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Midshipman Julie Barca, Lt. John Woods and Midshipman Leah Jordan pose with the Naval Academy Flag in front of USS Annapolis(SSN-760). Photo by Lt. John Woods.

by Robert Heiler

For most students in the last year of undergraduate studies, Spring Break is supposed to be a trip to Daytona, San Diego or Myrtle Beach: a lot of warm sun, smooth sand and endless sea.

Two members of the Naval Academy’s Class of 2009 had to settle for just one out of three.

For Julie Barca of Lower Burrell, Pa., and Leah Jordan of Weston, Wis., a large percentage of the endless sea that they saw during Spring Break was frozen solid.

The two oceanography majors left Annapolis on March 13, 2009, to spend the spring break at a temporary ice camp built on the Arctic Ocean during Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2009 off the north coast of Alaska. They were accompanied by Naval Academy oceanography instructor Lt. John Woods. ICEX offered the first class midshipmen a once in a lifetime chance for hands on application of their academic studies as well as chance to board Annapolis while she was surfaced.

For Jordan, the unique environment of the Arctic Ocean brought her senior project to life. Her research is focused on the relationship between plate tectonics and tsunami generation—and the under-ice environment gave her a new perspective.

“The interaction between the ice floes,” Jordan said, “The way it collided and formed ridges, or broke apart, visually illustrated what I was studying.”

The motion of that ice and its relation to air temperatures was the main focus of Barca’s research. The opportunity to go to ice camp changed her perspective on that research as well.

“It gave me great hands-on experience to see the information that I was gathering from books actually being applied in real research environments,” Barca said. “Everything that I had been studying really came to life when I was actually walking on the ice.”

In addition to the surroundings, both midshipmen were inspired by the teamwork and organization of the people they got to work with.

“I definitely gained a significant amount of appreciation for the work that goes into coordinating the exercises,” Barca said. “The people were incredible. Everyone was intelligent and interesting, and they really made the trip worthwhile.”

Jordan added, “Everyone had something to contribute to the functioning and success of ICEX and that impressed me. It really solidified the idea that we’re all working toward one goal, in one fight.”

Lt. Woods, their instructor, said he was surprised by the nature of the cold.

“It was pretty consistently 40 below wind chill, but it is amazing how 40 below feels during the day compared to the nighttime,” Woods said. “What is somewhat bearable for short periods of time during the day, is nowhere close to being bearable at night.”

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USSAnnapolis(SSN-760) on the surface at sunset. Photo by Lt. John Woods.

But for Jordan, braving that nighttime chill had its rewards. She was struck by “how alien and beautiful the landscape really is, particularly at night.

“When the wind had finally calmed and the air settled around 20 to 30 degrees below, I ventured out and saw the sky as I had never seen it before” she said. “Bright, countless stars everywhere and the shape-shifting light show of the Aurora Borealis.

“That sight is something I will never forget.”

Mr. Heiler is the production manager for UNDERSEA WARFARE Magazine.