Hokkaido’s Drift Ice: Nature’s Masterpiece
In northern Japan, one can commune with nature and hungry sea gulls
Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido offers winter-loving visitors not only incredible man-made structures of ice and snow — the most notably being at Sapporo’s internationally renowned Yuki Matsuri– but along the northern coast one can see nature’s own winter masterpiece in the form of drift ice. From mid-January to mid-April, the Sea of Okhotsk is choked with ice fragments drifting their way south to oblivion in warmer climates. The Hokkaido coast is the southernmost area in the Northern Hemisphere to experience drift ice.
In ages past, drift ice would be a thing to be avoided at all cost by sea-farers. Though not as dangerous as icebergs, drift ice could catch unlucky vessels in its clutches and hold them for long stretches of time, sometimes till death took the crew. Nowadays, with the aid of modern ice-breaking ships, drift ice has become a tourist attraction.
In the northern coast city of Abashiri, tourists can take an hour cruise for JPY 3000 (US $25) on the ice-breaker Aurora ships. Abashiri is famous in Japan for a spartan prison that was set up there at the end of the 19th century. Getting sent to Abashiri was equivalent to getting sent to Siberia in Russia. The weather can be harsh and unrelenting in winter and Japanese prisons have never been known for their comfort.
Drift-ice cruises offer visitors the chance to catch a rare glimpse of seals and seal pups in the wild. Most of the time, however, the drift ice wildlife around Abashiri is confined to opportunistic sea gulls. Sea gulls follow the ships closely looking for free hand-outs from the tourists. One popular way of feeding the sea gulls is to hold out a piece of bread or a potato chip and let the sea gulls snatch it while in flight.
The tranquilty of this frozen world of the northern sea is broken only by the sound of the crunching ice under the steel hull of Aurora’s ships and the old Enka music blaring from the ship’s speakers.
Drift ice has a significant impact on global climate conditions. It redistributes fresh water and latent heat energy, which has an effect on regional climates. The freezing process of drift ice removes the salt from seawater creating freshwater. If too much freshwater is released it can have damaging effects on the climate. It is believed that such a release caused a disruption with the Gulf Stream, resulting in a small ice age 11,000 to 12,000 years ago.
Hokkaido’s drift ice has unfortunately become a casualty of global warming. In the last twenty years the amount and thickness of the drift ice has lessened. The season for viewing drift ice has shortened, as well. Drift ice is important to the area because it stimulates the growth of plankton, the base of the food chain of the region's diverse wildlife.
An ice-breaking ship of the Aurora Fleet