Sea ice is startlingly captivating

23 September 2019 – 81°N

On Saturday, we woke to the Kronprins Haakon smoothly parting a frozen ocean, a process that – from our cabin on deck three, just above the sea — sounded like an oversized spoon being pushed through a planetary-scale slushie.

For a while, we stared as neatly fractured chunks of ice drifted apart, seemingly just beneath our toes, with water rushing in to fill the rapidly growing cracks.

From up above, on the ship’s lofty observation deck, the icy crust transformed the Arctic ocean into a vast, watercolored surface of white and gray, punctuated by scattered chunks that glowed a vibrant blue, as if lit from within by an otherworldly light.

I grew up by the ocean and know it well – but this sea was a stranger, so compellingly foreign and moving in such mesmerizing ways.


Photo: Nadia Drake

Sculpted by wind and water, the ice takes myriad shapes – some pieces smooth and flat, others pieces jagged and piled – kind of like clouds drifting across the sky. Except the ice isn’t fluffy, but is fractured and broken, as if Thor took his hammer and smashed a frozen crust into a jagged, moving jigsaw puzzle. It’s not just decoration for a lackluster sea, though; sea ice is crucial for healthy Arctic ecosystems, and indeed, for the health of our entire planet. Scientists who know the ice can tell how long it has been around, and whether it formed this season or is a veteran of multiple winters. Perhaps not surprisingly, the crusts that accumulate and survive multiple orbits are waning – they’re vanishing, just as glaciers melt and icebergs thaw and ice shelves collapse.


Photo: Nadia Drake

Now, as we head back to Longyearbyen to pick up a crucial, delayed piece of equipment, the Arctic water is again rough, a white-capped expanse of excited, roiling gray. Soon, though, we’ll return to the ocean that caps planet Earth, and dive beneath its surface to explore its alien abyss.

Nadia Drake is a contributing writer at National Geographic, and is on assignment with the HACON team as it explores the Aurora hydrothermal vent field.


Ready, steady, go!

19 September

Today all the boxes and equipment were brought on board and the different teams were busy unpacking boxes and setting up labs.


And finally, at 22:00 we said good bye to Longyearbyen! Before we start our HACON adventures exploring abyssal hydrothermal vents under ice, we will spend the next few days recovering several moorings for other colleagues.




Getting ready for work under and on the ice!

The NUI team has been busy today, starting to get NUI ready for the cruise, both in the hangar where NUI will be based and in the control room. It is from the control room that NUI will be piloted. It is also from this room that we “dive” with NUI to the Arctic abyss and explore the Aurora hydrothermal vents. We cannot wait to see what kind of vents and animals await us there!


In the meantime, another group was in a course organised by UNIS, learning how to be a polar-bear guard for the work that we will do from the ice and also about safety and rescue when working on sea ice. We all ended up in the (cold!) waters of Longyearbyen harbour, where we learnt how to swim on a survival suit, alone and in a group, how to get back on the ice and how to help others to get back on the ice. It was a good and fun course!

In Longyearbyen


Photo: arriving to Svalbard for the HACON cruise.

Most of the HACON team is already in this amazing part of the world, preparing for the HACON cruise. The hybrid ROV/AUV NUI is by the R/V Kronprisn Haakon and the NUI team from WHOI have been busy all day getting it ready.

Tomorrow, some of us will take the UNIS sea-ice safety course and the polar-bear guard course, while others continue mobilising equipment on board.


Photo: Longyearbyen, 17 Sept. 2019


The count down has started!

  • 7 days until many of the HACON cruise participants meet in Longyearbyen!
  • 9 days until we sail on board R/V Kronprins Haakong to the Gakkel Ridge!

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The way to Aurora. Photo: C. German, WHOI.

Our team of 37 geologists, geochemists, physical oceanographers, micropaleontologists, microbiologists, ecologists, engineers and NASA astrobiologists, together with a writer and a film maker from National Geographic are making the last preparations for this exciting cruise to explore and study the first deep hydrothermal vents discovered under Arctic ice.

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NUI over the Aurora seamount in the discovery Polarstern cruise (2014). Photo: C. German, WHOI.

With us will be the newly upgraded Nereus Under Ice (NUI) hybrid ROV/AUV from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. NUI will be our main equipment to survey the Aurora vent field. We cannot wait to find out what wonders may await us!

Follow us here for updates on the cruise and our discoveries!