Reporter's Notebook: Snow, Sky and Silence in the Arctic

alaska

"5-4-3-2-1-Impact ... Full blow"

The sounds inside the submarine USS Annapolis are wrenching as thousands of pounds of steel crush against 3 feet of solid ice atop the Arctic Circle. We surface, the sub's sail breaking all the way through the ice and the hull causing large cracks in the ice. Later, climbing out onto the sail, I look around, and I see nothing but the pure white of snow everywhere and the sun low in the sky. The calendar says it is spring, but the temperature here is beyond frigid, with the wind chill, it is minus-48 degrees Fahrenheit, coldest I've ever experienced.

We are 200 miles off the northern coast of Alaska, spending time with the U.S. Navy as it practices operating submarines in the Arctic region. Every two years, the Navy conducts these exercises to attune sub crews to the differences of operating in a polar environment. For example, torpedoes act differently because of the different salinity of frigid water and sound waves bounce off ice, making underwater communications more difficult. The Navy is also testing new sonar systems that give them a better display of the ice -- some shards can reach down more than 100 feet below the surface.

Getting here in itself was a challenge. Because of the eruption of Alaska's Mt. Redoubt -- an active volcano that erupted several times in March -- our flights to Alaska were repeatedly cancelled. Once we made it to Anchorage, we boarded another flight to Prudhoe Bay, the northern terminus of the Alaskan pipeline. Most of the plane's passengers were oil workers who make their living working on a two-week-on, two-week-off schedule in the northern reaches of Alaska.

It was a rude awakening as we stepped off the plane, and walked down the stairs (no jet bridge here) into minus-20 degree Fahrenheit weather. A quick change into multiple layers of clothing in the hangar, and we boarded a small single engine plane for the one-and-a-half-hour flight to Ice Camp. Atop an acre of Arctic ice, Ice Camp consists of a dozen plywood huts that house the four dozen or so Navy and contract personnel who have come to support the two-week mission. The Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington is responsible for building and maintaining Ice Camp. The camp's focal point is the mess tent, which is warm and has a constant supply of food and conversation.

Arctic Circle's Beauty and Silence

We spend the afternoon filming around the camp. The landscape is beautiful, but stark. Apart from the buildings and the noise of the generator, there is nothing out here, but beauty and silence. Inside the command tent, workers staff an array of computers, keeping tabs on the weather, the position of the submarine and other technical equipment.

We go outside to marvel at the sunset, which is magnificent. Because we are at the extreme northern latitudes, it seems you can see the curvature of the Earth. The sun moves laterally across the horizon almost equally as much as it goes down.

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