Not Quite Ready to Come HomeBlog in a Teacup by Dr Helen Czerski
Dr Helen Czerski’s time on the ice is nearing an end. The equipment is being packed up and they’re ready to return to open water to begin the journey home.
The sun set over Oden last night, for the first time in 49 days. The evenings have been spectacular recently. As the sun started to brush the horizon, the colours switched so we had darker blue ice and white sky, instead of the other way around. But the peace outside has been in stark contrast to everything inside the ship.
This expedition has always felt like a rush, and it’s all because of the weather. Life on board is completely dictated by what the atmosphere is up to, and everything can be completely disrupted at very short notice, which is why the detailed forecast at each morning briefing is such an important part of the day. The last few days have been a lesson in why paying attention matters.
We left our ice floe in a rush, on Friday afternoon instead of Saturday evening. The weather forecast suggested that helicopter flights would be impossible on the planned days (they were essential to get the bit pieces of equipment back to the ship), so everything had to be packed up early. It would have been lovely to have one last afternoon on the ice, one last look around to say farewell. But instead we needed every bit of available time to wipe ourselves off our own map, packing down huts, taking down equipment, making a last survey of the ice, and erasing our traces from the white of the ice. No-one really felt ready to leave, but it was happening anyway. The Swedish crew organised a farewell drink just after we left, and it is absolutely typical of their style that it was outside on the helicopter deck. The captain sat behind a table dispensing champagne to researchers and crew who were all bundled up in flotation suits and huge jackets because the air temperature was -7C. I know that champagne is supposed to be served chilled, but having ice form inside the glass as I drink it was a new experience.
Then we settled in for a nine-day transit home, out of the ice and across open ocean to Tromso. There’s packing to do and data to organise, but the transit is also important mentally, because everyone needs time to wind down and deal with the return to “normal” life. It feels as though it’s going to be a proper slap in the face and nine days isn’t enough. And we all want time to talk to each other about our data, to chew over what we’ve done, and to make sure that we’ve got the best picture of how everything fits together.
I’m not sure that I really want the internet back. I haven’t missed it. I thought the small grey ship phones were odd at the start, but they’ve been one of the most important parts of the trip. Calling people is so much better than texting them, and since the phones have the text message features of one of those original Nokia phones from 15 years ago, we’ve all forgotten that text messages exist. Calling is so much more human, and it’s one of the habits from this trip that I’m going to try to take back with me. When I’m in London, I can’t live in a close community like the one on the ship, but I can boot out some of the bad habits that isolate me from other people. Texting people when I should call them is one of those bad habits.
There is a storm brewing in the Norwegian Sea. To get to Tromso, we need to pass Svalbard and then carry on across the open ocean, and we’ve been watching the weather because it will make a big difference to that leg of the trip. Yesterday morning, I woke up knowing that I had to pack every last bit of my scientific equipment before the end of the day, because we probably wouldn’t be allowed out on the deck at all in heavy seas. Oden is a fabulous ship in the ice, but she rolls and judders a lot in open water. The approaching storm is looking more severe with every forecast, and at 4pm yesterday the captain announced a change of plan. Oden will not make the transit to Tromso in these conditions. We will divert to Svalbard, and come into port in Longyearbyen. But Svalbard is close, and the flights out are limited. So almost all of us will leave Oden tomorrow evening, fly out of Longyearbyen at 2am, and that will be it. Expedition over, four days ahead of schedule.
It’s a proper gut punch. There are so many discussions still to have, so many ideas to process, so much data to organise, and also the last table tennis games and conversations and things we’d promised to share with people. And then there’s the mental readjustment. I will probably have 4G internet access 24 hours from now. It occurred to me in the middle of the night that I’ve probably forgotten my bank card PIN. There will be fresh fruit, and pollution, and my bike and proper night time and supermarkets. There will be all my friends from home, but none of my friends from the ship. Leaving the Arctic will be much harder than just getting on a plane. And I’m not ready.
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Dr Helen Czerski is a physicist, first and foremost, but she’s acquired a few other labels along the way: oceanographer, presenter, author and bubble enthusiast. A regular on The Cosmic Shambles Network, she has also presented a number of acclaimed documentaries for the BBC and her first book, Storm in a Teacup, which looked at the physics of every day things, was a bestseller. Recently she was awarded the prestigious William Thomson, Lord Kelvin Medal and Prize from the Institute of Physics.