Friday story time: An Iceberg Adrift

I spend many of my days researching, and I often come across strange and fascinating tales that don’t quite fit in my books. Thus, Friday story time is born. Because really, does a great story need a reason? Here’s this week’s tidbit:

March 2004

Yuri Katrayev was finishing work on the diesel generator when the ground beneath him began to shake. He heard his station chief shouting. Dropping his tools, Yuri ran from the building. And there, in the dim half-light of the Arctic winter, he saw what looked like a huge chasm opening. It was as if two giant hands had grasped the ground and ripped it apart like a piece of paper.

But it wasn’t really ground – it was ice. Yuri was part of a 12-person Russian research team stationed on North Pole-32, a floating iceberg. For almost a year, they’d been circumnavigating the north pole. In April 2003, their iceberg had been several kilometers (miles) long and as thick as a three-level parking garage. By January 2004, it was less than half that size, and cracks under the makeshift runway had caused part of it to break away. But the scientists only had a few more months to work, anyway, and glacial ice was usually very stable. They hadn’t foreseen any problems with staying on board the station until April.

Now, Yuri could see a problem. A massive, looming, crushing problem.

Like a slow-motion tidal wave, a frozen wall rose four storeys above the crevice. Massive ice chunks rolled over one another, pulverizing debris in between. It looked like an enormous meat grinder. And it was grinding its way toward the station’s buildings.

* * *

When Russian rescue officials heard of the crisis at North Pole-32, one of the first people they called was deputy parliament speaker Artur Chilingarov. Artur had circled the pole himself, and he understood exactly how difficult it would be to lift the researchers off the ice. The problem was their distance from land. Rescue helicopters had a maximum range of 1600 kilometers (994 miles). The research station was 750 kilometers (470 miles) from land, meaning a 1500-kilometer round trip with no chance to refuel. A trip of this length had never before been attempted.

Artur worked with rescue officials to devise a plan. As a backup, they enlisted the nuclear-powered icebreaker Arkitka, already in the region, to head for the station. It would be a 10-day journey and the researchers only had heating fuel left for half that time, but at least the ship was almost guaranteed to successfully make the trip.

For the main rescue effort, they sent a cargo plane and two helicopters to Spitzbergen, an island half way between the northern edge of Norway and the north pole. From there, the helicopters set off on the search.

* * *

For more than three hours, the pilot of the small Mi-8 helicopter flew through darkness. He and his co-pilot stared with strict attention at the white below. In every direction, bumpy, curled chips of glaciers and flat expanses of sea ice made a crazy puzzle out of the ocean. On one of those puzzle pieces, they would find two buildings and 12 stranded scientists.

This was uncharted territory, a constantly shifting landscape where few people had flown. And there were no landmarks – just vast stretches of water and sea ice, all shrouded by the winter darkness. If the men failed to find the research station, there were few places stable enough for them to land.

“There!”

It was a tiny splash of red amidst the white – one of the two remaining structures of the station. The tension slipped out of the pilot’s body, replaced by the thrill of success. In what seemed like seconds, he was settling the light helicopter onto the ice and emerging into the cheering circle of researchers. He couldn’t lift them off the ice – his vessel was too light and too small for so many people. But he could transmit their exact location.

Now the heavier transport helicopter – the one with larger fuel needs and an even smaller margin for error – could churn its way through the darkness with a precise target in its sights.

A few hours later, tilting slightly in the wind, the giant vessel settled onto the iceberg. And a few minutes after that, all 12 researchers and the station’s two dogs scrambled aboard.

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