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Time Has No Meaning at the North Pole

March 28th 2020

Glaciers

In October 2019 the icebreaker RV Polarstern sat trapped in thick sea ice atop the central Arctic Ocean—the only landmark in a vast expanse of nothingness. Another icebreaker, the Akademik Fedorov, approached it slowly, hauling a load of supplies and personnel. Scientists and crew lined the balconies of each ship, gripping the ice-crusted banisters as they peered across the void. They could see the smiling faces of their colleagues just feet away—but they were two time zones apart.

At the North Pole, 24 time zones collide at a single point, rendering them meaningless. It’s simultaneously all of Earth’s time zones and none of them. There are no boundaries of any kind in this abyss, in part because there is no land and no people. The sun rises and sets just once per year, so “time of day” is irrelevant as well.

Yet there rests the Polarstern, deliberately locked in ice for a year to measure all aspects of that ice, the ocean beneath it and the sky above. The ship is filled with 100 people from 20 countries, drifting at the mercy of the ice floe, farther from civilization than the International Space Station. I’ve been supporting communications for the mission remotely from landlocked Colorado, where time is stable. My world is a bewildering contrast to the alien one the ship’s scientists are living and working in—where time functions and feels different than anywhere else on the planet.

No Time Zones

Since the expedition began last September, the Polarstern’s time zone has shifted more than a dozen times. When the Akademik Fedorov and Polarstern parked side by side, they were still hours apart. But with no other people within hundreds of miles in all directions and with no cues from the permanently dark sky, the very concept of a time “zone” seemed meaningless.

At Earth’s other pole, time zones are quirky but rooted in utility. In Antarctica there is land and dozens of research stations scattered across thousands of square miles. At most stations, permanent buildings house laboratories, living quarters and social spaces. Each mini civilization has adopted its own time zone that corresponds with the home territory that built each place.

At the North Pole, it’s all ocean, visited only rarely by an occasional research vessel or a lonely supply ship that strayed from the Northwest Passage. Sea captains choose their own time in the central Arctic. They may maintain the time zones of bordering countries—or they may switch based on ship activities. Sitting here in my grounded office, it is baffling to think about a place where a single human can decide to create an entire time zone at any instant.

Last fall the Polarstern captain pushed the time zone back one hour every week, for six weeks, to sync up with incoming Russian ships that follow Moscow time. With each shift, the captain adjusted automatic clocks scattered around the ship. Researchers paused to watch the hands of analog clocks spin eerily backward. And every time the time changed, it jostled the delicate balance of clock-based communication—between instruments deployed on the ice, between researchers onboard, and between them and their families and colleagues on faraway land.

No Time

If drifting without established time zones isn’t alienating enough for people onboard, add the unsettling reality that there is no time of day either. What we think of as a single day, flanked by sunrise and sunset, happens just once per year around the North Pole. So I can’t help but wonder: Does a single day up North last for months? Is a year just a day long? The Polarstern was engulfed by darkness in October after a three-week-long sunset—just as the other pole saw the first bits of a three-week sunrise after months of black.

Once polar night takes over, there is only relentless darkness. Looking out from the ship's deck, a person sees a horizonless cavity—unless it is dotted by needles of light spouting from the headlamps of a couple of distant human beings at work—an otherworldly scene not unlike being on the moon.

Inside the ship is just as bizarre. How can 100 people function if there is no day, no night, no morning, no evening? The voice of the German ship captain blasting over an intercom system is the sound of a wake-up call at 8 A.M.—whenever “8 A.M.” happens to be. People file into the mess hall for meals, held at predetermined intervals. Scientists head out to the ice to check on equipment or meet in laboratories at equally rigid periods. The ship operates like a windup toy, disconnected from the spinning of the planet, which normally dictates time. “Time” is just an operational ritual, intended to create the illusion of regularity.

When scientists’ fingers are warm enough, they may occasionally send a limited satellite text to their bustling worlds far away. Communication with friends and colleagues who are in dozens of time zones involves convoluted time conversions—a reminder that the people on the ship are in suspended animation. A fleeting text message is only a momentary connection to a distant existence.

Weeks and months blur together. There’s no television, no news, no people passing by. Holidays come and go without festive displays in supermarkets or incessant holiday songs on car radios. The very concept of “December” feels fabricated. Each repetition of the operational rituals between subsequent periods of sleep feels identical, like living the same “day” again and again.

The only thing that truly reminds the team that time still ticks forward is data collection. Research instruments dot the frozen landscape around the ship, collecting measurements of the ice, the ocean, the sky—all on Coordinated Universal Time, which is based, ironically, on the position of the sun relative to Earth. The science, however, progresses undisturbed. Data collection has followed its own time since the Polarstern shoved off last September, liberated from the mental whiplash the humans endure. For the people onboard, monitoring the ever progressing data gives them a sense of the forward arrow of time. Otherwise, that sense can only come with facial hair that grows—and with the smell of fresh bread: when the odor wafts through the ship, it must be “Sunday.”

When scientists leave the Polarstern, they experience true timelessness. Some instruments are set up miles away on the ice, reachable only by helicopter. It’s so dark during the flights that researchers looking out the window can’t tell how far away the ground—or rather the ice floating on the ocean—is. The helicopter drops them on the surface and takes off again, the sound of whirring blades fading into the distance. Then it’s true silence. All sense of time is irrelevant. Researchers may be huddled together, their headlamps creating a tiny pool of light in the blackness, like astronauts floating in space. Their head is heavily bundled from the cold, so all they hear is the beating of their own heart. That rhythm becomes the only tangible measure to track the passing of time.

A polar bear guard stands watch as the researchers work, trying to scan the horizon for danger. The polar bear, the animal that actually patrols the dark, frozen landscape, has no concept of time either. Maybe the bear feels only the pulse of Earth as it spins.

What Matters May Be Experience

My first of only a few calls from Colorado to the ship involved weeks of planning and trying and failing to connect with a satellite dish up there that could be blown over or buried under snow at any moment. When I finally made a connection, I held my breath and listened to a faint ring, then a long, cold pause. The muffled, husky voice of a Russian radio attendant answered, “RV Polarstern, this is Igor.”

A few weeks later I worked to organize a San Francisco–based press conference for the expedition. Our goal: connect journalists with ship-based researchers by phone in real time. Logistics meant connecting with colleagues in five time zones on land while trying to nail down the “time” of a ship that could drift into another time zone at any instant. It felt like throwing darts blindfolded at a moving target.

We pulled it off, and soon after I was on a plane home. When the wheels hit the tarmac, I grabbed my phone to text my husband that I had landed safely. When I toggled off airplane mode, I saw the time jump from 8 P.M. to 9 P.M. in an instant. Time is weird everywhere.

Maybe time is defined not by numbers or zones or the spinning of Earth—but by what we experience. When I entered my house, I was eagerly greeted by my dogs. I fed them their dinner—their favorite “time” of day. Right about then, researchers on the ship were eating a bowl of warm oats before hitting the ice—“time” to check those instruments again.


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