|Interview with Peter Winsor |
by Lonny Lippsett, photo by Chris Linder
For those of us who have never been north of the Arctic Circle, would you describe what it’s like?
The Arctic is really great to work in. The Arctic Ocean is the smallest ocean in the world, but also the least known ocean. I like it mostly because we know so little about it. It’s very hard to get to. It can be very tough to work there. The sea ice can mess things up for you. You have very cold, extreme temperatures at times. It can be dark if you are there in the wrong season, though in summer it’s light all year.
When we go up there, we usually work from icebreakers. Those are the only ships that can withstand the really thick sea ice up there. The ice can be anywhere between a meter to tens of meters thick.
What is the icebreaker Oden like?
Ah, Oden is almost like my second home. I’ve been on many long cruises on Oden, and I think it’s a fantastic ship to work from. It was not intended to be a research vessel. It was actually built in Sweden to break ice in the Baltic Sea during winter, to keep the shipping routes open between Sweden, Finland, and Russia. That was the main purpose of the ship. But it turns out that we got more and more interested in the Arctic, and Oden was not used in summer, which is the best time researchers can go to the Arctic. So it was a great opportunity to use Oden for research in the Arctic.
Oden does not have the classic look of an icebreaker.
Oden looks very different from the conventional icebreakers. Most icebreakers are built like the normal ship with a pretty narrow, sharp front. They break ice basically by just going through the ice and pushing the ice to the sides.
Oden has a completely different design, and it’s very effective. It’s very broad at the front. Its bow is basically a wall that is about 10 meters high, and the ship is totally flat underneath. Instead of cutting through and pushing ice to the side, Oden slides up on the ice and then pushes down on it and breaks the ice that way.
And it’s got all sorts of fancy gimmicks to do this. It’s got jets at the front that can spray large amounts of water onto the ice to reduce friction, so Oden can slide up on the ice more easily. It also has a system that can heave the ship from side to side. They pump amazing amounts of water from one side to the other, so that they actually start to mimic ship roll. So the ship rolls, and that way it can break ice on both sides. When it’s leaning, it can more easily slide up on the ice on one side, and then it crushes ice by falling over that side.
Compared to a big nuclear icebreaker, Oden has much less engine power, but it can break ice almost as thick as a larger ship can.
What is it like inside Oden?
Oden is very comfortable to live in, and I think that’s important when you’re going to an isolated region like the Arctic and staying there for a long time. It looks almost like a nice cruise ship on board. It’s got hardwood floors. It’s got saunas, which we like in Sweden. It’s got excellent food, and the cabins are very comfortable. So when you’re not working, you can actually relax and energize yourself before you start working again.
What is living in the Arctic like?
The Arctic is probably the most extreme place you can be on Earth, including the South Pole. There’s more animal life down there at the South Pole, so you have more of a feeling that you’re not alone out there. In the Arctic you rarely see any wildlife at all. So day after day, you’re looking out, and you see this very variable but kind of constant sea-ice cover around you. The colors are usually a bit on the pale side. It’s a very monotonous landscape.
It’s fascinating, but you feel you’re the only person out there. And when you get into the central Arctic, you’re so far away from anywhere, you’re basically on your own. There are currently no helicopters that can reach you without refueling on the sea-ice somewhere. You’re in a very remote, extreme place.
I think it’s beautiful out there. When you go up there and work for a long time, you get so used to the environment. So you kind of forget what things are like at home—that it can be dark at night or that you have trees that smell, and things like that.
How does Oden ride?
Once you’re in the sea ice, there’s no ship roll at all. The ice damps out any waves, so even if you’re in the middle of a storm, you won’t notice it on the ship. The sea ice drifts along, but there’s no rolling of the ship.
What you do notice is that you’re breaking ice continuously, and that’s not a smooth operation. The whole ship is shaking all the time, and things are moving on tables. That takes some time to get used to.
It takes people a couple of days until they can sleep properly, because they’re shifting in their bunk beds, and things are moving around, and it can also be pretty noisy when you’re breaking ice. But once you get used to that, it’s actually quite comforting.
Why do you think research in the Arctic is important?
We have seen really large changes in the Arctic, but we don’t really understand why. It’s a difficult, complicated place to study—not only to get there and work there, but to understand how it works. The ocean, the sea ice, and the atmosphere are all important factors. You have large tundra and permafrost. All these components are coupled together, and it’s hard to understand how they interact. So I think the Arctic is probably the best place to try to look for evidence of global climate change and to try to understand how it happens.
Climate models that we use these days that study the global climate show that the effects of global climate change will be largest at the poles, and that the Arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the globe on average. So we think we can see the effects of global climate change first in the Arctic.
Another reason is that the Arctic is a very sensitive system, so even if you change something a little bit, it can have very large consequences on the whole system. We already see that sea ice is changing rapidly. We see changes on land. We see changes in river runoff. We see changes in the ocean. As we observe all these changes, it is also important to know that the Arctic has a very high natural variability. All these things together make it really urgent to come up to the Arctic and try to study it in detail using new modern technology, which we really haven’t done before.