Time is all about measure and rhythm. When those factors are missing, we experience it as something viscous and unreal. This is what happens when, for example, there is no alternation between day and night. On board the Polarstern, the research vessel of the Alfred Wegener Institute, I need to set my own rhythm. In the cabin shared with photographer Ingo Arndt, I draw the bleached curtain when my watch tells me it’s time to go to sleep. Beyond the cabin porthole, the huge expanse of pack ice to which we are moored continues to gleam in the late December sun. Here, in the Weddell Sea, off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, it is spring, and as bright as day virtually around the clock. Only around midnight does the sun dip toward the edge of our frozen world and set the ice on fire as it briefly touches the horizon.
Naturally, there must be some objective measure of time on board — one which is absolutely sure, and can’t be stretched, even though that would be handy when transmitting huge volumes of data back to the University of Leiden. And one that can’t be compressed either, even if there is an inevitable feeling of homesickness after months on end in this white wilderness.
Aboard the Polarstern, a master clock from Wempe shows Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which is definitive for the whole vessel: not only for “Slushy” in the galley, whose job is to ensure regular mealtimes, and for the captain on the bridge, who needs to know when the watch is up, but also for the ship’s own communications network, which sets the time for all the computers and equipment connected up to it. This system makes it possible to log commands to the second and also enables researchers to synchronize their own, system-independent watches with UTC before they leave the vessel.