The Ice Patrol
The Ice Patrol
The ice is melting. “Take a look! It’s fucking cool,” shouts Marc Herrell over the engines of the C-130 that flies us over the half-frozen sea. Seated in the plane’s womb, two ice observers recline in two high-backed military-issue swivel chairs, their ears covered by noise-canceling Bose headphones. To find an iceberg, you use the whole window, beginning at the horizon, then moving down, then over, then up. When the ice observers spot a berg, they note its exact position, size, and shape on a chart.
The Ice Patrol is a four-year enlisted tour, three years for officers, whose mission is to survey the Arctic shipping lanes for icebergs and other hazardous debris. When I join the Ice Patrol in March of 2014, to observe the one hundredth anniversary of its operations, there are three large icebergs in the harbor at St. John’s, Newfoundland, and thousand-mile stretches of the Atlantic Ocean are covered in bluish-gray pancakes of sea ice. The polar ice caps are melting, which is a fear that hasn’t changed all that much since the days of Noah: we are selfish and otherwise sinful; our cities will be washed away by floods. Yet beneath these dire rhythms and cadences drawn from Old Testament prophets is an entirely modern sense of tracklessness and vertigo.
Everything melts. What scares us these days is the idea that “everything” includes us. Our alarm at melting icebergs and polar ice caps reflects our fears about the stability of the verities of a world that we long ago agreed was inherently unstable, only to suddenly experience that instability as an immediate threat to the once-settled rhythms of our lives. Fake News has replaced Real News. Russia elected Donald Trump by buying ads on Facebook, according to a former British spy, who was paid by Trump’s opponent. Over the past decade or so, around 275,000 newspaper employees have lost their jobs. Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Twitter control what Americans read and how they communicate with one another, based on hidden algorithms that are torqued to maximize addictive behaviors that maximize profit. Newsrooms no longer decide what is news. The mirror is cracked. Everyone distrusts and detests one another, while intelligence bureaucrats abuse a giant surveillance net that was built to catch terrorists and is now being used, inevitably, to generate political scandals that obscure the deeds of the powerful in a fog of fear and mistrust.
The Arctic is real enough, though. It’s like a stripped-down blueprint of places we are familiar with, minus grass, and trees, and roads, and cars. iPhones don’t work well in the Arctic. But there is oil here. There is lots of snow and ice.
The polar ice caps are melting, which is a fear that hasn’t changed all that much since the days of Noah: we are selfish and otherwise sinful; our cities will be washed away by floods.
My workday begins with a face-stinging walk to the cargo plane, during which you can see your warm breath departing from your body in brief, frozen puffs. The inside of the cargo plane is cozy and noisy, with a few rows of airline seats and five tons of gear lashed to the floor. Eighty-five percent of the icebergs here in Iceberg Alley come from 20 gigantic ice mountains located between the Jakobshavn and Humboldt Glaciers in West Greenland, which calve between 10,000 and 15,000 of the 40,000 or so bergs that will drift south this year. The green triangles on the chart are the icebergs that the Ice Patrol has spotted. The blue triangles are the bergs predicted by the Ice Patrol’s computer model. Overlaying the sighted bergs on a map of the bergs generated by the computer model helps keep the charts current, so navigators don’t lose their ships.
Overlooking the sea from a height of 500 feet, the observers chatter on the com-link, an umbilical cord that binds the Ice Patrol together through loosely woven arabesques of pop culture trivia, song lyrics, and personal anecdotes, while shielding them from the noise of the plane. Take off your headphones and it’s like sticking your entire head inside a blow-dryer at a highway rest stop. It’s impossible to hear yourself think. The conversation of the spotters has a stoned, semi-awake quality that burrows beneath the walls and fences of waking consciousness to access the place of memories and dreams, where bursts of imagery and feeling can produce lucid moments that sit like icebergs in the sea of consciousness along with Styrofoam coffee cups and missed doctor’s appointments.
“Tallyho.” What does that mean, sir? It’s a prostitute-counting scheme, involving an abacus. Tallyho” is an old English term from foxhunting. OK. That term is approved for use on the plane.
The state-shifting magic that can isolate a pattern in the electrical fields of memory may be similar, for all anyone knows, to the process by which liquid water freezes into a solid. When the entropic molecules that make up liquid water are exposed to a certain temperature, they jump to attention and form hexagonal crystals, which grip each other with geometric clarity. The result is ice. The lattice formed by hydrogen bonds fixes the space between the atoms, so that ice takes up 9 percent more volume but is less dense than liquid water, which is why ice floats, or anything floats.
In a briefing on the morning we left Groton, Connecticut, where the Ice Patrol is based, the Patrol’s resident oceanographer, Mike Hicks, noted a dramatic increase in the number of icebergs from the previous year. Offshore wind patterns are blowing cold air out to sea, he explained, which is causing the sea ice to expand along the offshore branch of the Labrador Current, propelling hundreds of icebergs south along the Flemish Pass, where they threaten ships and stationary deep-sea oil rigs, which grow more numerous in the Arctic waters with every passing year.
The legend of Saint Brendan the Voyager contains what is, as far as I have been able to ascertain, the first recorded sighting of an iceberg, made somewhere around the year 530 AD by a band of delirious monks who sailed west from Ireland in a tiny open boat. The goal of their journey, which lasted seven years, was to reach the Promised Land of the Saints, or Saint Brendan’s Island. “One day, on which three Masses had been said,” according to Denis O’Donoghue’s classic version of the story, published in 1893 and based on a series of Latin texts that can be traced back as far as AD 900, “they saw a column in the sea, which seemed not far off, yet they could not reach it for three days.” The summit of the column seemed to pierce the skies, and to be made of pure crystal.
St. Brendan ordered the brethren to take in their oars, and to lower the sails and mast, and directed some of them to hold on by the fringes of the canopy, which extended about a mile from the column, and about the same depth into the sea. When this had been done, St. Brendan said: “Run in the boat now through an opening, that we may get a closer view of the wonderful works of God.”
The Ice Patrol’s first close acquaintance with an iceberg of any notable size was made early in the morning of May 7, 1913, by the crew of the Seneca. “At 4 a.m., daylight,” reads the account, which can be found in Reports of Vessels on Ice Patrol In the North Atlantic Ocean, covering the months of April, May, and June 1913, as recorded by the captain and disseminated by the US Government Printing Office, “the wash of the waves could be heard on the berg, and a faint echo could be raised. The sound of the waves was much stronger than the echo. In about 15 minutes the outline of the upper part of the berg could be made out.”
Since that day, the Ice Patrol’s purpose has remained constant, year after year with scant interruption: during the Roaring Twenties; at the height of the Great Depression; in 1937, as the world armed itself for a conflagration in which upwards of 60 million people would die; in 1946, a year after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The Patrol’s annual report from 1956, as Nikita Khrushchev promised Western ambassadors in Moscow, “We will bury you!” reads pretty much the same as the annual reports from 1926, or 1996, and is animated by an identical sense of purpose: “The mission of protecting shipping from the dangers of ice drifting in the Grand Banks area was accomplished by the collection of ice information from all available sources and by means of twice daily radio broadcasts disseminating to shipping the description of the current ice situation.”
Everything melts. What scares us these days is the idea that “everything” includes us.
The International Ice Patrol was founded at the tail end of 1914, in response to a disaster whose proportions were so unthinkable that it shook the foundations of what was then referred to without irony as the civilized belief in progress. That signal event was the sinking of the Titanic, which on its maiden voyage in 1912 had carried John Jacob Astor IV and the Philadelphia banker Robert Daniel along with their dogs; a jeweled copy of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám; five Steinway pianos; eight dozen tennis balls; 800 cases of shelled walnuts; 30,000 fresh eggs; Billy Carter’s English automobile, a silver duck press; Eleanor Widener’s trousseau; and 1,503 doomed human souls, as numbered by the British Board of Trade. An obstacle in the ship’s path was spotted by the deck watch, which reported it to the helmsman. The ship turned, but not soon enough to avoid contact, resulting in a jarring sensation that felt to first-class passenger Mrs. J. Stuart White like the ocean liner had rolled over a thousand marbles and to Lady Duff-Gordon like someone had drawn a giant finger along the side of the ship. “We place absolute confidence in the Titanic. We believe that the boat is unsinkable,” announced Philip A. S. Franklin, VP of the White Star Line’s parent company, in response to the news that the ship had sunk.
After the Titanic disaster, the US Navy assigned the cruisers Chester and Birmingham to patrol the Grand Banks for the rest of 1912. In 1913, the US Navy was busy, so Sherman Allen, assistant treasury secretary in charge of the Revenue Cutter Service (later the Coast Guard), ordered the revenue cutters Seneca and Miami “to proceed to the vicinity of the tail of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and establish a patrol of the ice fields and icebergs drifting down into those waters,” in order to determine the southerly, easterly, and westerly limits of the ice. At the first International Conference for the Safety of Life at Sea, which was convened in London on November 12, 1913, the subject of patrolling the ice regions was thoroughly discussed, with high contracting parties from the world’s seafaring nations agreeing on the necessity of preventing a future disaster like the sinking of the Titanic through chapter 3, article 6 of they document they produced, which would establish “with the least possible delay a service for the study and observation of ice conditions and a service of ice patrol.” Every year since, the Ice Patrol has endeavored to fulfill its mission by tracking icebergs as they drift across the northern shipping lanes and sending out daily reports of their sizes and positions.
The Ice Patrol likes to boast that over its 100 years of operation not a single ship operating in the published iceberg limits has collided with an iceberg, a potentially crippling and deadly event that happens elsewhere more often than you might think. In 2007, the cruise ship Explorer was ripped open by an iceberg in the Weddell Sea, off Antarctica. The MS Fram collided with a glacier in late 2007, although it was not sunk. A Russian fishing boat was sunk off Antarctica by an iceberg in 2011. If the daily routines of the Ice Patrol can suggest a subarctic version of the British television show The Office, it is also clear that the work that they do up here, which is the continuation of a highly rational project that has endured for over a century, supports the proposition that the human capacity to do evil to ourselves and the planet is not unmixed with the capacity to do good.
“This morning we’ll be flying the western limit,” announces Ed Lee, who is conducting the morning briefing in the Ice Patrol office, which is located at the St. John’s airport directly adjacent to a giant hangar that houses the C-130, along with an assortment of smaller planes.
Ed is a compact man in his mid-40s with buzz-cut hair and wire-rimmed glasses, who once worked as a bouncer at a rock-and-roll bar in Columbus, Ohio, before a college student knocked out his front teeth. Ed then beat him unconscious, and he has never been in another fight in his life. Other than that, Ed is a normal small-town guy, with a level of self-aware quirkiness that might attract a movie star like Julia Roberts to marry him. He is the best version of Ed that Ed is ever likely to be. Today’s wind will be 14 knots, gusting to 19, he says. The temperature is -13˚C, which is colder than normal.
Being a good team member requires every member of the team to do their job and know their own limits. At the “break the ice” meeting held when we arrived in Newfoundland, each member had to say their name, how many times they’d flown this mission, their role in the mission, and their favorite movie. That was the “icebreaker, level one.” The “level-two icebreaker” was to provide a single word that describes the ocean. My word was “deep,” to which the members of the team added “unforgiving,” “cold,” “difficult,” “vast.” Marc Herrell, who strikes me as the member of the team most likely to win big money on Jeopardy, answered “sexual,” which explains some portion of his intense enthusiasm for his job.
An iceberg’s journey from the Jakobshavn Glacier in West Greenland, just inland from Disko Island, can take anywhere from one to three years, depending on the route that the iceberg takes. Some icebergs turn north, and then turn around and make their way down the Labrador Coast. Others go right across the Davis Strait, a narrow passage between Greenland and Nunavut’s Baffin Island. Because seven-eighths of their mass is underwater, it is not uncommon for icebergs to go to ground for days or weeks before they break apart or work their way free, after which they can travel for days or weeks without resting. The most potent eroding forces for icebergs are sea waves, which are dampened by sea ice. Once an iceberg gets into the offshore branch of the Labrador Current, along the southern coast of Labrador, it tends to flow freely, without encountering the sea bottom.
The Ice Patrol likes to boast that over its 100 years of operation not a single ship operating in the published iceberg limits has collided with an iceberg.
The area between the Grand Banks and the Flemish Cap, which is known as the Flemish Pass or Iceberg Alley, is home to four major oil rigs currently in production, including the Hibernia, the Terra Nova, and the Henry Goodrich, as well as an exploratory well called the Bay du Nord. The oil companies’ nightmare is that a large tabular iceberg, or ice island, that is shallow enough to make it up onto the Grand Banks will come floating down through Iceberg Alley like a giant Frisbee and sideswipe a rig, spilling hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil into the current, destroying rich fisheries, causing a large magnitude of environmental damage, and disrupting shipping up and down the North American coast. In 2010, a 97-square-mile piece of the Petermann Glacier, at the northern tip of Greenland, broke off, forming a flat, tabular ice island that floated south toward the shipping lanes. In 2012, another piece of the Petermann Glacier broke off.
A little-known US government document entitled National Strategy for the Arctic Region, signed by then-President Barack Obama on May 10, 2013, underlines the continuing need for the Ice Patrol’s services. “The United States is an Arctic Nation with broad and fundamental interests in the Arctic Region,” reads the first line of the executive summary of the document, which, like most of the big things that Obama did during his presidency, was barely reported on at all.
The National Strategy notes that 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas—1,700 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 44 billion barrels of liquid—is found in the continental shelves of the Arctic, which, according to the 2008 US Geological Survey, “may constitute the geographically largest unexplored prospective area for petroleum remaining on Earth.” The Coast Guard’s 2013 strategy document also notes that between March and September of 2012, 4.57 million square miles of Arctic sea ice melted, comprising an area larger than the continental US. Put the world’s largest unclaimed reserves of petroleum together with rapidly melting ice, and the continuing need for the Ice Patrol’s services becomes even clearer.
Appreciating the distinctions between different forms of ice is crucial to doing your job out here. In many circumstances, if you are a navigator, it can be critical to staying alive. The primary ingredient in all forms of ice, including sea ice and icebergs, is fresh water. Among the different types of sea ice are: frazil, or grease ice, a sludgy substance that rides atop the waves and congeals into nilas, which has a thin crust that shatters like glass. If the water is rough, nilas congeals into pancake ice, which hardens over one to three years as it expels the sea salt, which is visible on the surface of the ice in wine-dark pools.
The shadows, fractures, rivulets, ice drippings, and white-to-gray shadings on the ice below transform the airplane window through which I look out onto the ice fields into a trippy kaleidoscopic Rorschach lantern. Below me, I see a striking woman with a Grace Jones hi-fade hairdo sketched in charcoal pencil, like something my high school girlfriend Jenny drew on the denim cover of her loose-leaf binder circa 1985. Then suddenly, I’m fogged in, and can’t see anything at all. When visibility returns, I swing my Steiner Commander III 7x50 binoculars to the horizon line, then move right and catch sight of a twin-peaked ice mountain, like a frozen El Dorado.
Ben Morgan, the team leader, and second-in-command of the Ice Patrol, spent his early years in Texas, where there was very little ice. In the ’90s, when he was in junior high, he moved with his family to Dover, Delaware, where he experienced what might generally be called an ice storm. “It rained and rained and rained, and then overnight it froze, and there was like a quarter inch of ice covering everything: tree branches, the road, and the pond behind our house froze over completely,” he remembers when I ask him about his formative memories of ice. The local kids, none of whom were hockey players or had skates, went down to play hockey on the pond, in tennis shoes. “I tried to get around somebody, and I slipped and broke my collarbone,” he says. “So that’s a very vivid ice memory that I have.”
Ben’s brother, Dr. Andrew Morgan, is a jump-qualified Army Ranger who won the national collegiate skydiving championship while at West Point before going to medical school. He was recently selected as one of eight members of NASA’s 21st astronaut class. After 9/11, while his brother flew off to serve with elite special-ops teams in Afghanistan, Ben reported to the Polar Star, a 399-foot nonnuclear icebreaker headed for Antarctica, stopping in Sydney, Australia, for two or three days, and then Hobart, Tasmania, before arriving near McMurdo Bay sometime around Christmas. He remembers being on watch the first time the ship hit sea ice, which produces a sound like a soda can being stomped on. “Don't worry about it,” a watch companion assured him. “You’re gonna hit a lot of ice.”
After he got used to the counterintuitive practice of driving a ship directly into a shelf of ice, he began to enjoy driving the icebreaker, which he steered from a small tower above the bridge. His perch was the size of two phone booths and offered the widest possible view of the frozen sea. “Captain let us play music,” he says, “so the music was blaring, and the ship was shuddering and shaking, and we’re breaking ice. I turned to the guy I was up there with and said, ‘I can't believe that the American people pay us to do this.’” It’s a happy memory. “I’m 22 years old, and I'm taking a 75,000-horsepower ship, and I’m just ramming it as hard as I can into solid ice,” he explains.
Appreciating the distinctions between different forms of ice is crucial to doing your job out here.
At night, the ship became another silent feature of the frozen ocean for wildlife to explore. Adélie penguins and seals were common visitors. Morgan claims that his most memorable visit was from a huge mother polar bear with two little cubs following behind her, wrestling and biting each other’s ears as they walked right up to the side of the ship. The next morning, the ops boss of the ship came up to Morgan in the mess. “I heard you saw some polar bears last night walking up to the ship,” he said to Morgan. “Yes, sir. I did,” Morgan replied. “Don’t you think you should have called the captain?" Morgan paused. “No. I did not, sir.” The ops boss was not convinced. “Well, don’t you think you should have? Don’t you think what you saw was a little bit unusual?” he asked, to which Morgan replied, “Well, we are in Antarctica.”
Much of the knowledge that ice experts have accumulated about ice has been codified within a Canadian manual called MANICE, which functions as the ice observers’ bible. Published by the Meteorological Service of Canada, it pioneered what is now the standard system of symbolic notation for describing the shapes and sizes of icebergs, openings in the ice, thickness, and other topographic features, as well as the stages of ice melt. Written with the dry precision of a technical manual, MANICE offers separate sections on the stages of sea ice: “New Ice,” “Nilas,” “Young Ice,” “First Year Ice,” and “Old Ice.” The book is animated by a strikingly simple philosophy that is stated in a single sentence: “It is the duty of the observer to report ice conditions as they actually exist at the time of observation.”
The difficulty of the practice of honest reporting that binds ice observers to the ever-changing objects of their observation lends a kind of muted but deep resonance to the systems of classification in which the MANICE philosophy attains its concrete-poetic expression. Grease ice, which is a subcategory of new ice, is made up of soupy ice crystals, which have a matte appearance. Shuga, another subcategory of new ice, is described as spongy white ice lumps formed from grease ice or slush. Nilas is a thin elastic crust. Young ice, which sounds like the name of an Arctic rap star, comes in two colors: gray and gray-white. Gray ice is 10–15 centimeters thick and breaks on the ocean swell. Gray-white ice, which is plentiful, is between 15 and 30 centimeters thick.
Sea ice that is more than a year old tends to look blue. Brash ice is the wreckage of other forms of ice, which occurs through the ice-deformation process, which involves fracturing, hummocking, ridging, rafting, finger rafting, and other terms whose hard-core tactile-visual specificity reminds me of the pornographic parts of J. G. Ballard’s novel Crash.
Terms pertaining to navigation pack the emotional punch of middle-period Philip K. Dick. My favorite is “ice blink,” which MANICE defines as “a whitish glare on low clouds above an accumulation of distant ice.”
Although the wind plays little role in the gorgeous formality of the MANICE classification system, it is hard to miss up here in the Arctic. The wind blows on the exposed surface of the iceberg and imparts force. Wind currents, as well as the drag exerted by the underwater body of the iceberg, water temperature, and the Coriolis acceleration imparted by the spin of the earth, are all accounted for in the Ice Patrol’s computer model. When an iceberg is first logged in the Ice Patrol database, a 5-mile air circle is drawn around it, which grows by 5 miles each day, up to a maximum of 30 miles. Beyond that, the predictions start to deteriorate, which is why the Ice Patrol flies for an average of five days every two weeks during ice season, except when conditions are foggy or otherwise poor.
Boat people are loners, which seems like a funny way to characterize people who spend long periods of time in tight quarters at sea. The only people you see on the ocean are the people in your boat. They may be annoying, but they are only a drop in the surrounding absence, which appears to be infinite.
Members of the marine-safety community aren’t really sailors, though. Even Marc, who loves boats so much that he sails one on his days off, likes getting home early, especially on the weekends that he has his son. “In the cutter community, we have a little joke that we say about the marine-safety community,” Ben Morgan tells me during one long flight, after I mention that sending men up in a cargo plane over the frozen sea to look for icebergs would qualify in most military-type situations as punishment duty. The Coast Guards’ mantra, Morgan explains, is, “You have to go out, but you don't have to come back,” meaning that you have to try to save a life, even at the risk of your own. “Well, what we say about the marine-safety community,” he adds, is, “You have to go out to lunch, but you don’t necessarily have to come back.”
Perhaps the best example of the marine-safety personality type is Ken Farah, a large, sloth-like man who is Marc’s best friend on the Ice Patrol. A former football lineman who left the football team, and then dropped out of college, and then got depressed, and then married some kind of Swiss princess, and flew over Greenland on a private jet, then graduated from college but still hasn’t managed to finish his master’s degree, Ken is a lifelong underachiever who also happens to be great at tracking icebergs. He also has an advanced understanding of the mid-calf pockets of his flight suit, using the left pocket for garbage, and the right pocket for snacks. When not on active duty in his anorak, he barely moves at all.
“We got free pizza,” someone says in the cockpit, to which the pilot, Peyton, replies, “Nothing is free here.”
Ken Farah is a person in need of discipline from an outside source, which is why he joined the military. What’s appealing to him about military life is that there are clearly written step-by-step directions for nearly everything. The Ice Patrol is all the good parts of military life with none of the bad, which suggests that Ken is probably smarter than he looks.
Then there is Marc, whose one-word description of the ocean was “sexual.” He is divorced, which is another word for heartache. He made a bookshelf out of the planks of his old whaler. When he was finished, he put the metal whaler tag on the back, which would be a cool thing to discover if you bought it at a garage sale. If I were to diagnose Marc’s condition I would say that he gets land-sick, the same way that other people get seasick, or life-sick.
Only a yokel would wonder at the truth that human beings are frail, confusing creatures who operate according to devious and contradictory motives. The men and women of the Ice Patrol have few such doubts, which is one of the major things that I love about them. Today, Tuesday, the temperature is -12˚C, with eight-knot winds, and light snow showers on a flat sea, and who is going to argue with that?
I sit up front with the pilots, who anticipate 54-knot-per-hour winds and freezing ice for Thursday. “We got free pizza,” someone says in the cockpit, to which the pilot, Peyton, replies, “Nothing is free here.” Yesterday’s snow has been plowed to the side of the runway, leaving us a clear sheet of ice for the plane to take off. “I don’t like to have people talking all this bullshit,” Matt objects. He likes to keep the cargo door open when the plane is in the air.
“We are Lionel Richie right now, is that correct?” Peyton says, talking in code to his copilot. Clear right. Clear on the left. Awww. That truck’s in your way. He’s gonna have to move. Brakes are checked. How’s that wing-tip? It’s a Navy P-3, that’s why it’s all ragged out. Look at that crazy plane. One hundred eighty knots please.
What are you eating? Mike and Ikes.
The cockpit is the corner office with the curved wraparound windows that allow for the full 180-degree view. The sea below looks like marble ice cream.
“What do we do now, look for icebergs?” Matt asks Dave, the patchouli-wearing radio tech. He replies in the affirmative. Matt, who is from the Pacific Northwest and is making his maiden journey with the Ice Patrol, is incredulous.
“This is fucking boring as fuck. This is really what we do? Fuck.”
In the back of the plane, the ice observers take a different view. Marc is pumped. “Holy moly, if you look at the map view, we are definitely going to be flying through some bergs,” he says. “This ship right there on the map? That’s where the Titanic sank.”
The sinking of the Titanic is a key part of the Ice Patrol’s collective mythos. Its meaning is that it would be hard to screw up any worse. Below me, I see something in the water.
Is it a ship? S006. That’s going to be our southernmost berg.
Out XO Morgan’s window is a sea of solid ice. “I think things are about to get busy,” he says.
Iceberg S008, a yacht-sized berg, is spotted by Ed. “Roger, tallyho!” Marc replies. Five more bergs are spotted.
“Ed, that’s a pretty one,” Marc calls out, pointing to an iceberg with two breast-like humps. Out the left window is a nice-looking tabular berg, stuck fast in the sea ice.
As sea ice declines, icebergs will melt faster. New shipping lanes will also open up, bringing more traffic into the areas where icebergs are plentiful. During the first two decades of the 20th century, there were only five years with at least 700 icebergs crossing the 48th parallel, a number that was matched in eight of the nine years between 1991 and 2000.
On the flight deck, the pilots sit behind sheets of invisible teleprompter glass while two kids sit behind them looking at the feed from an external camera and engaging in impromptu pattern recognition. “I’ve never seen so much ice in my life,” Marc says over the com. Being up on coms is like being the DJ of a private radio station for you and your five best friends. What could be better than spending long afternoons looking at ice?
“The only easy day was yesterday, sir.” Who said that—John Wayne? Charlie Sheen in Navy SEALs.
The pilot takes the plane down to 500 feet. Below us, the wind is blowing the tops off the waves, leaving white streaks in the water. Once we turn, we will have entered the flight box. The sea height is about 16 feet, with a visibility of one mile on the right, and three miles on the left, with winds of 30 knots.
Ed used to work on cars back in Ohio, he announces. One of his clients was Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay. After dropping the bomb on Hiroshima, Tibbets had bought an old T-Bird, which he maintained in perfect condition. Ed loved working on that car. After that, he repo’d cars for a living, until he got shot at. His first commander in the Coast Guard was a yachtsman from Long Island who called his mother “Mommy.”
According to the radar, there’s a ship in the middle of the icebergs below, but the ocean outside our windows is empty. The weather is getting worse. Someone from the cockpit mentions that a C-130 was beat up by a storm after being left on the runway here, and those guys were stuck in St. John’s for eight months. Visibility is now officially low, with 35-to-40-knot surface winds. AC5 means altocumulus.
Oh, the sun feels wonderful. I’m scared of having to grow up. Jeez Louise, there’s a lot of boats out here.
Tom started out his adult life at the Mars Hill megachurch, whose charismatic pastor encouraged congregants to text him during sermons. A woman’s place was at home, the pastor instructed. If you were single and in your 20s, that meant that God does not trust you with one of his women. Tom found these views disturbing. “I wanted to have a purpose,” he explains when I ask him why he signed up for this duty. “The Ice Patrol. Do I really have to say anything more after that?”
It also seems possible that the frozen solitude and sameness of the Ice Patrol’s work might drive someone mad. In pursuit of evidence supporting this view, I read stacks of Ice Patrol annual reports dating back for exactly 100 years, before or after flights, or on days when flights were cancelled because of bad weather, in my room at the Holiday Inn in St. John’s. Yet in all my reading, I could identify only a single obvious departure from the Ice Patrol’s consistent tone of clear-eyed sanity. It came in 1972, the year in which Richard Nixon’s men broke into the Watergate and the US ramped up massively illegal bombing campaigns in Cambodia and Laos. It was also a banner year for icebergs, according to the mission report of Douglas W. Crowell, who seems to have approached his job with the determination of an Arctic Colonel Kurtz.
A tip-off to Crowell’s prevailing frame of mind can be found in his refusal to use the word “International” in his log. Instead, he refers to the Patrol as the “ICE RECONNAISSANCE DETACHMENT,” in caps. During the first week of April, the Patrol located 340 icebergs under Crowell’s command, or so his report attested. “This tremendous gathering exceeded the normal for an entire season and was only an indication of things to come,” he wrote.
The next week, Crowell claimed that the Patrol had located 549 icebergs and 130 growlers, which are smaller icebergs. (In a busy week in March when I was in Newfoundland, during one of the busiest in what promised to be the fifth or sixth biggest iceberg seasons ever, the number of icebergs we spotted, growlers included, was approximately 140.) The week after that, he recorded that “the icebergs continued their southeastward march, reaching 40-40N 45-08W on 24 April,” leading him to predict an astounding total of 3,423 icebergs and growlers for the season, a prediction that vibrates with the unsound reporting methods that characterized the US military’s disastrous efforts in Southeast Asia.
Although, Crowell admitted, near the end of his report, that “flight operations on 1, 2 and 4 August showed only two icebergs south of 45-30N,” he added that “two additional flights on 10 and 12 August located 73 bergs.” If that wasn’t enough, “many icebergs were continuously being reported in the Strait of Belle Isle and its eastern approaches by passing ships.” Having apparently freed himself from the banalities of the Ice Patrol’s evidentiary methods, he triumphantly concluded, “Thus ended the longest and heaviest iceberg season on record.”
On the second-to-last day of my deployment, two young Air Force cargo techs are sitting in the cockpit and engaging in pattern-recognition drills. Below us, the sea ice is breaking up. The wind is blowing the tops off the waves, leaving white streaks in the water. Once we turn, we will have entered the flight box—the large stretch of ocean that we will crisscross for the next five hours, looking for icebergs. According to the radar, there’s a ship in the middle of the iceberg population. Visibility is low.
The oil rig below us is serviced by S-76 helicopters, which have a two-man flight crew. “Those fuckers go down a lot,” one of the pilots says. The dream of a helicopter pilot on an oil rig is to make so much money that you can retire by age 30 and become a back-country fishing guide. The light snow flurries are like a lace curtain through which sunlight shines upon the waters. Then the fog rolls in. We saw 60 icebergs on our first flight. Today’s number is zero.
More gray fog. Then suddenly: icebergs! First one, then two, then three white icebergs, in a row, gleaming like a toothpaste smile on the ocean’s frozen surface. Up on the flight deck, the crew is playing the famous-name game.
“Is everyone down for the famous-name game?” the copilot, who flew helos in Afghanistan and Iraq, wants to know.
“Give me a for-instance,” Matt says.
“Sheryl Crow—Willy Wonka,” Peyton the pilot explains. The game begins.
Kenny Rogers. Seal. Loretta Lynn. Ellen DeGeneres. Santana. I heard him live once.
It doesn’t matter that Loretta Lynn’s name ends with an “n” and not with an “e.”
“Is it still my turn?” Peyton, the pilot, asks, before checking back with the radio techs. “Just to confirm, you’re up on her box?” he asks.
“He’s all over my box, sir,” the young woman responds, with self-assurance. The plane starts a sweeping turn, with a wingtip nearly touching the water.
Lyndon Johnson. Nelly. Yanni. Iggy Pop.
Below us is a cathedral made of ice, like the one that Saint Brendan and his monks described. Everyone takes pictures.
Walt Disney. Yves Saint Laurent.
It’s the divine babble of America. The vapor pouring off the gigantic iceberg directly below us suggests a cargo ship on fire.
Culture just means liberal bullshit.
Next up is the letter O.
Oedipus. I have no idea what you're talking about. Orville Wright. Never heard of him.
As we near St. John’s, the pilots go back and forth about the forecasts of another foot of snow by morning. When one of the techs complains, an older head sets him straight. “Two and a half days of vacation a month? That’s double what civilians in the US get. What fucking Disney movie do you think you’re working in?”
The science of climate change tells us that the oceans will rise, and cities will drown. But the truth is even scarier: the planet on which we live can no longer be usefully imagined as something apart from ourselves. Nature is the product of collective human activity, just like the internet, which is to say, we are trapped in a dangerously manipulable simulation that we confuse with some eternal, underlying reality.
Perhaps the most famous information revolution of our time was the invention of the Gutenberg printing press, which brought both the text of the Bible and the discoveries of small circles of Italian and German humanists to all of Europe, ushering in the Renaissance. The spread of printing technologies throughout Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries was accompanied by the proliferation of the simple hand mirror, which allowed even ordinary individuals to see a “true reflection” of their own faces. In turn, these twinned technological developments led to profound revolutions at every level of human consciousness. The old social order that had governed the lives of Europeans for the better part of a millennium was largely demolished within less than a century, altering the most intimate aspects of their inner lives and the largest scales of social organization. Nearly every area of human imagination and endeavor—from science to literature, to painting and sculpture, to architecture—was transformed in a similarly radical fashion, giving rise to physical discoveries, great works of art, and new political ideas that continue to shape the way we think, live, and work.
The sinking of the Titanic is a key part of the Ice Patrol’s collective mythos. Its meaning is that it would be hard to screw up any worse.
What this superficial account of the Gutenberg revolution underplays, of course, is the large amount of bloodshed involved. The Thirty Years’ War, fought between Catholic and Protestant believers and hired armies, remains the single most destructive conflict in the history of Europe, including the First and Second World Wars. Oliver Cromwell overthrew the English monarchy. Empires rose and fell on the printed word; in the 19th and 20th centuries, the development of printing technologies made cheap printed material available to layers of society that had previously had no access to books. New ideological viruses were born, leading to the rise of totalitarian political ideologies like communism, and overtly irrational political movements like Nazism, which fused scientism with conspiracy theories and primitive, archetypal bloodlust. The same printing presses that were used to publish cheap editions of Shakespeare were used to print Mein Kampf.
Five and a half centuries of experience of the Gutenberg revolution surely have taught us that technologies that encourage the broad diffusion of knowledge can have profound consequences, which can be either miraculous or destructive. Put the mirror and the printing press together and you have the iPhone. Which means that 50 years from now, or 5 years from now, being human might mean something entirely different than it does today.
Watching Marc and Ed plot their positions on their iceberg charts does something to reduce my anxiety about things melting, or to put it in what is perhaps a more pragmatically useful context. They are worried, too. But they continue acting in a calm, constructive, and disciplined way, according to the rules and processes that have guided the work of the Ice Patrol since its inception. As Americans, we live in a constant state of becoming, shaped by a future that merges backward into our present to form the distinctive American tense, the future present, which reliably fails to arrive in the form promised in the brochures. Still, when I have trouble sleeping at night, I think about the men and women of the Ice Patrol, and the guiding philosophy of their work, and I feel protected from what scares me the most.
From the final report of C. E. Johnson, commander of the Seneca, summing up the knowledge that the Ice Patrol gained about icebergs during the ice season of 1913, the Patrol’s first:
All were white in color, some having one or more distinct veins of blue ice running through them. … As to shape, no two bore any striking resemblance to each other. There were round tops, flat tops, sloping tops, and pinnacled tops; sloping sides, sheer sides, craggy sides; regular shapes and extremely irregular shapes. The only type we did not see is the kind popularly pictured in schoolbooks, with high, overhanging, craggy pinnacles.
Section G of the report is titled “Sea Birds as Food.” Based on a recipe used with success by William Landgraff, the cabin steward of the Seneca, it is offered for “the benefit of persons remaining long in this region or in Bering Sea.” Following is a précis of the instructions:
—Let the birds hang with feathers for three days.
—Draw and skin them.
—Soak them in fresh water for three days, adding a tablespoon of vinegar to each barrel for each quart of water on the third day.
—Fry the birds brown in a very hot skillet.
—Put them in a saucepan and half cover them with water.
The report concludes, “For five or six birds season with one onion, two cloves, two bay leaves, six whole black pepper berries, two tablespoons of vinegar, and salt to taste. Cover and simmer until water has evaporated.”
The final instruction contained in the report is the word “serve,” followed by the signature of C. E. Johnson.