Lead

When we fly into Utqiagvik (Barrow), we come across the ocean, and on Monday there was a wide lead open northwest of the point and clearly visible on the descent. The whaling crews were setting camps. Everyone was excited the the season had begun, but the winds did not remain in our favor.

The next day we drove snow machines out onto the ice, mapping the trails of the whaling crews. But the lead was closing. The crews were hurrying towards shore. The lead may have been a mile wide at the start of the day, but by evening kilometers of ice sheet had snapped shut. It would remain shut for a fortnight.

Two days later we went back out on the ice. No hope of getting to the open water, but Kate wanted to put a hydrophone down through a crack and listen for whales. Where two days before one captain had set his camp at the edge of ocean, the landscape was now jumble ice and pressure ridges where the sheets had crushed back together.

We found water, but the slush was too thick and too deep to sink the hydrophone. We fell back, a half mile closer to shore, where there was a significant crack in the sheet. There we listened to the ocean under the ice, and ourselves, restless on top. From below, the sheet was a massive drum head and our slightest scuffle was clear as bells at night in the dark water below.

We listened to the alien, spiraling tones of bearded seals, but we heard no whales. The lead and their breathing corridor closed, they passed farther out to sea.

—Thanks to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management; the Cooperative Institute for Alaska Research; the Center for Global Change and Arctic System Research; University of Alaska Coastal Marine Institute & School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences (2013)

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