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Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink (with apologies to Coleridge)

Updated Friday, 16th March 2007

Pack ice and a shortage of fresh water cause problems for the RRS James Clark Ross.

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We are currently working in at 72S 92W, a long way to the west of our usual satellite network, so I hope this message finds its way back. Our ship is breaking through the pack ice on the way to our next carefully chosen study site. Being on a ship breaking ice is a very unusual experience even to experienced sailors. Instead of a gentle roll as the ship makes way, there are constant judders, jerks and crashes as we break onwards through the ice. If you have ever sat in a vehicle being driven over very rough ground you'll have an idea of what I am talking about. It is strange, and beautiful, but no-one could call it relaxing.

Every now and then we get completely stopped by thick ice and the ship shakes to a halt with a deep rumbling noise as the engines try to keep pushing us forwards. When it happens there are only two choices, reverse the ship and try and bash through - we call this backing and ramming - or find another route.

We are grinding to a halt a lot at the moment. We came deep into the pack ice last night to do some science, and because the ice was loose with lots of gaps between the floes, we made good progress. Now we are trying to move northwards through the pack and the winds have picked up and pushed all the ice in one direction. The result? all the gaps are closing. The combined effect of the wind and low temperatures growing more sea ice means that the door is slamming shut and we are not doing so well.

Ships do get stuck in the ice. It happened to Shackleton, Scott, and Nansen, and it will happen again. And whilst we may get stuck for a few days, I am pretty sure we'll get out to move onto our next study area.

You see our problem is not getting stuck in the ice.

It's water.

Our ship can only carry so much fresh water and we are starting to run out.

James Clark Ross is a complex beast. She has to cope with getting us around, keeping us warm, doing our science, and dealing with our sewage as well as providing us with one of the most basic human needs - water.

On a two month trip like this one the ship can't possibly carry enough water for us. But that is not usually a problem as the engineers have a bit of kit that can make fresh water out of sea water. But here's the catch - they can't make fresh water when the ship is in the ice, and that's over two weeks now. Every day one of the ship's officers writes the amount of fresh water left on our science notice board: 105 tonnes, 95 tonnes, 85 tonnes down down down. The laundry on the ship has been closed and we are all taking short showers until we escape back out into the open sea.

It seems strange to worry about water when every direction I look there is ice. We can't use it though because melting icebergs would take fuel but most importantly gathering ice would take time. With limited time I am afraid the science wins.

I really am looking forward to a long shower though.

The Stange ice shelf
The Stange Ice Shelf  [Image: Mark Brandon]




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