SHEBA ICE STATION, ARCTIC OCEAN — To hear some veterans of past Arctic expeditions tell it, creature comforts on the ice have never been this pleasant.
Gone are cots or bunks shoehorned inside cramped experiment tents, warmed by oil-burning heaters the size of a kitchen trash compactor.
Gone are worries that you'll wake up one morning to find that the ice has opened up, separating your sleeping quarters from the rest of the camp.
Instead, researchers and their support team enjoy warm cabins on a Canadian icebreaker, hot showers on demand, and a growing camaraderie with the French-Canadian crew. Not only that, the ship's cooks can whip up a fettuccini with seafood sauce that can make the chilling memories of a long day of ice floes and subzero temperatures melt away.
"This is the most comfortable Arctic expedition I've ever been on," says Bill Bosworth, a physical science technician with the US Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) in Hanover, N.H., who is here to help set up ice-measuring equipment for a science team from the lab.
The scientists are here for the Surface Heat Budget of the Arctic Ocean (SHEBA) project - a 13-month effort to study the transfer of heat between the ocean, ice, and atmosphere in order to improve climate-forecasting models. And during its planning stages, researchers debated whether to use an icebreaker as a base or set up a more-traditional camp in a cluster of temporary huts.
"We wanted an experiment that measured an annual cycle," says Richard Moritz, the SHEBA's director. "The only way to do that is to start in the fall when ice is building and follow through from there."
That means working from a "platform" that can go the distance. In the end, the icebreaker won out because it had the capability to support 50 scientists and their equipment, and it could provide added security should the ice around the camp break up.
A polar hotel
Thus, the ship Des Groseilliers has become the 322-foot-long, Swiss Army knife of Arctic hostelries. The ship supplies electricity for experiments in the huts on the ice, serves as a platform for some of the atmospheric remote-sensing gear, provides communications links with the mainland, and even acts as a Paris of the Arctic - a place for researchers to pick up a smattering of French phrases in their spare time.
SHEBA's takeover of the ship is extensive. The hobby room houses a biology lab, and a section of the ship's propulsion area has become the headquarters for a team launching weather balloons. The officers' ward room and dining area have been turned into the project's data processing center and study, while the officers' pantry has become another lab for biology researchers. A plastic rat, tucked into one of the biologists' equipment boxes as a practical joke, sits atop a counter.
"Actually, I like this arrangement," says the Des Groseilliers's chief engineer, Robert Grimard, of SHEBA's takeover of the officers' areas. Instead of having their food come up from the galley in a dumb waiter, the officers now stand in a cafeteria line like everyone else. "Now we actually get to see the choices of food we're going to eat before we make them," he grins.
Staying in touch
Although "snail mail" service awaits the arrival of the Twin Otter aircraft from Deadhorse, Alaska, the scientists and crew have other means of getting news and reports from the folks at home. A satellite provides phone and fax links, and the stereo in the crew's lounge readily picks up the Barrow radio station, which carries news.
And, when it works, there's e-mail via satellite, which will be the researchers' prime means of communicating with the hardy few who will rotate in and out of SHEBA camp during the winter.
At the moment, little attention is focused on entertainment; People are working hard to see that their equipment is installed and working properly and instructions are written for those who will tend the gear after most researchers leave around Nov. 1.
For those who stay behind, the ship has a small library of books in English and French. The data processing room also has movies on video, as well as video games. Even now, a fierce competition is building among some members of the contingent from CRREL to see who can capture the Tetris title.