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

alaskaDavid Kerley
Sunset over the Arctic.

"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.

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Below the Arctic Ice

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.

Before we go to bed, we are asked if we want our names on a sign-up list to be woken up if there happens to be any Aurora Borealis that night. Sure enough, around midnight, there's a knock on our door. We throw on some warm clothes and leave our hut to go outside and admire the Northern Lights we have all read about. It is eerie the way the whole sky seems to dance, ghostly formations constantly changing shape in the night sky. The greens and pinks are somewhat muted, but they are awe-inspiring all the same.

The next morning, it is cold: minus-50 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind chill. We take a short helicopter flight to where the USS Annapolis is expected to surface. After waiting for what seems like hours (although it was probably only 30 minutes), a black tower slowly starts emerging from below the ice. Like a giant creature rising from beneath the surface of the Earth, the submarine causes massive cracks, pushing up chunks of ice as it rises.

Once the submarine is up, a helicopter lifts a ramp next to the submarine, and Navy personnel attack the 3-foot-thick ice with chain saws, cutting a hole above the hatch. It takes over an hour for them to get the hatch open.

We get on board and the submarine does a "vertical dive." Vertical surfacings and vertical dives are two of the most dangerous maneuvers submarine crews conduct. They are both very slow, deliberate processes, moving the submarine very slowly backward or forward, up and down, at specific degree angles. There is little room for error.

Torpedo Exercises in Arctic Water

While underway, the crew goes through a torpedo exercise. Torpedoes act differently in the arctic water, so the crew has to make adjustments. Amazingly, divers will recover the torpedoes and swim them to a hole in the ice. The torpedoes are then hooked to a cable dangling from a helicopter that will lift them out of the water so they can be re-used. Not only are they expensive, but the Navy doesn't want to leave them behind for others to find.

It is unbelievable how much stuff they manage to cram into a submarine: 130 sailors, their gear and food for up to six months at a time. Because they have surfaced at Ice Camp in the past couple of weeks, they have been resupplied, which means more fresh food than usual.

Sleeping is a different story. We are in "9 man," which are considered spacious accommodations aboard the sub. Three racks of three bunks each. I am on the bottom, and I have to do some yoga moves to get into my berth. There is not enough room to sit up, you lift your head a little bit and you hit it on the bottom of the bunk above you. I'm too tired to read, anyways.

The next day we get up and go up to "Control," where all the action takes place. There is one video camera that looks up at the ice. Otherwise, the only way to know what ice is around you is from various sonar displays. Of the half dozen surfacings the crew will perform, this will be the most difficult. There are large ice keels (masses of ice that project downwards) off the bow and the stern. Cmd. Michael Brunner, the sub's captain, compares it to parking a car, "It's like putting a Suburban into one of the spaces marked 'compact only'."

There is a half-knot current pushing us southwest, so the idea is to line up the submarine a bit northeast of where we want to surface and let the current push us. Everything has to be right: forward speed, ascent rate, the axis, the angle. This is a nearly $1 billion piece of equipment. You do not want to slip up.

With intense focus, crew members concentrate on their particular tasks, and the submarine hits its mark dead on. Visibly relieved, Brunner asks for some water.

Surrounded by Snow, Sun and Sky

While the crew outside clears the hatch, I head up to the top of the sail, which is sticking well above the ice surface. All around is snow, sun and sky. But if the submarine were in trouble, this is proof that they can come up through ice, safely. In open water, a submarine can come up anywhere, quickly, if necessary. In the Arctic, it's a completely different ballgame. You have to look for the right spots where the ice is thin enough and flat enough. It could be a matter of survival.

We climb out, take a quick helicopter flight back to Ice Camp, and board the small plane back to Prudhoe Bay. The volcano, again, delays our flight, and we are forced to spend the night in a hotel, most of which is occupied by oil workers. The next day, the volcano erupts in the afternoon, allowing us to return to Anchorage in the morning, and get out on the final flight back to the lower 48 before any more flights are cancelled.