COPENHAGEN—One of the Antarctic moments frozen forever in my memory is sitting atop a mountain and watching a huge ship—still several hours away from land—charging through the ice, a reassuring beacon of humanity in the polar wilderness.
That ship, the Swedish icebreaker Oden, was making its way to the U.S. McMurdo Station, which I visited as a reporter for National Geographic News in January 2011.
Doubling as an icebreaker and a research vessel, the Oden mostly works in the polar regions, forging new paths physically and scientifically.
So when I heard the 351-foot (107-meter) long ship—the largest in Scandinavia—was open to the public for a few hours as part of the 2014 Science in the City Festival and the Euroscience Open Forum in Copenhagen, I knew I couldn’t miss out on seeing this old friend.
Today, standing before the big yellow ship, I felt a strange bond: We’d both been together in Antarctica, thousands and thousands of miles away from this sunny Scandinavian port.
My colleagues and I stepped onboard and began meeting the crew and its scientists, who were stationed throughout the several floors of the ship, which is owned by the Swedish Maritime Administration.
We learned Oden was the first non-nuclear icebreaker at the North Pole in 1991, and between 2006 and 2011 she made five successful cruises to Antarctica (meaning neither of us has been back to the southernmost continent since). Nuclear-powered icebreakers are stronger than diesel-powered ones, though they generally don’t have the same research capabilities. (Related: “What Is An Icebreaker, Really?“)
Considered one of the world’s most powerful icebreakers, the Oden can break 6 feet (1.9 meters) of ice while maintaining 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) an hour.
I actually witnessed this firsthand: Flying in a helicopter from McMurdo Station to a penguin rookery on Cape Royds in 2011, we landed on the ice near the Oden to drop off Björn Dahlbäck, general director of the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat, whom I’d met during my time at McMurdo. (See my picture of Oden in action.)
“Touching down on the ice near the Oden was a sensory bonanza, with the sound of the whipping blades and the sight of the 25,000-horsepower vessel pulverizing the ice, whitewater rapids churning at its aft.”
Here’s a video I took while landing near the Oden in Antarctica:
Talking to one of the Oden crew members, I found out Dahlbäck was onboard. So I had yet another reunion at the main bridge, the room at the front of the ship where the captains steer and strategize.
Dahlbäck remembered me and talked to us a long time about Oden‘s upcoming research expedition, its 20th, to the Arctic’s Laptev, East Siberian, and Chukchi Seas.
Some 80 scientists, mostly biogeochemists, will take part in the 100-day SWERUS-C3 expedition, whose main focus is studying methane. (Read more about methane—”good gas, bad gas”—in National Geographic magazine.)
Remote East Siberia is one of the world’s largest reservoirs for the potent greenhouse gas, which is trapped in permafrost in the region’s shallow seas. If the temperature keeps rising in the Arctic, the methane could be released into the atmosphere, Dahlbäck told us. (Also see “Antarctic Methane Could Escape, Worsen Warming.”)
“The climate models need more validated figures on methane, especially in this area of the Arctic. So Oden is going to a real hot spot this summer,” he said.
He also told us that Oden is one of only three vessels in the world that can both break tough ice and be fully equipped for research—it’s outfitted with scientific containers, laboratories, and deep-ocean winches, which basically look like giant fishing spindles and help scientists study the depths of the sea. (T-shirts in the gift shop read “Probably the best icebreaker in the world,” a riff on Carlsberg Beer’s motto.)
Other highlights on the tour included talking to an oceanographer about his climate-related research, peeking inside some of the rooms where people sleep (actually pretty nice!), and walking around the helicopter pad—the Oden has its own helicopter, which is handy when negotiating dangerous conditions.
I hope I run into the Oden again—who knows where in the world we’ll meet next.