Vigil in Prague Square
By CLYDE H. FARNSWORTH,
Floating Polar Station Turns and Breaks Up
By CLYDE H. FARNSWORTH
Published: New York Times March 24, 1992
RESOLUTE, Northwest Territories— A PERIPATETIC island of 3,000-year-old freshwater ice about the size of Larchmont, N.Y., has taken an unexpected turn in the Arctic Ocean and started breaking up.
This is bad news here at the base of the Polar Continental Shelf Project, Canada's 33-year-old logistics support operation for scientific research in the far north.
The ice island, five miles long, one and a half miles wide and 150 feet thick, had served since 1984 as a polar research center, housing scientists studying everything from sea-floor temperatures and deep earth structures to the Arctic food chain.
Costly Research Equipment
In addition to laboratories and expensive scientific equipment, the ice station also packed underwater listening devices for the military to keep track of the nuclear submarines that routinely ply the Arctic waters.
At what scientists like to call the "calving" point -- the Ward Hunt ice shelf at the northern tip of Ellesmere Island, 500 miles from the North Pole -- a billion-ton "calf" snapped off the glacier in 1982. Geologists say such phenomena occur at Ellesmere only once in a generation.
Polar Shelf installed about 20 permanent structures, including dormitories, laboratories, a mess hall, administration building, weather station and power plant.
Expectations were that the huge mass of fresh water ice would be borne off by the currents that slowly move the ice pack at the top of the world. So the ice island, caught up in the flow, could then circle along the fringes of the Arctic Ocean for decades, yielding copious data about earthquakes, climatic changes and other natural phenomena best studied in the polar regions.
Such had actually been the case with an earlier Ellesmere "calf," so-called Fletcher's Island or T-3, born in the 1940's. Manned by the United States in the 1950's and 1960's, it made three swings around the North Pole, serving as not only an invaluable scientific platform but a Cold War listening post. A Wrong Left Turn
From the other side of the pole similar islands "calved" by ice shelves in Siberia have drifted into Canadian waters, including one currently northwest of Prince Patrick Island, about 400 miles northwest of Resolute.
In its initial years, Canada's ice island, on which as many as 40 researchers worked at one time on a variety of oceanographic studies, coasted along the predicted course, drifting southwest about 300 miles toward the Beaufort Sea.
But somewhere between Meighen Island and Ellef Ringnes Island, the behemoth of packed glacial ice, which workers here say sliced through sea ice like a knife through butter, turned left and swung due south into the Peary channel, instead of staying on the southwesterly course.
The surprise turn occurred last November, and then suddenly the island, caught up in a new and faster current, went to the races.
im Godden, the Polar Shelf base manager at Resolute, said it covered another 300 miles in only 16 weeks -- sometimes moving as fast as two miles an hour -- to reach its current position in February, locked between the frozen land and winter sea ice in Queen's Channel just northeast of Baring Island, 80 miles north of Resolute.
Mr. Godden and the ice island manager, Claude Brunet, are hurrying to remove millions of dollars of structures and equipment before new destabilization occurs, or before pieces of the island are carried so far away during the summer melt that recovery would be too costly.
Mr. Godden, a 38-year-old electronics technician from Nova Scotia who has been with the Polar Shelf program since 1975, said that while the left turn was a disappointment, the station had already provided useful data on the dynamics of the ocean's ice cover, climatic conditions, sea floor temperatures, seismic refraction and other areas of oceanography.
"You can't complain about its cost effectiveness," he said.
Sometime during the long night of the past winter, luckily with no one aboard, the island broke into three chunks. The weather hut, which had been near the main structures, now stands isolated across a hellish broken field of pressure ridges and windblown snow.
A third shard holds equipment of the National Research Council, an Ottawa agency that organized some of the island's scientific activities.
Eight men led by Mr. Brunet, a 42-year-old mechanic from Quebec, now work on the island, salvaging equipment that is carted back to the Resolute Polar Shelf base by Twin Otters, the workhorse twin-prop of the far north.
Later a Sikorski S-61 helicopter will help with some of the heavier lifting, like tons of coring equipment, which had been dropped through a hole gouged out of the ice to bring up samples of ocean floor to test for hydrocarbons.
The flight north is over the length of Cornwallis Island, a forbidding desertscape of bald, undulating, white hills streaked with arresting grays, greens and blues as light plays over the scene from a remote, pale and unfriendly sun.
A few minutes across the frozen sea above the north coast of Cornwallis and the Twin Otter begins its descent toward an anomalous cluster of bright red and blue huts and a Canada's maple leaf flag, stiff in the high frigid wind. The plane hits the icy runway hard and taxis to a forklift truck.
Men whose faces can barely be seen in their heavy hooded jackets are standing by in temperatures of minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit to load the plane. Despite the hazards, there are few complaints.
Asked how he liked it here, Guy Densmore, 44 years old, of Halifax, one of the loaders, replied: "Fantastic. I love it." Pay of close to $20 an hour and free room and board are part of the encouragement.
Mr. Brunet said the biggest concern was neither the temperature nor the isolation, but polar bears. Men inside the huts sleep with shotguns by their side to ward off any hungry prowlers.
The island has not only been important for research; it has also helped Canada exercise sovereignty over a region that in recent years has been subjected to a number of intrusions, ranging from United States and Russian submarines to the wanderings of nomadic Greenlanders.
Polar Shelf officials have long been aware of these concerns. Mr. Brunet predicted the dismantling would be completed by May. Asked what would be last off, he replied swiftly and with a grin: "The flag."
Photo: Claude Brunet, manager of ice island, which broke into three chunks during the long winter night, separating the camp's facilities. (Clyde H. Farnsworth/The New York Times) Maps of Canada showing locations of the path of Ice Island, and the present location of Ice Island.