What we learn about this iceberg will be hard-earned

This morning, our world is white and grey. The fog has arrived. But we’re feeling positive in spite of that, because we are finally firmly anchored to the iceberg. And that is worth a celebratory cup of tea and a biscuit, because it’s taken days to get to this point.

Boarding the iceberg for the first time

Working on the ocean reminds you that we puny humans are far from being masters of our world. At home in the UK, we can easily deceive ourselves about that – after all, we have air conditioning, the Highway Code, earplugs, supermarkets and committee meetings. But not here. I think it’s probably healthy to appreciate how tiny we are compared with the world we inhabit, although being faced with it out here doesn’t make it any less frustrating.

The iceberg is solid lump of a thousand million tonnes of frozen water, floating on the ocean but currently pinned on a seafloor pinnacle at one point. It’s rotating around that point (the ice edge is moving at 0.4 knots where we are), and we certainly can’t stop it. Even at its calmest, the ocean surface is going up and down by about a metre because of storms that happened hundreds of kilometres to the south of us. And then there’s the weather, not helped by the fact that the iceberg generates its own fog. You could consider this a cure for the most enthusiastic optimist.

But human ingenuity is also pretty impressive. We searched and searched and eventually we found a spot to anchor. The anchors were laid on the second attempt, and we got the first science experiments out on the ice, just before the fog came in.

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It turns out that eight hours is a long time in iceberg science. I wrote everything above this morning, and then stopped to do some filming. It’s now 8pm and everything has changed.

The fog cleared, and the first team of the day went out on the ice. I got ready to go with the second group. We watched a small chunk of ice fall off the cliff a few hundred metres away and then the polar bear watch at the top of the ship started shouting. An enormous fracture was running through the iceberg, from the water to our right, behind the ice team and off for miles out into the ice. The ice team scurried back to the ship and we cast off the mooring lines, leaving the ropes behind. We stood on the top of the ship and marvelled. I have spent a fair amount of time studying fractures in various materials, but I have never seen a fracture 3 miles long. The piece of ice with our equipment on it (about 200 metres long and wide) broke off the end of the long strip on our side of the fracture, and tilted, just a little. And there it stayed.

Later that afternoon, we recovered all the equipment from the new mini iceberg. As I type this, we’re carefully threading our way between the main berg and this new berg. We looked, learned, and we’ll try again, putting our new experience to good use. Whatever we learn about this iceberg in the long run will be hard-earned, and all the more valuable for it.