Below the Polar Ice Cap

[Image: Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy, via the New York Times].

At one point in college I worked at the school's student radio station, where everyone would write mini-reviews onto white stickers placed on the front covers of CDs – but there was one album I remember that sounded, someone wrote, "like the dream of a submarine's machinist passing under the polar ice cap," a description which has stuck with me to this day.
So I was interested to see an article this morning in the New York Times about a "brotherhood of submariners" during the Cold War who had their own "doomsday preparations," weaving in and out of the polar ice.
In 1970, for instance:
    In great secrecy, moving as quietly as possible below treacherous ice, the Queenfish, under the command of Captain Alfred S. McLaren, mapped thousands of miles of previously uncharted seabed in search of safe submarine routes. It often had to maneuver between shallow bottoms and ice keels extending down from the surface more than 100 feet, threatening the sub and the crew of 117 men with ruin.

    Another danger was that the sub might simply be frozen in place with no way out and no way to call for help as food and other supplies dwindled.
Of course, this suggests an image of abandoned submarines embedded in the Arctic ice, becoming architectural – well-machined pieces of landscape, officially unacknowledged and governmentally unclaimed.
After this mission, in particular, we read, "the Arctic became a theater of military operations" – and a place to play polar hide and seek.

[Image: Map courtesy of the New York Times, based on information from Unknown Waters by Alfred S. McLaren].

The navigational challenges presented by ice are apparently quite daunting, on the other hand: "ice dangling from the surface in endless shapes and sizes made the sub's main eyes – sonar beams that bounce sound off the bottom and surrounding objects – work poorly." That is, you'd detect whole ghost geographies out there, made of misdirected pings and echoes, passing through transparent landforms of sound that don't exist.
But moving into these sorts of ethereal terrains was all part of the larger strategy of modern statecraft: if the Cold War was anything, it was the exhibition of sovereign intent upon landscapes outside of national borders – whether that's Vietnam, Afghanistan, or the self-transforming mobile echo chambers of ice that drifted in and out of polar darkness, with strange machines whirring by in the waters below.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

What was the record that sounded "like the dream of a submarine's machinist passing under the polar ice cap?"

- alison

March 18, 2008 10:20 PM  
Blogger BotanicidalIntaglio said...

I wonder what a sub-arctic iceberg topology would look like if you tried to map it out, nooks, crannys, and all.

Imagine creating sub-arctic iceberg communities using a series of submerged submarines - old and new - to escape from the political reality of the surface world. I wonder how said communities would prevail in a world raged by 'global warming' (in its many potential climactic forms) if it could sustain itself.

March 18, 2008 10:45 PM  
Blogger doug l said...

Excellent article and I enjoyed reading it. Its implications are at least as deep as the seas through which these submariners travelled.
However, while I realize this is intended as a piece of popular literatary journalism focusing on science and technology, the use of the term "Polar Ice Cap" is inaccurate. An "ice cap" in geologic definitions is usually reserved for an accumulation on land that is a thick layer of glacial ice several thousand meters in depth such as covers the continent of Antarctica, the island (or sub continental land mass) of Greenland and up until the late Pleistocene the northern portions of North America and by some definitions, portions of northern Eurasia. Technically what covers the Arctic Ocean is, or was, the permanent polar pack ice, measuring tens of meters thick; orders of magnitude less in mass than actual polar ice caps. It sounds trivial in one sense but precision in definition is important if we are to find agreement as to what is happening to the planets' climate and the devil, as they say, is in the details. I have seen the fact that in recent times it has been reduced by 50% in summer compared to historical records of its extent and alludes to rising sea levels, though in fact ice that is already floating as the permanent sea ice of the Arctic is, has already displaced its mass and just as ice cubes in a drink will not cause the level of the drink to rise in the glass as they melt, neither will the replacement of sea ice with its melted form.

March 19, 2008 8:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reminds me of the time I went to see the nautilus museum in CT.
The one thing that stuck in my mind was a little placard that stated this Sub circumnavigated the globe on a piece of uranium the size of a golf ball

March 19, 2008 10:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glacial creaks and moans... Reminds me of this art installation from last year.

March 19, 2008 11:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kimik, have you read a book called "The Scar" by British writer China Mieville? In said book he sets the events in an overseas community similar to what you mention, except that this one is made of shipwrecks and and whole ships captured by the pirate society that lives in said community, you might like it if steampunk science fiction is your thing.

March 20, 2008 12:27 AM  
Blogger BotanicidalIntaglio said...

To Anonymous,

thanks for the recommendation. I'll definitely have to check it out because steampunk + sci-fi + pirates sounds awesome.

March 20, 2008 6:54 PM  
Blogger Geist said...

In Alexander Kluge's The devil's blind spot, in the short section titled "Weakness of the perspective of nuclear war", a military scenario is explained where a submarine hides "in subterranean lakes, deep below the Sahara." While this submarine was placed there for water-research purposes (the lakes' waters being supposed to hold information about the Ice age), it suddenly becomes a 'theoretic' player in a nuclear scenario between Europe and the US.
A. Kluge, Die Lücke, die der Teufel läßt, Suhrkamp, pp. 528-30.

March 28, 2008 11:18 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Fascinating - I'm going through old journals today (5/24/08) and I just found that the phrase I mentioned here - "the dream of a submarine's machinist passing under the polar ice cap" - actually came from the record company. I remembered it wrong.

And it was referring to this album - which is funny, because I don't ever remember listening to it.

In all lower-case: "the dream of a submarine's machinist passing under the polar ice cap, merging the night shifts solitude, a pulsating engine ambience and melodies and voices from his memories of 'surface' times..." Like William Burroughs.

So that's the real story, I guess.

May 24, 2008 7:25 PM  

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