June 1, 2020
Security scholars often stress how the Arctic’s harsh environment, such as sea ice, restricts military operations. Yet, they often underspecify the extent of such restrictions and how militaries mitigate those challenges at the tactical and operational levels. To understand how ice-covered waters affect naval operations, I sailed for two weeks on the Danish warship HDMS Hvidbjørnen to observe training and patrols around the coast of Greenland. This 30-second exposure photo shows a key, but simple, technology used to mitigate the dangers of sea ice: the three beams from the ship’s “islys” (Danish for “ice lights”) converge ahead of the ship’s bow as we sailed into a storm north of the icy waters in which the Titanic sunk over a century ago. Despite advances in metallurgy and shipbuilding over the past century, sea ice remains a major hazard to navigation; islys are thus used to reveal ice that more advanced technologies like radars cannot easily distinguish amongst the waves, giving navigators valuable time to alter course. In the long winter nights at these latitudes and with help days away, islys are vital for navies’ ability to assert their national sovereignty.