice, having no hope this time of getting to the ice edge and open water, but we did want to put a hydrophone down through a crack in the ice and listen for whales. Where two days beforehand one whaling captain had set his camp on the ice edge, it was now jumble ice where the two sheets had come back together.


We found water there, but the slush was too thick and too deep to sink the hydrophone through to clear water. We fell back a half mile closer to shore where there was a significant crack in the sheet. Here we could get the hydrophone down into the water and have a listen to the ocean under the ice. We heard no whales, indicating that there were no whales for miles in all directions. Seems they might have understood the conditions weren’t quite right around Barrow and were either waiting or passing by farther out to sea.  We did hear bearded seals in the water. The whale scientists were not impressed, but the seals were pretty neat to hear.

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One take home lesson from listening with the hydrophone is how much noise a person can make walking on the ice sheet. If any one of our party so much as took a light step, the noise propagated into the water prevented hearing anything else below.

Talking to scientists in Barrow and taking a look at years of photographs and video shot by scientists on the whale census and hunters waiting on the ice edge, I was able to bring back a large about of valuable information to our little animation project.

For a look at the ice conditions via satellite for today, check here.



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