20 August, 2003
In the history of Arctic exploration, one pioneer stands above all others in creativity, intellect, and sheer daring: Fridtjof Nansen. A distinguished scientist considered being one of the founders of oceanography; he set out in 1893 to demonstrate the existence of a trans-polar current in the Arctic Ocean. Nansen's plan to intentionally beset his ship, the Fram, into the ice and drift across the North Pole was spectacular, if not reckless. After two years drifting in the ice, Nansen's restlessness got the best of him. He decided contrary to his original theory that his ship would not pass over the pole, so he and another shipmate set out on skis. His journey "farthest north" (86 degrees of latitude) is forever etched into the annals of heroic adventure and scientific discovery.
Although Nansen's brave exploits often eclipsed his scholarship to the public, scientists will always remember him for his contributions to science and history. From his soundings of the ocean bottom while he drifted on the Fram, Nansen discovered the deep water of the Arctic Basin which had previously been thought to be relatively shallow. He also first described what later became known as the Ekman spiral, named for the mathematician that quantified Nansen's observed deviation in the layers of seawater due to the earth's rotation. Later he explained the "dead water" phenomenon (i.e. standing waves where fresh water lies on top of salt water) that was first described in Roman times. And Nansen was an inventor too. He developed a reversible bottle for taking deep seawater samples which was later modified by Otto Petterson. Now known as the Nansen-Petterson water bottle, it was used by oceanographers around the world until very recently. He went on to investigate the variable currents of the Gulf Stream. Finally, Nansen's work The Norwegian Sea was the first comprehensive treatise of any sea, and his book Northern Mists remains required reading for students of Arctic exploration history.
So in this spirit of scientific adventure, it's not much of a stretch to put the scientists and technicians aboard the research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer in the same boat with Nansen. For starters, the Arctic Ocean is probably the least known region on the planet. (The Antarctic continent by contrast has a permanently-based group of scientists working at the South Pole Station.) And it is modern day explorer-scientists like Dr. Jim Swift that are hard at work in probing its secrets. Sure, even though the Palmer is a far cry from the Fram, and the Chief Scientist's room is somewhat more comfortable than Nansen's cabin, the general purpose of each cruise hasn't changed; that is, making the unknown known.
The methods and technology used by today's oceanographers are different, of course, but the scientific exploration of the Arctic continues onward in much the same manner as in Nansen's day. The discovery of the westward flowing current during the cruise's last cast, for example, may not be unlike Nansen's Ekman spiral which represented a new contribution to the field of fluid dynamics. Could this west flowing river in the sea be a major new mechanism for moving waters from the continental slope en masse into the basin interior? Maybe the answer will reveal itself in what Jim Swift calls an "aha" moment. That's when the light bulb turns-on in the mind's eye and the key to understanding some phenomena becomes crystal-clear. Jim had one of those aha moments while working on his PhD dissertation in the same (or at least nearby) waters that Nansen had previously studied. All of a sudden, as he looked at the data that he had studied many times before, he recognized the existence of a new current that had been overlooked by earlier expeditions (that is if I remember the story correctly). Jim considers himself fortunate to have experienced at least one of those bright flashes of insight at least once during his career, but knowing Jim, I bet it happens again.
And so it goes. Slowly but surely, cruise by cruise, station by station, sample by sample, the Arctic Ocean will reveal its secrets to the oceanographers probing its depths for as Jim Swift appropriately remarked, "the never-ending quest continues." Or as an early 19th century explorer once observed: "What a field to feed the imagination, what a number of ideas rushes in at once, all for the means to investigate a country so interesting."
No account of my debts would be complete without recognizing the people that made my parcticipation in this great endeavor possible. Thank you:
Jim and Team Scripps, all of the graduate students, scientists, and technicians completing the rest of the science team, Karl and the Raytheon support group, and Captain Joe and the crew of the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer;
The Teachers Experiencing the Arctic program including Arlyn Bruccoli, Deb Meese, Stephanie Shipp, and April Metz;
The National Science Foundation including Renee Crain;
Merle Bowser of VECO Polar Services and Shelly Easterday of VPR Communications;
Ceth Eslick and my colleagues in the Polson schools as well as the students, school board members, and administrators of School District 23;
And, a very special thanks to my wife, Sherry Jones, whose encouragement and love continues to keep this wayward science teacher on course through the northern mists.
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