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Danger goes with the floe

At a military camp on an Arctic ice block, one reporter learns life at minus 20 is numbingly hard -- and that any misstep could be costly.

May 16, 2007|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

Beaufort Sea, Arctic Ocean — FOR three days in March I camped on a drifting slab of ice, 200 miles north of Alaska, as close as I'd ever get to the top of the world and to knowing what it would be like to live on an ice cube.

The cold crept through my boots and socks, into my toes and up my legs. It numbed my fingers and face and froze the moisture in my eyes. It swept into my lungs.

My shelter was a plywood shack, which I shared with five men whom I seldom saw. Beneath us, under the ice, the ocean plunged 12,000 feet deep. One of my shackmates, as a way of warning, described what happened to a snowmobile that had broken through the ice. It sank, like a toy whirling through space, all the way to the sea bottom, where it presumably will rest in frigid darkness for eternity.

The message: Watch your step.

"You slip under, you're gone," said Lt. Cmdr. Gerard DeMers, the safety officer at the camp, which was built and run by the U.S. Navy.

To get there, I flew to Anchorage and took a puddle-jumper over the Brooks Range to Deadhorse on the outer edge of Alaska's North Slope. I met up with Times photographer Myung Chun, and we joined a couple of Navy officers on a Cessna to the Beaufort Sea. Leaving Deadhorse was like jumping off a cliff. We left behind every electronic tether -- cellphone, Internet, television.

"No HBO," one of the Navy guys said, smirking.

Yet the severing was very undramatic from the air. I could barely discern where Alaska ended and the Arctic Ocean began. Both land and sea were covered with ice.

The Arctic is one of the planet's least traveled regions, and my first glimpses at 3,500 feet gave a hint why. There's a lot of nothing here, a place where empty sky meets with endless ice. In moments the horizon seems to disappear altogether.

The Arctic is the smallest and least-understood ocean, about 1 1/2 times the size of the United States, most of it covered by ice year-round. When viewed on a circumpolar map, it looks roughly circular, with its bull's-eye being the Geographic North Pole -- the northern end of Earth's axis.

The Arctic Region usually refers to the ocean and surrounding land masses -- including parts of eight nations -- above the Arctic Circle, an imaginary line that marks the latitude (66 degrees, 32 minutes north) above which periods of continuous daylight or darkness last up to six months.

Land of the midnight sun in summer and endless night in winter.

The online encyclopedia MSN Encarta had my favorite definition of the Arctic: "Large cold area around the North Pole." It sums up the totality of what most people know about the place. That and the fact that global warming is melting the Arctic's ice cover.

We'd been in the air 1 1/2 hours when the ice camp appeared in the distance like tiny dots in snow. As we approached, it looked more like toy blocks haphazardly thrown together in the middle of an immense hockey rink.

Our Cessna glided onto a runway on the ice, a smooth landing, like any other on solid ground. What hit hard was stepping out. The cold was dry, invasive, a cool burn. I could feel the first breath enter my nasal passage, instantly freezing the hairs and mucus membrane and rushing into my lungs like an announcement: "Welcome to the Arctic!"

The temperature dips to minus 90 in some parts of the Arctic. For most of my time here, it hovered at minus 20, with an occasional wind gust subtracting another 20 to 25.

We were 100 yards from camp. As we tramped across the ice, I silently thanked our handlers for forcing us to wear three layers of everything, every garment Arctic-grade. Then I noticed the sound. Every few steps, it seemed, the thump of my boots hitting the ice resonated like a drum.

"How thick is the ice here?" I asked the man leading us to camp.

He nodded, clearly unable to hear me through his ski cap and parka. "It sounds hollow," I half-shouted. He nodded again.

*

THE man was Barry Campbell, a 22-year veteran of the Navy's Arctic Submarine Laboratory, a largely civilian detachment based in San Diego, devoted to submarine operations in the Arctic Ocean. A stocky, squinty-eyed man with a grizzled beard, Campbell was the officer in charge at the camp. He promptly led us to the heart and soul of the place: the mess hall, a shack attached to an oversized canvas tent where two cooks prepared and served meals. Once inside, Campbell provided camp logistics.

Population of the camp tonight: 37. The number changed as personnel -- scientists, engineers and technicians -- came and went on twice-daily flights. Our location: an ice floe about a mile wide, roughly circular, and ranging in thickness from 3 to 8 feet. Picture a giant dinner plate floating on the water. The floe was drifting westward at a rate of a quarter- to a half-mile a day, fast as floes go but not detectable except by measuring instruments.

Then Campbell went over the do's and don'ts of camp. Don't venture outside of camp. Don't travel alone. Don't go into unauthorized areas unless authorized.

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