Monday, May 30, 2011

Ice Blink; Mahogany Flotsam (Captain Hatteras 2)

Charles W. Swithinbank, Ice Blink photograph, from Illustrated Glossary of Snow and Ice. Cambridge,  Scott Polar Research Institute, 1969.


Soon the flocks of birds, more and more numerous, petrels, puffins, and warblers, inhabitants of these desolate shores, showed they were nearing Greenland.  The Forward was heading north at speed, leaving to leeward a long trail of black smoke.

        At about eleven on Tuesday, 17 April, the ice-master reported the first sight of ice blink. [1]  It was at least twenty miles to the north-north-west .  Despite the very thick clouds, this strip of dazzling white brightly lit up the whole of the atmosphere near the horizon.  Experienced sailors on board could not mistake this phenomenon, recognizing from its whiteness that the blink had to come from a vast field of ice situated about thirty miles beyond the range of vision, being even produced by a reflection.

[1]   The remarkable, resplendent colour the air becomes when above a great extent of ice.

"Ice Blink",  photograph, Joanna Bury, 2005

Atlantic Puffin in Iceland


Attributed to William Hodges, R.A. (1744-97), Ice Islands with Ice Blink, 1773

“Hence, gentlemen, it must be agreed that America is completely detached from the polar landmasses and the waters of the Pacific move around its coasts and into the Atlantic.  Anyway the greater height of the waters of the Pacific is another confirmation that they flow toward the seas of Europe.”

         “But there must be facts supporting this theory, and if there are”, Shandon added with a certain irony, “our universal savant will surely know them.”  

Narwhal whales "tusking" in Arctic waters 

         “Upon my word”, replied the latter with pleasant  satisfaction, if it interests you, I will say that whales wounded in the Davis Strait were captured sometime later near Tartary with European harpoons in their flanks.” 

        “So, unless they rounded Cape Horn or Cape of Good Hope, they must necessarily have gone round the northern coast of America.  That’s indisputable, doctor.”

        “If, however, you were still not convinced, my good Shandon,”  said the doctor smiling, “I could produce further facts, such as the flotsam Davis Strait is full of, larches, aspens, and other tropical wood species.  Now we know that the Gulf Stream would prevent this wood from entering the strait, so when it comes out it can only have got in through the Bering Strait.”

Flotsam: Lifeboat from the Edmund Fitzgerald, 1976

         “I’m convinced, doctor, and I admit that it would be hard to remain a disbeliever with you around.”

           “Upon my word,” said Johnson, “abreast is a timely illustration of what we’re talking about.  I can see a piece of wood of fine size; if the commander allows we’ll go and fish out this tree-trunk, hoi it on board, and ask  it what country it hails from.”

"a piece of wood of fine size"

            “Good idea” said the doctor; “the example after the rule.”

               Shandon gave orders; the brig headed for the piece of wood and soon the crew had hauled it on deck, not without difficulty.

               It was a mahogany trunk, gnawed by worms to its very heart – otherwise it could not have floated.

Duke, the "Dog-Captain", moving the story forward

Herbert Ponting, Ice Grotto within ice-berg, 1911

Petrel chick

Black-cap warbler

Reader Note 1: Inevitable musical accompaniment is Iceblink Luck by Cocteau Twins

Reader Note 2:  Text excerpted from the marvelous  The Adventures of Captain Hatteras by Jules Verne (1864).  Translation with an Introduction and Notes by William Butcher.  New York, Oxford University Press, 2005.    For previous Captain Hatteras post, please see Here.

Reader Note 3:   Cause and effect explanation.  Steamy, fevering heat arrived in SE Pennsylvania several days ago when the air conditioning was broken (an icicle or sharp branch severed by the winter storms slashed a compressor wire) and seems already to have assumed its all-summer berth.   Although a/c systems are once again "go", for a number of reasons, including the differing internal thermostats of the residents of Signal Hill and their varying degrees of "influence", things are cooling down quite slowly here.  Reading The Adventures of Captain Hatteras chills and clears the air; this meteorological aspect of reading Verne's novel should be the subject of someone's book column somewhere or possibly (my favorite notion always) a one-act play.  I intend to explore William Hodges' career here in more detail in the future.  Things have been connecting up happily (I think) and unexpectedly of late.

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