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Jean McNeil
Jean McNeil

Jean McNeil is the author of ten books; her novels and a collection of short fiction are published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. She is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing and co-convenor of the MA in Prose Fiction at the University of East Anglia.

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Speed of Ice

Bicycling to Greenland

August 3rd, 2009. Drawing my curtain at the Falmouth Beach Hotel on Gyllyngvase Beach at 5.30 this morning onto palm trees, thick droplets of rain falling from their razored leaves. The beach is deserted in the fog and wind.

          After breakfast a van arrives to take us to the ship via a pilot boat. We speed several miles out to sea and there she is, materialising out of the fog, the James Clark Ross, a 99-metre long ice-strengthened polar research vessel, painted in startling red-and-white lighthouse livery. Falmouth harbour is too busy for the ship to come alongside, so out here ships stand by on their DP (dynamic positioning) systems, stacked like planes at Heathrow. We climb aboard, spotted, due to the rough weather, by a horde of seamen, and plunk ourselves onto a deck lashed with warm rain.

          We all shake hands and I see some familiar faces. I’ve been on this ship to the Antarctic, in the Falkland Islands and in Scotland; returning feels like coming home. In a sense I have never not been on this ship; I did some of my best writing on it, I’ve been stuck in pack ice on it, I met someone I loved on it – although this long ago, now. But, most importantly, the ship was my first experience of the polar regions and of the stern magic of ice.

          In six days we will be in Greenland, and we will have bicycled there. The ship travels at an average speed of about 12 knots – cycling speed. I’ve been to sea several times but never crossed the Atlantic before. Up on the bridge, looking at the lonely transect of the North Atlantic we will sail, it’s hard to believe we can cover that distance at such modest speed. ‘We’re just bimbling along, but it’s the fact were doing it constantly that means we cover the ground,’ observes Alex Spooner, the Third Mate.

          The following Sunday night we will pass the southernmost tip of Greenland, Kap Farvel (in English, Cape Farewell), and begin the science. We are a group of scientists (and one writer) from the UK, US, Norway and Canada. Until then the ship will be not only a means of transport but a life-support system, a society, not to mention one of the most capable polar marine science platforms in the world. Because the ship will not touch land until it arrives back in the UK in five weeks’ time, we carry 221 tonnes of fresh water, and we are able to make a further 40 tonnes per day using two fresh water flash evaporators. In the tanks are 1,236 cubic meters of Marine Gas Oil for fuel. The food stores contain 20kg of black pudding, 40 large Red Leicester wedges, 192 beef burger portions and 10 boxes of iceberg lettuce, which will either wilt or be eaten in three weeks’ time, leaving us unhappily salad-less.

          Before we clear the English Channel the Captain orders an abandon-ship drill, although, thankfully, having just stepped aboard, we don’t actually have to get off. We do a lifeboat drill in the rain, struggle into and out of our survival suits and tie ourselves in knots with the bulky life jackets – a kind that ‘haven’t been used since the Titanic,’ jokes Purser Richard Turner.

          Emergency drills over, we set out to sea, following the Scilly Isles Traffic Separation Scheme, then round to the south of Ireland. Outside it is warm and humid. But soon we will turn and head north, into cold.

‘Gone is the Bowl of Winter’

The Arctic point of no return passed in September 2007, when the sea ice extent in the region was at its lowest in recorded history. In Alaska, indigenous people say ‘the earth is faster.’ In Siberia they say ‘gone is the bowl of winter.’ The bowl used to have depth and bite – those long weeks in January and February when bitter temperatures reigned. Now the bowl is a plate. From its edges slips the land’s memory of deep cold. All over the Arctic the seasons come sooner, the weather changes more quickly and is more volatile. It is as if the pulse of the planet itself is quickening. We are becoming accustomed to the idea that the three remaining great ice sheets of the world – of which Greenland is one – could suddenly collapse. But even while the awareness advances on us with speed, we have so far been unable to muster the admittedly complex international consensus necessary to stop this slide. In climate change science, the previous target of trying to limit the earth’s warming to a two degrees Celsius rise is being quietly abandoned in favour of a more realistic four-degree rise, and what are called, in policy circles, ‘adaptation scenarios’.

          Although it has a major role to play in global warming, the glacial past of Greenland, and in particular of its coastal waters, has been surprisingly little investigated. Most of the money and attention has gone to the Antarctic. However, recently the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) has declared its interest in beefing up the UK’s contribution to Arctic science. Our science cruise is one of these initiatives. Its goal is to study the behaviour of a major ice stream in Greenland in the Late Quaternary – the last few hundred thousand years. To do this we will be running the ship over the seabed where this ice stream is thought to have once exited, as well as sidling up to actual present-day ice streams, some of them the fastest-flowing in the world. Anne Jennings of the University of Colorado, whose work focuses on the glacial history of the Laurentide (North American) ice sheet, tells me ‘the fate of the Greenland ice sheet is important. It’s sitting in the middle of ocean circulation systems which affect the European climate.’

          At sea one evening the Chief Scientist and leader of the expedition, Colm O’Cofaigh from the University of Durham, gives an illustrated talk to a packed audience of scientists, officers and seamen. Eighty per cent of Greenland is covered in ice, he explains, and there is roughly 2.8 million km2 of it. The coastal fringe of the continent is rimmed by mountains; behind these, the ice cap rises to a plateau. From it, ice streams drain the ice from the interior down to the sea. We will take the ship to the mouth of the Jakobshaven Isbrae, the fastest-flowing ice stream on the continent, which single-handedly drains over 7of the total mass of the Greenland ice shelf; each day it pushes some 20 million tonnes of ice into Baffin Bay. Since 1997 there has been a marked acceleration in its speed; before that date it was moving at 6 to 7 km per year, but recently its speed has almost doubled to 13km per year – a shocking acceleration. Virtually alone among ice streams in the world, you can actually see this vast river of ice moving with the naked eye.

          As Colm explains, to know the future you must look at the past. To do this, we will look at marine sediments. We carry a vibrocorer, on hire from the British Geological Survey, which has sent a team of four to work the machine. We will also use EM120 multibeam Swath bathymetry, a TOPAS ocean floor sub-bottom profiler, a CTD (conductivity, temperature and depth) water column profiler, and a box corer – a box sent down to the sea bed to collect surface sediments. ‘The vibrocorer is the best way to get at the sediment – and it gives better quality samples,’ explains Aoibheann Kilfeather, a postdoctoral research assistant. Aoibheann will put in long hours working in the wet lab, as the deck-level aft lab is called, logging these cylinders of mud and silt, interpreting the sedimentology in order to give a picture of the rate that the ice removed itself from the world at the end of the last ice age, and which should point to what may happen in the near future to Greenland.

          The dread of future collapse scenarios seems a long way from our study. We are paleo people involved in looking at the ancient climate, and so are aware that in its long history the planet has changed radically, passed through periods of warming and cooling called cyclotherms. In this world, the advent of human civilisation is a relatively recent and not entirely important occurrence. On our cruise the atmosphere is positive, purposeful, inquiring; no-one talks about future doom. This is the value of science and the illumination it offers: to see the darkness ahead, if that is what it will be for us as a species, we must first have light.

‘But what are you sinking?’

In the mid-Atlantic we get used to washing our hair with one hand using the other to hold on to the shower handrail. Down in the empty cargo hold we do circuit training three times a week, courtesy of Richard the Purser (his adverts – ‘Iron Man or Pie Man?’ – went up in the bar on our first day at sea, but many people were too seasick to join in), skipping rope as the ship lunges up to meet us, riding a giddy set of pushups as the ship slips down the waves.

          After a lavish four-course meal in the saloon, we gather to chat in an amiable, desultory manner. Captain Jerry reveals himself as a raconteur. Master of the JCR for 15 years, he is one of a select group of Ice Masters, men (and they are almost all men) able to take a ship into patently dangerous Antarctic and Arctic waters. Jerry tells us his German Coastguard joke: ‘the German Coastguard on duty, responding to a Mayday transmission, "I am sinking" from a foundering vessel, inquires of the Captain aboard, "Yes, but what are you sinking?”’ (Jerry admits it works best out loud). Outside we are shipping spray over the fo’csle. Once in awhile a ‘gopher’ – a large wave – douses the Bridge. ‘Could get a bit lumpy,’ Jerry says, casting an eye out the window at the waves.

          Last night the clocks were put back another hour and we gain time; now we are GMT -2, or three hours behind the UK. Unlike in a plane, on a ship you head slowly backwards and forwards through time. Soon our investigations will take us much further than a few time zones into the past in staged leaps: back to 18,000 years ago, the time of the Last Glacial Maximum, then to 45,000, then half a million years ago. I feel released from the concerns of the present into a distant, near-mythical past when both poles were covered with ice sheets, one extending as far as London. When ice, not heat, was master of the world.


A few days later a grey morning finds us in the middle of Baffin Bay. The GPS screen shows our plot points, a crazy grid of back-and-forth, turning the ship in increasingly smaller boxes –‘lawnmowing’ the ship’s officers call Swathing, not entirely fondly. It must look suspicious on the radar systems of the Canadian and Danish authorities, who have been alerted via diplomatic channels of our purpose; still, the Canadian military sends a C-130 to check on us, its grey bulk startling us as it flies low over the ship.

          The Swath bathymetry system works by sending out sonic beams from the bottom of the ship to the ocean floor; this constructs a grid which is then turned by a computer into a morphological picture of the seabed itself. Down in the UIC lab (Underway Instrument Control Laboratory – we all agree it’s a catchy name), Jeff Evans from the University of Loughborough, Colm and Riko Noormets from UNIS, a Norwegian University in Svalbard, monitor the screens for any missed patches or abnormalities. There is a five-minute hiatus before the lawnmowing marks are turned into the three-dimensional picture, then we watch as the bottom of the sea slowly etches itself across the computer screen. ‘That’s a scour,’ Colm says. Even an untrained eye such as mine can detect a deep depression, most likely made by a gigantic ancient iceberg as it scraped along the seabed.

          On the Bridge, Alex leans over the Danish charts of the area, recording our half-hourly positions. Here, our lives depend on maps – the paper charts, GPS microplots, Dartcom weather satellite images. The Swath bathymetry runs draw their own real-time maps on the monitors in front of us.

          It occurs to me that we are all drawing maps, although using different methods. The difference between the scientists and me is that they are drawing in knowledge, forensically exploring the detail of a particular conundrum and what it tells us about our world. Meanwhile I am in search of an inchoate mystery, entranced by trying to construct a vision of a distant pre-human past and make it relevant to the present and the future. Anne Jennings agrees: ‘Geological history is good for the imagination. You have facts, you have results, but it’s more of an interpretation. No-one has data which can tell you what is really true.’

          We Swath by day for safety in these largely unsurveyed waters, because we need the visibility to keep the ship on its predetermined lines, and core by night, the ship held still on DP in the diluted indigo. At 71 degrees north, according to the GPS, the sun sets at 22.36 and rises at 4.16, but actually it merely skirts the horizon. The angle of the sun, the sea and the presence of ice collude to produce compelling visual effects: the setting sun is black, oval; mirages morph on the horizon – boots, castles, oil rigs. In these waters, we are almost alone. Occasionally the MV Bergen, a seismic exploration ship – prospecting for oil, probably – comes into view, or we glimpse the Royal Arctic Line ferry, which supplies many of the coastal communities in Greenland, dashing into port. I take to watching the odd transatlantic plane streak through empty skies with binoculars. We are now above the Arctic Circle and well into polar waters. Terns and fulmars skim the black viscous surface, accompanied by twin chaperones – their own reflections, mirrored on the waves.


On August 15th we glide through the floating sculpture garden of the Jakobshaven Isbrae. Jim the electronics engineer, Rich the Purser and I go up onto the fo’csle and stand in our shirtsleeves drinking wine from a bottle resting on the top of a winch as the ship moves at a wary speed among fields of recently ejected bergs.

          From the Antarctic I remember that ice is almost indescribable without resorting to comparison and allusion: cathedrals, tors, catapults with their hems of turquoise meltwater; some are sooty with shale and debris carried from far inland, others pristine, threaded with pale blue veins of transparent ice. The water is ink and the sky that insolent, lordly blue of the poles. We creep by the ruined ice palaces. Closer to the mouth of the ice stream the ice hisses with disintegration. Then a crack as an entire slice peels away and collapses. The sea around the calving site broils, and an icy wave a couple of metres high advances toward the ship.

          At sea in the polar regions I have always felt as if the world is allowing me to witness it instead of my using it as a platform for my existence, and the privilege and gratitude I feel give birth to a frenzied rapture, an awestruck love for the planet. The thrill is not only about seeing icebergs and the stern unseen coasts, the ice streams that thread themselves like frozen waterfalls through clefts in the Greenlandic basalt, but also, I realise, to do with the ship. We are of this environment but set apart, in thrall to it, wary of it. We are a self-sustaining bubble, rippling in a strange duet between safety and threat. On the ship our minds are made alert by vulnerability even while our bodies are cosseted. Also, I can feel the distinct self-absorption, the steely will of destiny here; the Arctic and the Antarctic are the planet’s future, not only because even a slow disintegration will eventually threaten much of our largely coastal civilisation, but also because they are its past; the last ice sheets the world may ever know carry the memory of the earth within them. This is what glaciology and ice coring have given us: by reading the past, we can know the future. Ice is an oracle, however accidental or reluctant.

          I leave the ship with its four-course dinners and circuit training and atmosphere of serious endeavour and emerge back into the shore-bound world. In Ilulissat, girls in singlets and shorts walk down the streets; at 17 degrees it is like Ibiza for them. Half-feral huskies slink after me through streets lined with frost-shattered water pipes. The town is built on lumps of black basalt. Fat floury flies the same dun colour as the sphagnum moss that covers the sharp dark rock launch themselves into my mouth.

          Those of us who have disembarked go on a 5km walk to see the ice stream, which flows out into the sea just south of Ilulissat. The heat of the sun, the aridity of the air, the brittle glare of the ice-choked bay are exhausting. On the way we see the usual Arctic off-season detritus: rusting Skidoos, Nansen sledges, and sled dogs – nearly 5,000 of them in Ilulissat alone, idle for the summer, waiting for the return to winter. Here, winter is the real season; summer is only a fever dream, each year more intense.

          For me, another story has begun to etch itself into existence, taking shape and dimension like the Swath images of a long-unseen ocean floor. While I haven’t been out of the so-called real world for very long, shore life still shocks me with its strangers, its lack of collective activity, or of the desultory yet illuminating conversations that ship life encourages, with its gracious routines and seemingly endless time. I have been here before, emotionally, although at the opposite cold node of the world. The Arctic, the Antarctic – for me they have been a bipolar rollercoaster, a strange ecstasy and a bottomless desolation. I’ve made solemn pledges in the past to be more equanimous, but here departing – whether it be from the ship, or the base, from friends or the environment – has never been an ordinary leave-taking, rather a rupture, an abandonment, of myself as much as of the place: a perverse unretractable species of self-abandonment.

          Perhaps this is because finality hangs over the polar regions, and it is hard to fail to perceive them through a lens of perpetual endings. By around 2040, when my life will likely have ended or be ending, Ilulissat may be as much as five degrees warmer than it is now. The ice stream will still be there, but I wonder how the town will have changed. Already the winter sea ice is thinning drastically. Eight hundred miles away as the crow flies, in some communities in Nunavut in northern Canada, evacuation plans are being drawn up for some future but unnamed date. But for now, in this melt carnival of a rapidly changing Arctic, I am a privileged witness to the last ice age the planet may ever know, an abstract and extreme gift.

          At 11pm the sun approaches Disko Bay, its waters now plated with the cold gold of a polar sunset. The ship is out there, gliding stately among the bergs, although I cannot see it. At the tables in the restaurant of the Hotel Arctic sit Danish tourists; they turn their flint eyes on the spectacle in unsmiling silence. But the huskies rise and howl as the sun is extinguished in the red glare of ice.



Click here to read Jean’s response in verse to her Greenland experience.



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