The Constant Cycle of Fieldwork

Blog in a Teacup by Dr Helen Czerski

89 [deg] 31.32 N, 17 [deg] 49.29 E

I am knackered. 

It’s 8:30pm on our ninth full working day at the open lead (our worksite out on the ice floe), and the constant cycle of fieldwork is starting to take its toll.  It’s not the work itself which is tiring, but the time-consuming nature of doing anything either on the ice or on the ship. Tasks pour into the neat compartments in the ship’s routine and it’s clear that someone forgot to say ‘when’.  I’m not complaining, but I would very much like to be in bed by 9pm.  It doesn’t often happen.

I will admit that I don’t help myself by getting up at 6am each day so that I can go to the gym before breakfast, but it’s a necessary part of the day.  I’m very happy to live and work in cooperative shared space like this, but when I’m with other people for every moment of every day I find that an hour of isolated time (usually exercising) makes everything else much easier.  Also, I’m very happy to start each day dancing through my circuit training routine to cheerful cheesy music (feel free to judge; I don’t care).

There’s the gym, and breakfast, and then we have an hour to prepare before going out on the ice.  First I go to the back of the ship to carry my heavy sea-batteries from their charging station to the crane. The only power at our site comes from a mix of 20kg and 50 kg lithium and lead-acid batteries, and they get transported there and back each day by snowmobile. Then I pack everything else I need to take; spare equipment, laptop, data drives and a chocolate stash.  After that it’s time to suit up, and there’s a constant stream of people passing through the store beneath the heli-deck, pulling on enormous flotation suits, commenting on whether the suits have fully dried out from the day before, checking radios and fastening up snowboots. 

At the gangway, we radio the bridge to tell them we’re leaving the ship, and then we have a 2km walk to the open lead with our bear guard.  The walk is stunning; a well-trodden track that winds around meltponds and across cracks, although if it’s been warm (above zero degrees) surface slush can make it hard going.  The work is mostly manual labour; Replacing batteries (batteries feature heavily in all our lives), lowering sensors through the water, digging holes, positioning markers, taking photographs, putting large experiments into the water, taking them out again, and mooring floating sensors.  Even the most basic tasks take a long time because of snow and cold fingers and navigating around the site.  At lunchtime we pile into our tiny hut, sitting on equipment cases or folding chairs, curious about what the kitchen has packed for us today.

My favourite Swedish hut treat is ‘blueberry soup’, a hot sweet blueberry puree drink that comes in Thermos flasks and is perfect for this environment.   At 5pm, we start the walk back to the ship, arriving just in time for dinner.  Then it’s data download, meetings, logistics for the following day, and suddenly it’s time to pull down the blackout blinds, ready to start all over again the next day. 

There are no days off. The open lead could freeze over at any time, and it would be stupid to miss a measurement day when it’s taken so much time and effort to get to this point.  But things are getting easier as our setup improves and we can trust our instruments to record without being continually checked on.  Our group has agreed that we need to take half days off when we can, because tired people make mistakes, and we need to be alert.   But once the lead freezes over we will have much less to measure, so it’s hard to make that call.

It’s frustrating not to have time to fully digest the data as we gather it, but there seems to be no time to do anything other than the essentials.  It’s such a weird problem to have. We only have one job on this ship, and we’re a long way from the normal distractions of life.

But there still just isn’t enough time.  There’s probably some very profound life lesson in there, but I’m too sleepy to work out what it is.

The good news is that (to my astonishment) my emergency chocolate supplies survived their transit through the ridiculously hot weather back in July.   A little bit of proper dark chocolate each day is a lovely treat to look forward to.   Even more astonishingly, after nearly four weeks on the ship, we still have apples and pears (although no other fresh fruit and vegetables).   There is a mysteriously infinite supply of eggs. I’m half convinced that the ship has some chickens stashed away somewhere because the continual flow of soft-boiled, hard-boiled, fried eggs and omelette seems so improbable.   We’re now at the point where food starts to be really important for morale, because being able to look forward to dinner and the occasional special treat lifts everyone’s spirits.  The kitchen staff are doing a fabulous job of keeping us smiling and excited at dinnertime.

I really enjoy this sort of work, and our team out at the open lead is fantastic.  I just wish there were more hours in the day so that I could do more of it. 

But because there aren’t, I’m off to bed.

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.