ISSN 2150-5128

University of Delaware Research Online Magazine


University of Delaware Research Online Magazine


What’s it like to be on a ship for 4 to 6 weeks off Greenland?
How do you work and sleep with 24 hours of daylight?
Do you take your wife along on your expeditions?

I am asked these questions often when people hear about my career as an Arctic oceanographer.

This photograph was taken on December 16, 2016, when the Commerce Department announced NIIMBL as the 11th Manufacturing USA Institute.
ABOVE: Andreas Muenchow in Thule, Greenland, pulling up 100 meters of Kevlar line to recover an ocean probe. Photo by Mogens Werth Christensen

  Andreas Muenchow

Arctic Oceanographer, College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment
I love to travel, yes—I also love to be with people who are different from me. But what I love most is the sleuthing over bits of data to paint a larger picture in creative ways using the laws of physics. It is fun to “see” what nobody has seen before, it is thrilling to discover, and it is important to argue the physics of climate change with data to keep the computer models honest. Working on ships on long Arctic expeditions, I combine all of these loves. . . .

Leaving Newark, Delaware, on Monday, July 30, 2012, we meet the Canadian Coast Guard Ship (CCGS) Henry Larsen four days later at Thule Air Force Base in northern Greenland. Arriving again after three years, I help the crew load the ship with the food we will eat over the next three weeks. The first meal is usually just sandwiches because the cooks arrived with us and are unpacking their gear and food the same way that we scientists try to find and unpack our tools and electronics.

Unlike the food, most science gear was sent three months earlier when the ship was still in St. John’s, Newfoundland. When the ship pushes off the dock the next day, we sail north for two to three days to recover ocean sensors where we placed them three years earlier in 1,000 feet of water between northern Greenland and Canada’s Ellesmere Island.

We are at sea, finally. The feelings combine those of Easter egg hunting (finding boxes), Christmas Eve (unpacking boxes) and moving to a new hip neighborhood (the ship). Everyone is checking out everyone else, and new friends are made quickly.

Having helped the crew with loading the food pays unintended dividends. At night at the bar, it dawns on me that the two unknown people I was lending a helping hand earlier included the first officer and the helicopter pilot. A good start, we share stories of past adventures.

As is true of all icebreakers, the Henry Larsen is a complex community with all the functionality of a city. Capt. Wayne Duffett is in overall command. His job is to manage an airport, a fire department, a power plant, a sanitation department, a hospital, a restaurant, a hotel, a supermarket, a weather station, a port facility, a civil administration, etc. All of this is done with only 22 crew and 17 officers who work around the clock on a variety of schedules.

Petermann Glacier (gray, lower right) is a floating ice shelf. Blue dots designate where ocean data was collected in 2015. Photo Credit: Andreas Muenchow
Petermann Glacier
Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen
University of Delaware Ocean Weather Station, 13 kilometers seaward from the grounding zone of Petermann Glacier. Photo Credit: Peter Washam
ABOVE: 1. Petermann Glacier (gray, lower right) is a floating ice shelf. Blue dots designate where ocean data was collected in 2015. 2. Four times the size of Manhattan, the ice island birthed from Petermann Glacier in the summer of 2010 was the largest Arctic iceberg since 1962. Photo Credit: NASA 3. Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen at the entrance to Petermann Fjord, off northwest Greenland. Photo Credit: Jon Poole and CCGS Henry Larsen 4. University of Delaware Ocean Weather Station, 13 kilometers seaward from the grounding zone of Petermann Glacier. Photo Credit: Peter Washam


Oh yeah, Capt. Duffett also commands a ship that moves through ice in uncharted waters to support eight scientists from three countries. My Ph.D. student Pat Ryan and undergraduate intern Alison Einolf are the only Americans aboard in addition to myself.

One way to get into trouble on Canadian icebreakers is failing to honor old traditions that date back to the Royal British Navy. It starts with breakfast. There are two places to eat: a cafeteria for the crew next to the kitchen and a dining room for officers and scientists one deck above. The six square tables seat the same people during each meal according to rank.

The captain sits at the head table with the chief engineer and the chief scientists. The first and second officers and engineers have their table while specialists such as the nurse, electronics technician, ice observer and logistics officer have theirs, and so on. Formal attire is required, which during Sunday lunch includes a jacket or dress. All meals are served by two stewards who also set tables and explain the proper use of all the silver. This is quite distinct from more egalitarian German or Swedish or American icebreakers where people mix and mingle during meal times.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner structure the day on all ships. Day and night are defined by them because the sun is always up, and time zones are arbitrary. Furthermore, sleep is dictated by the work schedule as both ship and science operate 24 hours each day. Someone always sleeps.

My favorite time to work is between midnight and breakfast when the ship is quiet, and most of the hustle and bustle of helicopters, Zodiacs, planning, meetings, organizing is over. Work usually means lowering an electronic sensor package over the side while the ship stops.

As soon as the package is back on deck with new data on how temperature and salinity varies with depth, the ship moves to the next station to again take another such profile and so on. It only requires four people to do this: the officer navigating the ship, who is assisted by a helmsman to do the steering, and me the scientist, with a helping hand.

Time passes really fast and the rhythm of stopping and going every 45 minutes or so is very soothing to me. There is time to roam the galley for coffee and snacks, there is time to visit the navigator on the bridge in person, there is time to get into deep philosophical or scientific discussion, there is even time to process and interpret the new data. By the time breakfast comes,

I share the night’s events with the next shift that just got out of bed while I turn in.

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Learn more at Prof. Muenchow’s Icy Seas Blog —

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