fast ice

Alaskan painter Toni Onley once described an Arctic shoreline as “great blocks of ice thrown up in confusion—like a Cubist’s dream.” Similarly, standing on the Beaufort Sea’s shore, writer Annie Dillard (in Teaching a Stone to Talk) contemplated a “mess of ice . . . standing floes, ice sheets upright, tilted, frozen together and jammed—which extended out to the horizon.” This chaos occurs at the floe or flaw edge where pack ice, driven by wind and current, rips and shreds the seaward edge of an otherwise stable, flat, often gently nubbled, sometimes vast sheet of sea ice anchored to the land. In Shadow of the Hunter, Richard Nelson writes: “Finally the pack pressed in against the fast ice, and huge ridges began grinding together. The sight was awesome, even for men who had seen it many times before. Colossal boulders of ice turned and fell, sending shivers through the floes. Low rumblings gave voice to the incredible power before them, as the faces of ice mountains met in slow, pulverizing collisions.” Fast ice forms anew each year, with wind and ocean depth playing the most important roles in determining its extent. Iñupiaq people call this motionless expanse tuwak. Fast ice may or may not be separated from pack ice (the perpetually moving floes of annual and multi-year polar ice) by stretches of open water, called flaw leads. Eskimo hunters regularly traverse fast ice to hunt at the flaw lead, where sea mammals associated with pack ice—seals, bowhead whales, belugas, and narwhals—congregate to breathe. Here, too, is where polar bears, drawn to the floe edge by the concentration of prey, often come ashore across the reach of fast ice. From miles away hunters on tuwak may spy steam rising from a flaw lead or see a patch of dark cloud, both revealing open water. Other names: landfast floe, tuaq (Yup’ik), flaw ice. Global warming, by delaying the seasonal formation of fast ice, is threatening the ice-dependent universe of polar bear, bowhead whale, Eskimo.

Eva Saulitis