Breaking the Ice

Breaking the Ice

A century after Roald Amundsen's voyage in the search for a Northwest Passage, Alvo Martin '51 followed the same spectacular route on a Coast Guard icebreaker and research ship.

By Robert Gillespie

"It's on the alarmist side" of the evidence in the debate over global warming, Martin said.

At the same time, last November scientists in the Antarctic reported that two sections of the Larsen ice shelf collapsed in the past decade as currents of water deep beneath the surface melted the floating ice shelf from below and surface meltwater running into crevices weakened the shelf's surface.

As he reflects on "the alarmist side" of global warming, Martin notes a striking difference between the Healy's scientific expeditions to the Arctic and his Antarctic voyage in 1948.

"In 1948 there was a disrespect for nature," he said. "If there were penguins or seals sunning themselves out ahead of the ship, the quartermaster [helmsman] delighted in ramming the ice floes to try to knock them off. It was a deadly game because very often killer whales, the next notch up in the food chain, would be circling nearby." The people driving the Healy display a different attitude and take great care to avoid disturbing "the locals," Martin says. It's not unusual for them to change course to avoid distressing a mother polar bear and her straggling cubs. "The reverence or respect for the biological environment is totally different now. We've become better citizens of the world, cautious, careful, considerate of the environment," he said.

"Seldom have I been among . . . persons with greater respect for the environment, in this case a very hostile one. While unforgiving polar surroundings are undoubtedly reasons this crew is bound so closely, another is their dedication to exploration in parts of the world about which we have much to learn."

Exactly. Because we have much to learn about the looming failure of the Larsen shelf within a century and the possibility of an ice-free Arctic by mid-century, scientists will continue to head off to the poles for answers,attended by journalists like Martin, who will follow in their wake to interpret the scientists' discoveries.

If adventure in the frigid north is not high on the list of priorities on scientific expeditions, it still beckons. Despite the comforting advances of modern technology and accommodations, the challenge of navigating the icy maze of Arctic straits and channels still offers a facsimile of the hardships faced by Amundsen and his predecessors. Like the Russian tycoon who recently shelled out $20 million for a ride in a space capsule, anyone who wants to go where few have gone before,anyone, that is, capable of forking over a cool $20,000,can sail on a Russian ship from Spitsbergen to the North Pole.

"Ten days, five out and five back, and they'll take you there," Martin said, "assuming they can get through the ice."

Assuming also that the ice to get through is still there.
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