Email Exchange

Thank you to all the schools that have written to us asking questions about our expedition to the Arctic. It’s been great hearing from you and fun answering as many of your inquiries as we can. We hope you have enjoyed reading our responses.

Click below to see all the schools that followed our expedition.


"In the broadest sense, a combination of the winds and the earth's rotation puts the ocean in motion. The winds drag surface waters and the spin of the earth deflects the water once it's moving. How an individual current flows, the gulf stream or the warm water boundary current we are measuring for example, is determined by a wider array of factors - to name a few: storms, the local heating and cooling of the ocean, the tides, the slope and depth of the bottom topography, the stability of the flow itself.
The Atlantic water has to return south because it has nowhere else to go. The Arctic is essentially an enclosed basin so you can’t just keep flooding it with water. Conservation of mass requires that the same amount of water has to flow south as flows north. What isn't well known though is how exactly it does it, why it turns around in certain places and not others or even why exactly the water flows north in the first place.” - Kjetil Vaage, Oceanographer, University of Bergen, Norway.

“The anchors are the only part of a mooring that remains in the water when the mooring is recovered. There are many anchors on the sea floor all over the world as a result of mooring work. People use different things for anchors – old train wheels and other scrap metal for example. At WHOI we use custom made anchors as this makes it easier to get up to the required weight that we need to keep the mooring in place. A typical anchor is a squat, cylindrical piece of metal weighing over 4000 pounds and costing upwards of $4000.” – Jim Ryder, Mooring Technician, WHOI.

“The device (transducer) that we use to communicate with a mooring is both a emitter and a receiver. So it acts like a speaker and a microphone. The same is true on the release. It has a transducer which can both receive and emit sound.” – Jim Ryder, Mooring Technician, WHOI.

We spoke to Vladimir Pavlov, the chief scientist aboard who has been studying the warm water inflow to the Arctic for many years. He told us that this year, we measured warm waters of 5.5oC. He says that he was amazed – this is much warmer that he’s seen in any previous year’s measurements. But then, it’s hard to say if this is a signal of a warming ocean. There have been so few measurements of this warm water inflow to the Arctic that we might just have missed similarly warm water in previous years. The mooring data will reveal so much about the seasonality of the warm water, where the warmest water is and how it moves once it’s in the Arctic so in the future we should have a better idea of whether the 5.5oC is a true signal of a warming ocean.

"An oceanographer is someone who studies the ocean, but there are lots of different types of oceanographers. This is because there are so many different aspects of the ocean. For example, marine biologists study the life in the ocean, from the smallest particles (e.g. bacteria) to the largest mammals (e.g. walruses and whales). Chemists study the different compounds in seawater, not only natural (e.g. oxygen and nutrients) but man-made substances such as pollutants. Geologists study the sea floor (and beneath the seafloor as well). Engineers also study the ocean by designing and using clever instruments such as deep-sea submersibles and motorized vehicles. Then there is what we call physical oceanography, which is what I do. Physical oceanographers investigate how the water moves and why it moves. So oceanography encompasses many different specialties, but I want to stress that there is a lot of overlap in the different fields. Ultimately, we want to know how the ocean works as a “system”, and to do that we need to understand how all the different parts interact with each other. Even though this cruise is primarily a physical oceanographic cruise, we are also doing chemistry and biology (plus we are using cool instruments designed by engineers!)"

Answer by Dr Bob Pickart, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

“To put it simply, we are studying the warm water that enters the Arctic Ocean. People usually think of the Arctic as a frozen, inhospitable place, but underneath the surface there is a lot of warm water – water that originally came from the tropical ocean! Of course it’s not that warm once it enters the Arctic, but just last night we sampled water that was 42oF (5 oC). While this isn’t warm enough to swim in, by Arctic standards it’s very warm. In fact, over the past couple of decades the “Atlantic water” that flows into the Arctic has been warming considerably, and we are not sure what the consequences of this will be. As part of our study we hope to measure how much Atlantic water (and heat) enters the Arctic Ocean and how this water then spreads into the interior of the deep basin.”

Answer by Dr Bob Pickart, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

“Oceanographers use many, many different tools to study the ocean. One of the most important (and oldest) tools is a ship! Research vessels are very specialized, with lots of cranes and winches and booms for getting things into and out of the water. Their propulsion systems are also very sophisticated (Dallas will write about this in one of his dispatches). We use different instruments for measuring the temperature, salt content, chemicals, and velocity of the water. A lot of the technology that physical oceanographers used is based on acoustics (see Dallas’ dispatch, “Brute Difficulty”).

These days we are relying more and more on “autonomous instruments”. For example, we can now take a motorized vehicle called a glider and launch it from a small motorboat just offshore. The glider will then propel itself into the deep ocean and perform a mission – it can even cross the entire ocean! Another neat thing about a glider is that it constantly comes to the surface during its mission and the owner can communicate with it via satellite and tell it to do something different. And of course don’t forget about the computer. Many oceanographers don’t go to sea; rather, they do numerical simulations on their computers. And some oceanographers devise theories using just a pencil and paper!”

Answer by Dr Bob Pickart, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The wildlife in the Arctic can be elusive and has been for the most part for us. We have plenty of fulmars following our path, mistaking us for a fishing vessel and hoping for a few scraps of food. Our most exciting spots have been the few whales we've seen blowing past, although they come and go so quickly that there's been no real photo opportunity. We've seen three species though – Minke, Fin and Humback. Mooring technician Jim Ryder even saw a whale breach the surface and jump in the air. As we haven't come near to the sea ice yet, we sadly haven't seen any polar bears. But, we're hoping to come close aboard to the frozen coast of Svalbard on our way home and they've been reported in the area, so here's hoping!

The scientists on this boat are not studying the animals of the Arctic directly, their work is looking specifically at the water of the Arctic. Although many of the scientists are as excited as any of us to see a polar bear (yes, the experience of seeing this amazing polar symbol in the flesh, never gets tiresome).

We asked one of the younger members of the science team Maria Pisareva to answer this question.

“Some people in my family are Oceanographers. My uncle, my dad, my two cousins. My uncle was the first. He decided to become an Oceanographer, because during Soviet times it was an opportunity to travel and to visit other countries.

When I was 16 I had just graduated and my parents asked what I wanted to do. At the time I wanted to be a photographer, an actress, a film maker, but my parents suggested I should go to the Geography Faculty at Moscow State University.

During the first year I went on an Oceanography trip to go to the Black Sea. It was cool, it was the first expedition in my life, there were these older guys, doing some hard stuff. We went on several cruises during that trip. There were new things I hadn't seen before, instruments like the CTD, I was interested in how they worked and what was happening in the sea. It was the first time I realized that Oceanography was about water masses, temperature, salinity, some chemicals. It was fascinating.”

Answer by Maria Pisareva, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Dan Torres and Jim Ryder, Mooring Technicians, are thrilled to be asked about what they are wearing!

“When I'm on deck I'm wearing a stylish onesy, it's red with black stripes and reflective strips. The onesy is super thick and has floats in it so that if I were to fall overboard I’d have a better chance of lasting long enough for someone to pull me out – that’s only 4 minutes in regular clothing.” - Dan Torres

“The suits are called Mustang suits, and they have flotation so it's easier to pick up someone from the water. We wear hard hats, it's required by the ship, so you don't wing your knocker (hit your head), with the equipment or the headache ball (the ball on the crane). We wear steel toe boots, you don't want to squash your toes under anything heavy.” - Jim Ryder

Got any more questions for Bob and the rest of the science team aboard? Let us know and we'll get you your answers from one of our team!

The Boat, Captain and Crew

Questions to Captain Olav Iversen

We asked Captain Iversen to answer some of your questions about the boat and life at sea.

We asked around and no one we spoke to had every felt seriously in danger. That is not to say that people haven’t felt afraid. On other ships, when you’re rocking and rolling on waves the size of five story buildings, it’s easy to be scared. One look at the captain though is enough to calm you down – he is usually standing on the bridge composed and inspiring confidence in everyone around him.

“This is my first experience of oceanography so I’ve been learning a lot about different piece of equipment on board. I found the MMP (McLane Moored Profiler) the most interesting, both to look at and for the job it does. It is this yellow submarine looking thing with prongs and measuring devices sticking out of it. It spends the entire year going up and down the wire on a mooring, over 1000 m, twice a day.” – Amy Cooper, Outreach Photographer.

The most important piece of equipment is the boat itself! We couldn’t do anything without it. If the acoustic release fails then we might lose a mooring; if the CTD fails then we might not be able to do such a thorough survey of the current; if the winches fail it would be harder to haul stuff on to deck; but if the ship were to fail then the expedition would be over and we would have to stop everything. A boat is vital for most of observational oceanography. The scarcity of research vessels and the difficulty of operating them in harsh waters like the Arctic is one of the reasons that oceanography is a very young science – we have so much to learn about the ocean.

“I have been working on boats for 30 years. And I guess it’s just a part of my life. If I'm not at sea I don't feel well. If I stay too long at home then I'm searching for the vessel again. But of course if I stay too long onboard then I want to go home as well. There is something about that, to come and go, which is a part of my life.”

“I think the part where the scientists do their work because it is very exciting to see what they are doing. Running the ship is what we have done for years, but what the scientists do is different on every expedition. They might be looking at the water, sampling the air, studying the ice, counting birds, searching for polar bears – there’s a big variety of science conducted on the Lance.”

“I hope at some point to be part of the expedition where they check for polar bears. We bring a helicopter and we use it to find the polar bears. The scientists then they shoot them with the tranquilizer, mark them and take some tests. This sounds great.”

“The Lance is 61 meters long and from the deck to the Crow's Nest it’s 26 meters. The boat was born in 1978 in a Norwegian ship yard, it is pretty old for this kind of ship.”

“The ship travels most economically at 10.5 knots. That’s what we call cruising speed. But if we’re really in a hurry we can go 12.5 knots but it is not an efficient use of fuel.”

“No. I work for six hours and then I have six hours off. We don’t change this for the weekend. So in total I work for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Actually, all of the crew work for 12 hours a day. The deck watches are 6 hours on, 6 hours off. The engine room and cooking teams are 12 hours on, 12 hours off.”

“Yes. We generate electricity from the main engine. The engine is diesel and this is used to propel the ship, but we also use some of this power for lighting and heating the ship. There are two other generators onboard just incase there is a need to shut down the engine.”

“We only have one engine that could get us home. We have two engineers and mechanics who should be able to fix almost any problem. They have an extensive workshop and are very skilled at their work. If they couldn’t fix it though, we’d have no choice but to ask another vessel to come and assist us and tow us back to port. We have radio communication equipment aboard so that we can call for help in such a scenario.”

“We always carry much more fuel than we need. Our tanks can carry 650 cubic meters, that’s 650,000 liters. We keep track of our fuel levels while at sea and when we get back to port we top up. If we had a full tank, it would be enough fuel for us to steam continuously at full speed for 80 days.”

“There is one man who works on the boat who is 71 years old and he as a young man had the job of hunting polar bears, for their skin, for their fur, for a lot of money. He is the only one who has shot a polar bear.”

“Someone would survive for about 4 to 5 minutes in these waters. If someone goes over I would push the alarm and release the life buoys, the orange rings, from all sides. And I would mark them on the map and stop the boat and turn around. We have a special man overboard boat which we would deploy, but all of this takes time. It depends what clothes you have on, but basically you should not fall overboard, you have a very small chance of surviving.”

“Yes, I have a lot of fun, a lot of laughter, we tell a lot of stories together.”

Got any burning questions about the ship and it workings? – we’ll put your questions to the crew!

Life At Sea

On this voyage there are 18 members of the science team and 11 crew. Everyone on the boat belongs to one of these groups. The science team includes engineers, technicians and us, the outreach team, three of us responsible for publishing this blog. Click here to meet the team!

The rooms we sleep in are best described as compact. Nearly everyone in the science team shares a room. Key people on the boat get slightly plusher rooms, like the captain, the chef and the chief scientists. The beds are single bunks, the space between them are pretty narrow, and you need to be agile to get in the top one. There is just enough space to lie on your back and hold a novel far enough away from your face to be able to enjoy a bed-time read. Everything is designed to be at sea. Lots of cupboards to stow away your possessions to stop them flying around and latches to keep the doors shut.

To see a one of our bedrooms, check out the ship map!

The food is delicious. Here is our daily food routine.

  • 7.30-8.30 Breakfast:
  • A buffet of:
  • Hot food: Eggs, bacon, black pudding.
  • Cereal: muesli, honey puffed wheat, cornflakes, yogurt, milk.
  • Smorgasbord: Cold meats, smoked fish (trout, haddock, mackerel), cheese, pickled veg, fresh veg, knacker-bread, brown fresh bread.
  • Fresh vegetables – tomatoes, cucumber
  • Fresh fruit – pineapple, melon, banana, orange.
  • 11.30 Lunch:
    • A hot and cold buffet
    • The smorgasbord and salad
    • We normally eat up the leftovers of our previous meals
    • Potatoes & pork patty
    • Tagliatelle with Fish stew
    • Sometimes there's pudding
    • Rice Pudding
    • Fresh Fruit
  • 15.00 Coffee & Cake time
    • Fresh norwegian waffles with sour cream and jam
    • Chocolate cake
    • Homebaked banana bread
    • Dinner time
    • Hot food and pudding
    • Reindeer stew and mash potatoes
    • Fish stew and pasta with steamed vegetables
    • Pudding
    • Chocolate mouse with vanilla sauce
    • Pear and cinnamon trifle
And on Saturday, we get snacks in our team hangout room which we sometimes call the Day Room, or the Science Room, it's full of comfy sofas and is the place where we play cards and watch movies.

Check out what our dining room looks like

The boat is constantly lifting and falling, rocking and rolling while we are at sea. It can get pretty extreme when the wind is blowing. Everything is designed so that things don't go flying when the waves get rough. There are lots of neat bits of design to help.

  • 1. Grippy mats – a rubbery mesh that sits on most surfaces in increase friction.
  • 2. Gaffer tape – important bit of science kits are stuck to the tables
  • 3. String – loops of string keep our laptops and cameras on our desks so we don't have to worry about the weather changing when we sleep.
  • 4. Latches – fridges, cupboards, doors all have latches to stop them flying open.

The rocking and rolling motion can turn the stomach of the most hardened sea traveller. There are different places on the boat where the movement is felt less. This is towards the back and on lower decks of the boat. Choose the stern not the bow, which can be extremely mobile in rough weather. Fresh air on deck and looking out to the horizon are good tips for avoiding it. As is eating ginger and taking sea sickness medication. For some, lying down and groaning gently under the duvet for an hour or more is the only fix.

There is something sleep inducing about being on a moving vessel – lots of vibrations and a comforting rocking motion. There was a lot of sleep the first two days aboard. Lots of the science team had flown in from other time zones and were consequently suffering from jet-lag.

When the science started it determined people's sleep patterns. The boat works 24 hours, 7 days a week and the science happens day and night. The CTD team are working 6 hours on, 6 hours off so they only get to sleep for a maximum of 5 hours at a time. The rest of us have much the same sleep patterns as when we are on land (maybe a few extra afternoon naps here!)

No one has been swimming yet, I'm not sure that it's recommended. The scientists who handle the equipment after it's been in the water soon have blue tinged fingers. The captain reckons that survival in this water would be 4-5 minutes so no one’s going to try! We did spy a hot tub out on the back of the boat though – maybe we’ll get to use that before the expedition is over!

What else do you want to know about the life on a research vessel? Send in your questions and we’ll let you know what it’s like out here!

The Arctic

Although no one aboard is an expert in terrestrial plants, Sigrid Oygarden is measuring the plants in the ocean which are vital to the food chain. We asked here to expand:
“The plant life in the Arctic Ocean is in the form of phytoplankton. These are microscopic plants that grow in the ocean and there are hundreds of different types. They are important because they support the rest of the aquatic food chain in the Arctic - seals, whales, polar bears, all depend on then and wouldn't exist without them. They grow only during a very short season. They need both the light from the sun and an ocean free of ice to develop - both of these only exist for a short period over the summer. When they do grow they can grow very quickly though. Many populations can double on a daily basis. Many of them are brought into the Arctic with the warm Atlantic water that the rest of the team are studying on this expedition. Others though, go into suspended animation in the sea ice over the winter. When the summer comes, they melt out of the ice and bloom along the ice edge.” - Sigrid Oygarden, Biology technician, University of Tromso

This is a really big area of research at the moment. The truth is that although we know a lot, we don’t know yet enough about how the ocean works to say exactly how it will be changed in the future. We have learnt huge amounts in the past few decades, but there are still so many mysteries. What we do know for sure though are that ocean currents, where they flow and what kind of water they carry are vital to the biology of the ocean. The tiniest plants and animals at the bottom of every ocean food chain are moved around by currents and are fed by water bringing vital nutrients out of the depth towards the surface. So, in a warming ocean, with changing currents and waters temperatures, we can expect that the biology of the ocean will be impacted. Some animals may benefit, others may not, but we do know that the ocean will dictate what happens.

The ice edge was up north of 83 degrees during our expedition. As such we never made it quite far enough to reach it. We spoke to Chief Scientist Vladmir Pavlov who works a lot in these waters and he says the ice was further north than it has been in previous years. As have been widely documented, the annual sea ice minimum has been retreating in the past decades. At the peak of summer now, there is less ice in the Arctic than at any time in recent history. That said, there is also a great deal of natural variability on a year-to-year basis, some years the ice grows more, some it retreats more, but the trend is certainly downwards. One year of a slightly increased amount of sea ice does not show that the trend is suddenly halted. You have to look over many more years to see how things are changing – climate is measured over at least 30 years, not on a day-to-day or year-to-year basis. And unfortunately for the sea ice, the trend over this period is towards an Arctic with lower amounts of sea ice.

It’s hard for us to say how the wildlife has changed from last year. For one thing, we’re not a dedicated biology research expedition; most of us are just enthusiastic bystanders to the natural spectacles we experience. Everyone is working different shifts and we have many different personnel on board so it is hard to get a complete sense of how much we’ve seen compared to last year. We’ve also been to slightly different locations this year, we’ve spent more time on the continental shelf and less in the open Arctic Ocean. Although only a hundred or so kilometres different in location, the nutrient rich coastal waters on the shelf have meant that we’ve been treated to many sightings of whales, walrus and different sea birds. Many of the animals we’ve seen like to cluster in these shelf waters and less so in the open ocean.

We haven’t seen very large waves at all on our expedition and that’s helped us get a lot of work done very quickly. It can be rough up here at this time of year so we are grateful for that. The Arctic in general has generally smaller waves than seas to the south of us. That’s because the storm track, the source of the strong winds, lies to our south. The seas around Greenland and Norway are some of the roughest on the planet, but we’ve come too far north for these storms to affect us.

The scientists aboard would say that we have been lucky with the weather. That’s because we’ve had low winds and calm seas, perfect for getting moorings and CTDs in and out of the water. For others of us onboard, who would like to stand out on deck and enjoy the Arctic air, it hasn’t been ideal. The temperature has been hovering just below freezing and the wind when it blows can be biting. We’ve also had a great deal of fog – this can get pretty tiresome after a while. We have had a couple of days in glorious sunshine though and when the fog lifts, even though it is still cloudy, the light in the sky is beautiful.

This can happen. Many of the people aboard have been on vessels where a drop in temperature has caused the near-freezing ocean to start to turn to ice. It takes a long time though for the ice to become really thick. It starts off just looking like a greasy film on the surface. After that it thickens more and rafts together into what we call pancake ice – round disks of ice that bump up on each other. After many days this forms into proper sea ice. Luckily for us though, the Lance is an ice-strengthened vessel so even if the water did start to freeze we can plow right through it!

The best answer we can give for this question came when we were talking to Jim Ryder on the Bridge.

We asked: “What's your favorite thing to do on the boat?”

Jim replied: “Work. That's what I'm here for. Whooooaaa!!! That was a whale. That was cool!”

A humpback whale had breached the water 100 m from our boat in the bright sunlight. It's the first time that some aboard have seen a whale and it’s pleasing to see that people who have seen them for many years through their work still find it cool.

The Arctic is a huge place and we have many scientist aboard who can answer you questions on this threatened place. Want to know more about ice? About the wildlife? About climate change? Send us you questions and we’ll reply as quickly as we can!