Ice Report


I listened to news of the incident while I finished my breakfast. I sliced the egg on my plate, swallowed coffee and thought about the plume of petrochemicals discharging into the sea. The bolus of material was expanding at an incredible rate according to the reports. It had been picked up by fast currents and distributed all over the pristine wilderness. All the newspapers carried arresting images of icebergs stained with thick, red residue.

A reporter described how hundreds of vessels were heading into the incident zone. The oil company had set up a command post in the Franz Joseph archipelago and they were flying in teams of specialists and consultants at great expense.

It was all very different to how I remembered it. In the years when I was a regular visitor to those latitudes, you still had the feeling of passage into a wild and ambivalent territory. Somewhere beyond the Faroes, time ceased its normal flow and turned inwards. Ordinary matters were soon lost in a frozen continent.

Every season you would hear stories of the operators who maddened themselves gazing out on distant walls of ice. They became convinced that there was something out there, some presence lying in wait beyond the white horizon. I was only a young man so I believed all the theories and I watched spellbound from the deck during our encounters with icebergs, the great volumes passing us silently like envoys dispatched by unseen hands.

Each was an entity with dimensions and character of its own. It might have gentle slopes, tall pinnacles, pallid domes, sheer walls. Sometimes I would look up to the edge of an ice plateau and wonder if I could climb its side, pitch a tent and sail south on its back. I wanted to follow the bergs as they charted their covert trajectories across the oceans, roaming for years and changing their faces. Sometimes they beached themselves on shingle banks and waited silently for months. They would become landmarks for us, these islands of ice, until suddenly they were gone, disappearing on a tide high enough to float their bulk.

I remember lying in my bunk and listening to the snow fall on the exterior of the hull, the future hanging on every turn of the compass. Immense and powerful, the lines of magnetism were always converging overhead.

But things never work out the way you expect. In the end it was only three years. Three years and maybe twelve voyages, bringing supplies and relief shifts to the long range transmitter stations.

Then it was back to the city and decades measured between the artificial walls of office interiors. In recent years, the only reminders of those times have come thanks to the global warming reports on the evening news and the impressive aerial shots of melting fields of ice.

Then last week, there was the disaster, and the attention of millions of people fell on the remote world of my past. Suddenly everybody was becoming an expert in pressure wells and deep-sea platforms. News audiences were informed of tidal systems and migration patterns. They were invited to weigh the needs of industry with the viability of marine habitats. There was a lot of talk about polar bears. Concerns were raised over the plight of cetaceans and sea birds.

But for me, the images recalled a different sense. Whenever I looked at those floes, it was clear that there was something else, something just on the edge of the field of vision. Perhaps it was out of phase with the cameras somehow, or simply beyond the spectra detected by our instruments.

But it was there, I was sure of it and whatever it was, it was staring straight back at us. As if the ice itself were trying to communicate something in the language of its fissures and voids. Something ancient.

I switched off the radio and listened as the house filled with silence. Then I carried the plate to the sink and filled the bowl with hot water and detergent and began to rinse the grease from its surface.