Evolving into a Village

Blog in a Teacup by Dr Helen Czerski

Life on Oden has taken a different turn in the past ten days, and it seems to be a very natural evolutionary step from where we were at the halfway point.  The ship has a completely different feel about it, and I didn’t really see it coming at all.   We are evolving into a village.   

ODEN carved in ice at the ROV tent.

I’m almost hesitant to analyse it because it’s so much fun just to let it happen.   The science never stops – the basic routine for every day doesn’t change much, working outside is just as physically challenging, and the small tweaks in the daily pattern are entirely dictated by the weather and the state of the ice.   At the open lead, we’re now mostly just working on the ice in the afternoons, so we spend the mornings on the ship, dealing with data and decisions.  But the interesting bit is what’s happening around that.   We’re all still knackered, but activities are creeping in around the work, because we’ve been at sea for six weeks and now we have to live here instead of just working here.

Yesterday evening was typical.  In the ship’s bar area, there were two people playing backgammon, one playing a guitar, six people at another table playing a card game, and a cluster around the bar itself.   Up on the bridge, the first mate was showing people paper maps of the route home, and the balloon team were still out on the ice, working late.  Everyone knows everyone else’s routine, and we know which of the usual suspects will volunteer for certain types of work, who the night owls are, whose ears will twitch at the slightest mention of someone having found ice algae or frost flowers, and who has the best supplies of sealable plastic sample bags.   We are a self-contained community, functioning in a way that is now sustainable almost indefinitely.  And it feels fantastic.   I’ve spent a bit of time wondering why I don’t think I’ve seen something like this in any of the many previous expeditions that I’ve been on, and I think that it comes down to the large number of people on the ship  (74), and the fact that Oden has pretty good social space – a movie room, a bar, a gym and a large mess (dining area).    We are still limited in what we can do, but we have enough to be creative and to keep us occupied.    It occurred to me the other day that I haven’t missed listening to the radio at all, but who needs the radio when there are always fun interesting people around? 

Throwing hot water in the air
when the air temperature was -12C. It froze almost instantly.

All of this has huge benefits for our science.  We worked together well at the start, but now we’re a real team, helping each other out, sharing interesting observations and living our collective projects.   There are still not enough hours in the day to do everything we’d like to, but there’s certainly no boredom.   That’s the reason for the gap between this blog and the previous one – the time is flying and it’s really hard to remember that the outside world exists.

But the end is now in sight.  Three days ago, our patch of open water (the “open lead”) finally froze over properly. We’ve had lots of grease ice before, a thin slush on the surface that gets blown about by the wind, but when we got to the open lead on Sunday it was all frozen solid.   We’ve spent the past few days doing final tests and removing experiments from the water, and the ship’s crew finally removed our homely little hut yesterday.   We were told that the freeze-up could occur any time after we arrived, so we’re very happy to have had three whole weeks of measurement time. Oden’s drift with our large ice floe is also coming to an end.  The schedule says that we will depart from this site this coming Saturday and then it will take us ten days to get back out of the ice and into port in Tromso.   

Frost growing on one of the wooden markers at the open lead.

The weather has also turned.  At the moment it’s -6C, which counts as “warm” this week, but was -12C two days ago, noticeable because ropes freeze solid as soon as they come out of the water and it’s impossible to do anything without gloves for more than 30 seconds.   The wind has picked up, and working outside is more than a bit grim.  I’ve been enjoying being outside, but I’m pretty glad that we don’t have to be out as much now that the real cold has arrived.  Now the focus shifts to data analysis and to learning as much as we can from each other about how our findings fit together. I think that our steel-plated little village is going to be a good place to be for the next two weeks, and I’m looking forward to it.

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.

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