Postcard From the North Pole: Assessing Climate Change at the Top of the World

A voyage on a nuclear-powered icebreaker lays bare a region rapidly changing due to climate change.

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 Pobedy50 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.”

First year ice, as its name implies, is ice that has formed the previous winter and spring. Being newer and thus thinner than older sea ice, it is more vulnerable to melting, so helping to perpetuate a cycle that has been called an Arctic sea ice death spiral.

As ice melts, it reveals open water which, being darker, has a lower albedo level, meaning that instead of reflecting incoming sunlight, it absorbs it. That increases ocean temperatures, leading to greater melting, which in turn causes sea ice not just to retreat but to thin. Thinner ice is more susceptible to melting, and in this way the vicious feedback loop of global warming is radically altering the Arctic region.

While the minimum sea ice extent for 2017 appears on course to become the sixth lowest on record, sea ice volume this year — general considered a better measure for ice loss — appears to be lower than any year except 2012.

“It’s one thing to read the data, to look at the graphs, to see the satellite images,” said York. “But seeing it for yourself really brings home the extent of the change.”

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York and PBI Executive Director Krista Wright, who was also on board, said their organization would be interested in working with Quark to include sea ice specialists on board future voyages to conduct measurements of sea ice thickness and extent. For now, observations, even by experts, remain anecdotal. Yet the extent of change is evident to those who frequent the region, even if they are skeptical about the cause.

Victory’s captain, Dmitriy Lobusov, while having personal doubts about the causes, acknowledged that the sea ice is diminishing.

“I have been working in the area for 30 years, and been doing North Pole voyages for 24 years, and I’ve seen many changes in the ice conditions,” he said. “Now we can hardly see the thick, multiyear ice we used to have two decades ago. As we approach the North Pole, you can see we have many stretches of open water.”

‘Yeah, you have an impact, but you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. You have to bring people, or these places won’t be relevant in their minds.’

Open water confronted the Victory even when it reached the North Pole on its final commercial voyage of the summer on August 5. As passengers celebrated arriving at 90 degrees North, it took Lobusov several hours of steaming to find sea ice thick enough for him to park the ship and for those on board to climb down onto the ice for a day of celebrating, photography, and even an impromptu game of soccer.

A more substantive sign of the ice’s thickness — or lack thereof — is found in the ship’s log. While the Victory is designed to be able to break through ice 2.7 meters thick, its average speed in such conditions is just 2 knots. On the two days before reaching the North Pole, when sea ice cover was 80 and 90 percent, it averaged 16.8 and 13.5 knots respectively. The majority of the occasions on which it encountered genuinely thick or borderline impenetrable ice was in the vicinity of Franz Josef Land, an Arctic archipelago where currents and coastlines combined to pile up ice and provide it with relative protection from melting.

“The change is really striking,” said Souness. “And it really drives home how quickly the ice responds to even slight changes in temperature. At one degree below freezing, ice is resilient and quite rigid. But as soon as it gets to zero [Celsius], it becomes so much softer, and you can see that with the ease with which the ship was just gliding through it.”

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All of which raises a question: If an ecosystem is rapidly changing, is the appropriate response to turn it into a tourist destination? If sea ice is thinning and presumably becoming more fragile, what are the impacts of blasting a 75,000 horsepower nuclear-powered icebreaker through it for three months of the year? The presence of people in such a remote environment has impacts, after all.

“It’s the double-edged sword of ecotourism,” admitted Souness. “You can’t go anywhere without affecting the places you go. But if you don’t bring people to places, if you don’t give them the chance to form a relationship of their own, the place will never be relevant to them. To save somewhere, to manage it for the future, a place has to be relevant.”

“Yeah, you have an impact,” he continued, “but you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. You have to bring people, or these places won’t be relevant in their minds.”

The counter-argument, of course, is that the number of people who can afford to pay the going rate for a North Pole voyage on board the Victory is a pretty small slice of the global populace. And while there were undoubtedly many on board who truly marveled at the icy expanses, who thrilled at the sight of polar bears and walruses and who pumped York and other lecturers for information and insights about what it all meant, there were also plenty whose goal was to tick another box on a list of travel destinations and who remained impervious to the lessons of what they saw and were told.

“I hate to disagree with you,” said one passenger to PBI’s Wright, “but I think the polar bears will be just fine. They’re very smart.”

Souness said he doesn’t seek to convert passengers.

“Some folks will come up after I give a presentation on sea ice loss and say, ‘I don’t believe it,’” he said. “I had one guy come up to me and say he didn’t understand how humans could be causing climate change. I told him about CO2 emissions and the greenhouse effect, and said, ‘It’s a scientific fact,’ and he said, ‘Well, now you’re just turning me off, using phrases like scientific fact. What am I supposed to do with that?’”

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The amount of Arctic tourism remains small, though, and the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators has established standards for operators and visitors. Authorities in Svalbard, Norway and Franz Josef Land have been diligent in limiting the number of visitors and building trails to limit the impact of those visitors.

Of greater long-term significance for the region is what Victory does for the eight or nine months a year its not ferrying tourists through the thinning ice of the Arctic. Those other months the ship’s crew is leading a growing parade of commercial vessels. A new generation of nuclear-powered icebreakers, which will vastly surpass the power of Victory, is under construction. Those new ships will be tasked not only for leading cargo convoys but to facilitate offshore exploration for oil and gas deposits that are becoming — ironically enough — accessible as Arctic ice thins and retreats.

At the same time, thinning ice means vessels are beginning to operate in the region without icebreakers. The tanker Christophe de Margerie traversed the Northeast Passage last month without assistance.

Victory’s passengers leave a footprint that is like a gentle caress of the Arctic compared to that of container traffic or the oil and gas industry. And while not all will heed the messages imparted by scientists during the journey, they stand on the vanguard of Arctic tourism and may one day serve as the eulogists of the region. They are among the first to have the opportunity to witness a long-inaccessible ecosystem and are among the last to have the chance to do so while it still exists in a form it has taken for millennia.

“Having the opportunity to reflect on where you are, looking out and knowing that, over the horizon — in whichever direction you look — are all the people on the planet, all the continents and islands, all the cities and cars, I think it’s quite hopeful,” said Solan Jensen, Quark’s assistant expedition leader on board Victory. “I think it delivers people a sense, not of isolation, but community. I think it’s very powerful.”

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The article originally described 50 Years of Victory as the world's most powerful icebreaker. It is the second largest.