Friday, 4 July 2014 (Part II)
Sailing the Arctic Ocean on our way to the North Pole
Now that I’ve told the story of our day, I want to focus on the ice … the beautiful, thick ice that shows its blue underbelly to us when it gets churned up as 50 Let Pobedy cuts through it. At first this was going to be a photolog, but I decided that what we learned from Bob about how icebreakers work will add good informational narrative — after all, ice and icebreakers go hand in hand, don’t you agree?
If that’s so, why is the first photo in this post of something other than ice? And what on earth are those creatures in the photo below?
Yes … those are narwhals!
if you click the photo for a larger image and look very closely, you can barely make out
the iconic single tusk that is the reason for them being dubbed the “Unicorns of the ocean.”
Here’s the story! I was on an upper deck, watching Colin a couple of decks below me. He was stringing his GoPro camera down the ‘window’ at the bow of the ship. The first photo in this post is the image he was trying to capture. Suddenly, he and a passenger near him got all excited. I couldn’t hear their conversation, but I turned in the direction they were looking and saw movement in the water. By the time I had raised my binoculars, whatever was in the water was gone. Turns out they were NARWHALS!
We were around 83.5° North when this very special and rare sighting of a species endemic to the Arctic occurred. Not only are narwhals very skittish, they also are migratory and move closer to shore in the summer. Chances of us seeing them on this voyage was miniscule, but Lady Luck was apparently on our side. I don’t know if I can even cite this as a “personal sighting” since I barely saw their speckled backs before they dived. All I can say is … I am glad someone got a couple of photos, and was generous enough to share them with us.
OK … now for the ice and icebreaker portion of the post. I’m not going to make any excuses for the number of “chunky ice” photos that are quite similar in many ways. For variety, I included photographs of the “flat ice” that was all around us; but my focus today was really on “breaking ice.”
50 Let Pobedy is the newest of six Arktika class nuclear icebreakers. The name of the ship is regularly translated as 50 Years of Victory — better would be 50th Anniversary of Victory. It commemorates the defeat of the Nazi forces invading Russia during WWII. Launched at the end of 1993, the ship wasn’t put into service until 1997 due to delays resulting from financial issues.
Bob Headland began his lecture by telling us that the thickest, most difficult ice on the globe is in the Arctic; specifically at and around the North Pole, where the ice doesn’t melt. By comparison, the ice in the Antarctic is ‘easy’. And that makes sense to me. After all, Antarctica is a continent surrounded by ice; whereas the Arctic is ice (and water) surrounded by land.
Bob then went on to talk briefly about ice determinants — how it is measured and described.
- Cover — measured in tenths, with 10/10ths being total coverage
- Thickness — measured in meters
- Age — new; first- or second- or multi-year; with really old ice being paleocrystic
- Pressure — amount, size, and frequency of ridges and hummocks, which are created when floes bang into each other and rise up
- Surface — amount and type of snow; wet or dry … with the former creating more friction against the hull of the ship
In the old days, explorers who ventured into the High Arctic used saws and axes to break through the ice. They even resorted to sallying the ship using the weight of the crew. Sometimes ballast in the bow was used to raise the stern and allow the propellers to grind the ice.
Which method are we been employing on the ship? Well, the passengers aren’t having to sally the ship by running en masse from port to starboard and back ;-) And the only axes I’ve seen are the emergency fire axes. Kidding aside, 50 Let Pobedy is taking advantage of the power it has “under the hood” to simply charge through the ice.
- Powerful engines
- Strong hull of the appro-priate shape (spoon-shaped on 50 Let Pobedy; new design that is more efficient when breaking ice because it allows the bow to ride on top of the ice, and also pushes the ice away from the propulsion system)
- Deep propulsion system (protected in some manner from the ice)
- Steering that allows the ship to go astern to break ice if necessary
- Specialized features — air curtains, anti-friction hull coating, ballast tanks, water jets, ice tooth
- Means for observation and surveillance — high bridge, helicopters, remote sensing receivers
- Towing notch on the stern for close-coupled tow operations when assisting other vessels through the ice
- Experienced complement — college education, apprenticeship, practical service; 106 aboard 50 Let Pobedy (40 officers; 66 other ranks)
Considering Bob’s opening comments about the most difficult ice being in the Arctic, the next two data points should come as no surprise. The Russians/Soviets were the first to build an icebreaker — that was the Yermak, which went into service in 1898. They also built the world’s first nuclear-powered icebreaker — the Lenin, now decommissioned, was launched in 1957.
I’m not going to get into a discussion about nuclear power and what is right or wrong about using it. It goes without saying that an accident with this fuel source would be devastating to the world. However, when handled right … and used for the right purposes, nuclear power can reduce our carbon footprint immensely.
Case in point, when operating in thick ice, 50 Let Pobedy’s two reactors consume about 200 grams (less than ½-pound) of uranium per day. In the conditions we are currently operating, we aren’t consuming even that much. Compare that to 200 tons of diesel or other marine fuel a non-nuclear vessel would be using per day. When push comes to shove, nuclear power is the only way an ice breaking vessel like this ship can generate the thrust it needs to power through the barrier the ice puts up in front of it — especially during the dead of winter when Arctic ice is at its thickest.
I brought penguins to the Arctic ;-)
The two 160-ton reactors aboard the ship are shielded by steel, high-density concrete, and water. Fully fueled, the reactor rods last about five years before they have to be replaced. Insertion of control rods halts a nuclear reaction within 0-6 seconds. When the fuel is spent, the rods are extracted at the RosAtomFlot base in Murmansk. While there was a time when nuclear waste was dumped into the Arctic, this is no longer the case. The used fuel is reprocessed and the waste is disposed of at a nuclear waste plant.
This chunk is of a considerable size — see the people standing on deck for perspective.
Yet, compared to the size of our vessel, it’s just a pebble in this ocean of ice.
The ship is designed to break through ice that is almost 5 meters (16½ feet) thick.
No wonder it’s handling the 1 meter (3.3 feet) thick ice we’re in like a hot knife through butter.
I’ve had friends comment that they won’t hug us when we return to the US if we are ‘glowing’ ;-) Rest assured. The ambient radiation is being monitored by 86 sensors distributed throughout the vessel.
Seeing the polar bear prints in two of the images is easy.
The question is, Can you see the ones in the image on the left?
50 Let Pobedy is a Class LL-1 vessel, which means it has the highest ice class designation an icebreaker can be given. This designation allows it to be operated in the Arctic year-round. It is capable of penetrating through ice that is almost 5 meters (16½ feet) thick. That’s when it is under navigation. In the past, the ship has broken through a 9 meter (~30 feet) ice ridge at least on one occasion.
I’m intrigued by the effect of the fog on the lead ahead —
it almost looks like a mirage above the horizon.
More details specific to the ship are available from a handout Bob Headland provided — it was printed on the reverse side of a daily program. I scanned the document and posted it on my GoogleDrive. If interested, you can read it here.
All this information leads to how an icebreaker accomplishes its mission. You might recall I was expecting a ta-thunk, ta-thunk kind of jerky movement as the ship moves on top of the ice and crushes it to pieces with its weight. That’s true to a degree — except for the ta-thunk piece. The motion is more like a constant earthquake tremor … not strong enough to shake us, but enough to add a little jiggle to everything.
The bow — in our case a spoon-shaped one — allows the ship to ride up and over the ice smoothly. The gianormous weight of the vessel does the rest — with assistance from the ice tooth, which is situated 65 feet (20 m) aft of the prow. The ‘tooth’ makes a snip in the ice, so to speak, to weaken it before the hull rises over it to complete the breaking process. Specialized features, such as the air curtains — which blast the ice rubble away from the ship, and the low-friction hull coating also help the ship with its mission. This all goes unnoticed by us — the passengers — because all the action is essentially taking place under the hull.
Arktika, the icebreaker that gave its name to the class of vessel to which 50 Let Pobedy belongs, was the first surface vessel to reach the North Pole. That was in 1977. Since then, 101 other ships have followed. If the ice permits, we will have the honor of being the 103rd surface vessel to attain the Pole.
One more little tidbit from Bob’s presentation — in 1994 two diesel icebreakers and a nuclear one rendezvoused at the North Pole as part of a polar study. They were the USCGC Polar Sea (US Coast Guard; diesel), the Louis S. St Laurent (Canadian Coast Guard; also diesel) and the Yamal (Russian; nuclear). Goes to show that when mankind puts its collective mind to it, great things can be achieved.
I’m going to end this post with a compilation of some of the video I shot with my SX50 still camera. Yes, I know you’ve seen us breaking ice before … but I’m fascinated by the process. And if you’re curious about why I chose John Philip Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever as the soundtrack for this video … well, what better way to celebrate the 4th of July in the Arctic. One of life’s little ironies is that we did so on a Russian flagged icebreaker!
Happy 4th from the Arctic!
Time to call it a night. It’s after midnight … again; I need to get my beauty sleep.