For polar sailors sea ice is one thing that draws us to these latitudes, but it is also something that constantly occupies a mariners mind – ice is solid, and unlike land it moves position, you can’t always see it on the radar, and a certain ill-fated large ship always comes to mind (think Di Caprio and Winslet!).
As we sailed from Greenland back to Canada we encountered remaining fragments of last winters sea ice in the middle of Baffin Bay, partly due to a “short cut” I decided to take. Thankfully the conditions were calm and we could easily weave our way through the leads – openings in the ice. Upon arrival near Pond Inlet we searched for a good spot to anchor – our first option was still full of ice, the second was clear of ice when we dropped anchor, but quickly became choked with drifting fragments. Depending on the size, origin and age of these fragments they all have specific names; ice floes, multi-year ice, pancake ice, fast ice, to name a few…a veritable dictionary of terms to consider next time you drop a cube into your gin and tonic.
During a previous expedition I lived on the sea ice in the high Arctic Ocean for a year and a half, drifting this way and that at the whims of the wind and currents, from the coast of Siberia to the east coast of Greenland. This experience etched a permanent place in my mind and heart for the world of sea ice. One of the enduring lessons I took from that experience is that you cannot “rush” the ice (even the fast ice!). It is the ice that dictates what you can do, and when you can do it, like where we can anchor and when we can actually get to the settlement of Pond Inlet – it is still frozen solid about 30 nautical miles to the west of our current anchorage!
Of course local people in the north have known this for millennia, as so much of their life is directly linked to one of the biggest natural phenomena on the planet – the annual freezing and thawing of vast areas of ocean. The sea ice represents more than an emotional connection for northern people, it’s an integral part of their way of life, and it provides transport routes, hunting grounds, and habitat for many species.
Which begs the question, what will happen when there is no more sea ice? Of course people will adapt, animals too. Development will no doubt take place, which is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as it is driven in partnership with the north, for the north, and at a pace dictated, by the ice.