Leisure but Suffer: the 12 Days in the Hudson Bay

Research onboard the Canadian vessel stalled when it was diverted from its original route and had to serve as an ice breaker in the Hudson Bay. 

KangKang Wang is a PhD student at Feiyue Wang’s laboratory at the University of Manitoba. He was inspired to learn about Arctic mercury after studying mercury in Nam Co lake in Tibetan Plateau, which was also called "the Third Pole".

Before the Amundsen was diverted to escort supply ships for communities in the Hudson Bay, we only finished two scientific stations. In the beginning of the diversion, I did not feel it would matter much, as we were told the escorting job would only take around 5 days and I felt I could use the time to prepare for upcoming stations.

One silver lining of the dark cloud was, soon we would be able to see the sea ice landscape! I still remembered how excited I was when I viewed sea ice for the first time. That was 2 years ago, during my first cruise on the Amundsen, sailing in the northern tip of the Baffin Bay. The water there was calmer than any lake or pond, and the calm seawater mirrored the pure blue of the sky and the clean white of the clouds. The sea ice alone reminded me of the uniqueness of seawater, with the numerous sea ice patches blooming like lotuses.  I have dreamed of heavens, but none of them was as beautiful as this one. After returning to Winnipeg from that first trip, I found myself missing the views from time to time. But now I was returning to this kingdom of sea ice!
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Within a couple days of our diversion, we had stepped into the Sea Ice Kingdom, though her shape was totally different this time. In northern Baffin Bay, the latitude is so high that there was no night during the summer. But at the lower latitudes in the Hudson Bay, we could enjoy the sunrises and sunsets that flank the short summer nights. During sunset, the color of sea ice does not simply stay white: the bigger pieces become blueish white at their bases where they merge with the water, while the parts above the water surface become  gold-white, giving me an unreal warm feeling instead of ice cold.

My enjoyment of the beauty of the sea ice was tempered by the difficulty of our situation. During the diversion, most of the scientific party on the ship did not have much to do. We, the mercury group, were among the few with long lists of science duties still awaiting us. Neither the methylmercury nor the total mercury analyzers were working properly. With Kathleen and Priyanka, from the University of Toronto, repairing the total mercury instrument, I was working to fix the glitches in the methylmercury instrument. After a few anxious days, we were able to get the instruments back to normal. However, once the instruments were working, the wait for the word that we would be returning to science became more difficult.

More than 20 scientists were working as members of the same GEOTRACES project. However, among us were students, postdocs, and professors from several different universities and many had never met before the cruise. During the slow days in Hudson Bay, we got familiar with each other quickly as we passed time hanging out, watching movies, and competing in a ship wide cribbage tournament. Every evening, we had science meetings, during which people gave presentations about their research projects. Through this, we learned more about our colleagues onboard and about fields of research beyond our own. However, it was hard to ignore that, while we were hearing reports of successful previous cruises, we were not actively able to sample while we were in the Hudson Bay.

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The primary purpose of science meetings is to discuss the upcoming science plan. Before reaching each station, we find out how the chief scientist has scheduled each cast to collect water and as a result, when each of us has to be ready with our sample bottles. In the first science meetings during the diversion, most of the research plans stayed intact. However, as more and more escorting jobs were assigned to the Amundsen, the expected diversion kept increasing, from 5 days to 7 days, then to10 days. Every time the diversion duration increased, the chief scientist had to present the group with a prioritized list of science objectives for the cruise and start removing tasks from the bottom of the list. Priority was assigned based on the fairest criteria possible, such as whether the task could be done on a later cruise, the length of time each task would take, the scientific merit of the location that was to be sampled. However, as each task was important to a particular scientist, it was really hard for us to watch as any of the tasks were cut away.

The planned length of the cruise leg was 40 days. Cutting out 10 days may not seem so bad. But things were not that simple: only 20 of those days were allocated for science activities; the other 20 days were needed for transiting. Since the ship can only move through water so fast, and is even slower moving through ice, every single day spent escorting is taken from science time! Every extra day the Amundsen stayed in the Hudson Bay, I was getting more frustrated.  This cruise is the final project in my PhD research. As the days past, I became more and more concerned. Would I be able to get the samples I needed or do the experiments I planned so that I could graduate on time? By the 10th day of escorting, we were discussing giving up the whole cruise, as a bulk of the science plan might be lost and it would therefore not be worth the money to achieve such a small portion of the original science plan. In the science meeting, the decision was made: if we could head back on the morning of July 31 (the 13th day of diversion), the cruise would continue with a basic scientific plan. If not, we would cancel the remainder of the cruise and attempt to reschedule the missed time in the future.

I am not religious, but I was praying sincerely to any force that would listen: let us get back to science track before July 31! All my preparations for the cruise, all the time I had spent away from my wife so far, all my plans for how I would finish graduate school, they all hinged on our ability to leave within 60 hours! Luckily, on the morning of July 30, the caption announced that we were relieved of our escorting duties and were in transit back to Baffin Bay. On hearing the news, I felt a powerful sense of relief.

Feature image courtesy of Andrew Davies.