The Polar Bear Club

Hardy souls waiting to go for a dip.

I’m not in it, at least not in the Wrangell, Alaska version. Even NYC has a version, with people going in the water at Coney Island on the first of the year.

Now the Wrangell version is for these hardy enough to brave the cold waters (50°F) of Zimovia Strait on the first of the new year. This winter has been extremely wet, but not very cold, with temperatures staying above freezing except for just of couple of dry days in the high 20°s. Every other day we’ve had clouds and rain. Contrast that with last year, where by this time, we’d had few feet of snow since before Thanksgiving until now and had weeks of below freezing temperatures.

Our Marina on a rare sunny day

I do have my Polar Bear certificate for being in Resolute, Northwest Territories, Canada, but I just had to be there, not do anything special.

While on T-3, I did have the opportunity to jump into the Arctic Ocean, in the six-foot diameter hole we had melted thru the sea ice to collect zooplankton samples for the summer. But the idea of jumping into water that was 28°F, even then, in the years when I was young, brave and knew everything, was unappealing to me.

I pictured myself going into shock, not being able to drag myself out of our four-foot-deep ice hole, while my bumbling colleagues came up with a way to drag me out as I died of hypothermia.

Being on the Arctic ice pack in the middle of summer was fascinating. During the summer, with 24 ours of daylight for five months, the sun did produce significant melting of the top layers of ice.

Now, a little lesson on the Arctic ice pack. The ice pack was (until recently) only about 4 to 6 feet think, absent pressure ridges, (areas where the ice has been pushed into little hills by wind and current).  Currently, the ice pack has thinned to just 3 to 4 feet. Thus, much larger areas are opening up during the summer melt.

The ice pack grows from underneath, fresh water freezing in the 28° water. Thus, the ice pack is all fresh water and was the source of our drinking water. We melted ice most of the year, but for two months of the high summer, we would pump fresh water from the numerous lakes that formed on top of the ice.  These melt ponds would be a beautiful blue in color. On the other hand, when we would come upon leads (a break in the ice pack) in the ice, the water would be as black as the blackest night. I found them actually scary, I would not get within a few feet of them. Terrified would be more like it. Even after all these years, nothing has made me feel that primordial fear like those black, black leads.

The Arctic Ocean doesn’t get very much snowfall, it’s simply too dry. So, all the ice growth comes from below. While all the ice melt or sublimation (solid, ice, becoming gas, water vapor, without turning to liquid first. Sublimation is how most of the ice disappears. Therefore, the ice pack is always growing from underneath 10 months of the year and losing ice from above throughout the year, but especially in high summer, June and July.

If you would like to know more and be up on Arctic  Sea Ice News & Analysis, check out this link, which I look at every months as I dream of cruising from Alaska to Europe one day:

http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenew

For a longer look at Wrangell’s New Year’s dunking, check out, (no translation needed):