On the seventh day, the world's most powerful ship ever to break through Arctic ice became stuck.
On the bridge, the moment was met by a brief whoop of joy: acknowledgment of the triumph of Mother Nature over invading human forces.
The improbability of the moment stemmed partly from the icebreaker’s sheer might. Powered by two nuclear reactors, the Murmansk-based 50 Let Pobedy — 50 Years of Victory — boasts 75,000 horsepower that, combined with the 40 centimeter thick steel that strengthens its stem, enables it to slice through ice as thick as 2.7 meters without stopping.
In service since 2006, Victory spends the bulk of its working life breaking through the ice of the Northeast Passage, which connects the Barents Sea to the Bering Sea across the top of Russia. The vessel’s task is to open pathways at the head of convoys of cargo and container ships. During the height of summer, however, it is chartered by adventure tour companies to carry paying passengers on voyages to the North Pole, and it was during just such a voyage last month, one day after leaving the North Pole behind and as the vessel closed in on the rarely visited Arctic archipelago of Franz Josef Land, that Victory finally — and briefly — found its progress blocked.
“The ice had been driven against the shore by the wind, and one of the things the icebreaker has to overcome isn’t just the thickness of the ice, not just breaking it while moving forwards, but displacing it. You have to push it to one side to make space for yourself,” explained Colin Souness, a glaciologist with Quark Expeditions, which chartered Victory for three North Pole journeys this summer, and the source of the joyful whoop. “Otherwise, it crushes you from the side, like Endurance was crushed by ice floes. This ship experiences the same pressure, so you have to come up with ways of lessening the friction. When you can’t displace it, when there’s no open water to push it into, you get pinched and grind to a halt.”
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There was no danger of the most powerful icebreaker ever built suffering the same fate as the Ernest Shackleton’s legendary vessel, which sank in the Antarctic in 1915. Within minutes Victory had extricated itself and resumed its forward progress. Even so, it was a sign that even a melting Arctic shouldn’t be taken for granted.
“It shouldn’t be too easy,” Souness said by way of explanation of his celebration. “It’s supposed to be a challenge. I think we should all be reminded of that more often than we are.”
The notion of a pair of nuclear reactors powering through Arctic ice might be discomfiting — and the presence in Murmansk of a memorial comprising the bow of the Kursk, the nuclear submarine that sank in 2000, albeit not as a result of its nuclear propulsion, is testament to the inherent dangers of operating in the unforgiving Arctic environment. But the nuclear fleet’s defenders point to the fact that the country’s first nuclear-powered icebreaker, the Lenin, which is now proudly on display in Murmansk, was built in 1956 and operated without incident, while the Arktika, which carried the first tourists to the North Pole 40 years ago, exceeded its operational expectancy by 10 years.
The ship’s head engineer, Vladimir Yudin, unsurprisingly speaks of his charge with some pride.
“With 500 kilograms of uranium, we have enough fuel for 5 to 6 years,” he said as Victory plowed northward. Two onboard desalination plants produce 200 tons of fresh water per day, more than is consumed even when the standard crew is joined by 100 or more paying passengers.
“Our only limitation is the tiredness of the crew and the capacity of food storage,” he asserted.
And for those who have spent a great deal of time on and around Arctic sea ice, the vessel is certainly impressive.
“It’s kind of remarkable, really, to be on a ship that just slices through ice with barely any trouble at all,” said Geoff York of Polar Bears International, whom Quark invited on board to be a guest lecturer and expert on the North Pole voyage.
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But there was another reason, besides the vessel’s sturdiness, why even the briefest of interruptions to the journey came as a surprise. Even as Victory closed in on the North Pole, the sea ice through which it was grinding appeared in shockingly poor condition, even for late summer.
“By 86, 87 degrees latitude north, and even before, we should have expected to be encountering expanses of thick, gnarled, old ice, piled high with pressure ridges,” York said. “And we didn’t. It appeared that there was very little ice that was even second year or older. Most of it seemed to be first-year ice, or worse — no ice at all — and that’s troubling.”