Studying The Ripple Effects Of Shrinking Arctic Sea Ice | KALW

Studying The Ripple Effects Of Shrinking Arctic Sea Ice

Nov 10, 2019
Originally published on November 10, 2019 6:25 am

Arctic sea ice is one of the most dramatic indicators of the changing climate. Ice cover on the Arctic Ocean is in some months about half what it was decades ago, and its thickness has shrunk, by some estimates 40%.

Changes in the ice may also mean a host of other changes, in the Arctic system and around the globe. To better understand this, scientists have frozen an icebreaker alongside an Arctic ice floe that they will observe for a whole year.

The project is called MOSAiC, for Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate. And the primary questions they're trying to answer: what are the causes of diminishing Arctic ice, and what are the consequences?

At just about 5 degrees from the North Pole, ocean physicist Tim Stanton from the Naval Postgraduate School stands next to a hole in the ice, surrounded by boxes of tools and equipment.

"I've got to just get the 'hair dryer,'" he says, eyeing two electrical connectors for a science buoy that need to be warmed up in the 18 degrees Fahrenheit temperature.

A hair dryer? He clarifies: "Well, it's an electrical what-do-you-call-it... heat gun," he says. "It will frizz your hair, that's for sure!"

Stanton is in the middle of a grueling eight hour process to install the buoy about 15 miles from the spot where the MOSAiC ship, the German icebreaker Polarstern, is moored.

It's part of a network of equipment that's being distributed around the Polarstern and will operate independently throughout the next year. It will provide additional data to what's being collected at the central research camp on the ice next to the ship.

Ocean physicist Tim Stanton with the buoy system he's installing in the ice. The aim is to get a better sense of the ocean factors that may be driving Arctic ice melt.
Ravenna Koenig / NPR

The buoy is a big banana yellow device, with a whole bunch of scientific bells and whistles that hang below it in the water.

"The flux package mounts on here," says Stanton, pointing to a cylindrical instrument with sensors on it that will run up and down a metal rail hanging vertically in the water. "And that's what measures the transport of heat, salt and momentum in the water column."

Stanton wants to collect data on those attributes of the ocean because he thinks it may help explain why sea ice is disappearing as fast as it is.

"At first glance it must be obvious, right? You add heat, you melt ice," he says. "But it is so complicated."

As more sea ice melts in the summertime, it's contributing fresher water to the top of the ocean. The saltier ocean water, which sits lower because it's more dense, can create a barrier that prevents the fresher water from going down.

If that top water is trapped near the surface all summer, Stanton thinks it can absorb a lot more heat from the sun, and lead to even more ice melting.

"You can get these fresh warm layers that, when a little bit of wind comes along, does a little bit of mixing, really melts the heck out of the ice," he says.

Tim Stanton installing a science buoy with the help of student Rosalie McKay. The buoy will measure heat, salt and momentum in the upper layer of the ocean over the course of a year.
Ravenna Koenig / NPR

While Stanton is asking questions about things that are going on below the ice, other scientists are looking at things going on above it.

Jessie Creamean of Colorado State University, for example, is out on the ice testing a device that collects and counts tiny particles in the atmosphere called aerosols.

"Alright little aerosol sampler, do well today," Creamean says, closing a pelican case about the size of a carry-on piece of luggage. She's tested it before in Colorado, but today's experiment is to see how well it does in the cold.

People may be most familiar with aerosols created by pressurized cans like hairspray, but that's just one kind. Aerosols can also come from natural sources like dust, pollen, fungi, or sea salt, and they're actually the seeds that clouds need to form and grow.

In the Arctic, scientists think that microbes in the ocean, like bacteria or algae, can generate aerosols. And Creamean hypothesizes that less ice on the Arctic Ocean could mean more aerosols getting blown from the water into the atmosphere, and seeding more clouds.

Scientist Jessie Creamean moves a portable aerosol sampler out onto the ice to test it in the cold conditions.
Ravenna Koenig / NPR

The mechanism for that could be twofold: through more sunlight getting to the ocean as sea ice decreases, and potentially causing more growth of microbes, and also through the increased contact between the ocean and atmosphere.

MOSAiC scientists are interested in clouds because they're important for regulating temperature, similar to a thermostat. Depending on the season, whether clouds are over water or ice, and the properties of the clouds, they can wind up cooling or warming the earth below.

Scientist Jessie Creamean and her portable aerosol sampler in the lab on the research vessel Akademik Fedorov.
Ravenna Koenig / NPR

"That affects how much heat can basically help melt the sea ice, or it can actually reflect sunlight from the sea ice," says Creamean. "So it has a big role in controlling how much sea ice we have here."

Creamean and Stanton are among hundreds of scientists from different disciplines trying to better understand this changing region.

"We're looking at the interactions in the system," says Matthew Shupe, an atmospheric scientist with the University of Colorado and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and one of the coordinators for the expedition.

"How the atmosphere interacts with the sea ice, how the ocean interacts with the sea ice, the ecosystem, the biogeochemical processes," he says.

The overarching goal of collecting all this data is to improve the way the Arctic is represented in climate models. Those are the computer simulations scientists use to estimate things like how much the earth could warm in the next 50 years.

The better you reflect how reality works in simulation, the better a prediction you'll get. But because so little is known about how the Arctic Ocean system works, Shupe says predictions for how the Arctic will respond to climate change vary significantly.

The primary questions MOSAiC is asking: what are the causes and consequences of diminishing Arctic sea ice?
Ravenna Koenig / NPR

"The Arctic is a place where the models agree the least," he says. "So that tells us that we're missing something."

Projecting changes in the Arctic — such as when the Arctic Ocean will see its first ice-free summer — is obviously important for the local ecosystem, for Arctic communities, and for anyone interested in doing commercial activity in the region.

But this research will also help scientists figure out how changes in the Arctic will impact other places on earth. For example, it may contribute to scientists' understanding of the possible connections between warming in the Arctic and extreme weather events at mid-latitudes.

"We need to understand the physics, and ultimately improve our models that can help answer those questions for us," says Shupe.

It will also help scientists anticipate the speed at which the Greenland ice sheet could melt, raising global sea level, and improve projections for how much global temperature will rise in the coming years.

By drifting across the Arctic Ocean for the next year and observing how all the smaller pieces of the Arctic system fit together, scientists hope they can bring these big picture questions into clearer focus.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Arctic sea ice is one of the most dramatic indicators of the changing climate. Some months, the ice cover on the Arctic Ocean is about half of what it was decades ago. And its thickness has shrunk substantially. Changes in the ice may also mean a host of other changes in the Arctic system and around the globe. To better understand this, scientists have frozen an icebreaker alongside an arctic ice floe that they will observe for a whole year. And that's where our reporter Ravenna Koenig caught up with them.

RAVENNA KOENIG, BYLINE: Out on an ice floe about 5 degrees from the North Pole, a bunch of scientists are setting up equipment. It's part of a project called MOSAiC, or the Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate. And the primary question they're trying to answer is, what are the causes of diminishing Arctic ice? And what are the consequences? Ocean physicist Tim Stanton stands surrounded by boxes of tools and equipment, next to a hole in the ice, about 15 miles from where the MOSAiC ship is frozen in.

TIM STANTON: OK. I've got to just get the hairdryer.

KOENIG: Ooh, a hairdryer?

STANTON: Well, it's a electrical - what do you call it? - heat gun. It'll frizz your hair, that's for sure.

KOENIG: It's about 18 degrees Fahrenheit. And the heat gun is for warming up electrical connectors on a science buoy.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEAT GUN WARMING)

KOENIG: Stanton is in the middle of a grueling eight-hour process to install the buoy. It will operate independently out here throughout the year, collecting data from all sorts of scientific bells and whistles that hang below it in the water.

STANTON: The flux package mounts on here. And that's what measures the transport of heat, salt and momentum in the water column.

KOENIG: Here is why Stanton's interested in those things. As more sea ice melts in the summertime, it's contributing fresher water to the top of the ocean. The saltier ocean water, which sits lower because it's more dense, can create a barrier that prevents the fresher water from going down. If that top water is trapped near the surface, Stanton thinks it can absorb a lot more heat from the sun and lead to even more melting of the ice.

STANTON: You can get these fresh, warm layers that - when a little bit of wind comes along, does a little bit of mixing - really melts the heck out of the ice.

KOENIG: He thinks this might play an important role in why the sea ice is disappearing as fast as it is. While Stanton is asking questions about things that are going on below the ice, other scientists are looking at things going on above it, like Jessie Creamean, who's out on the ice testing a device that collects tiny particles from the atmosphere called aerosols.

JESSIE CREAMEAN: Little aerosol sampler. Do well today.

KOENIG: No, we're not talking about the ones in hairspray. Aerosols can be dust, pollen or fungi. And they're the seeds that clouds need to grow. And in the Arctic, scientists think that they can also come from tiny organisms in the water, like bacteria or algae. Less ice on the ocean could mean more aerosols getting blown from the water into the atmosphere and seeding more clouds.

CREAMEAN: My hypothesis is from open water sources, we get generation of these particles from microbes in the ocean.

KOENIG: There's a lot that scientists still want to find out about clouds in the Arctic. But one thing they know is that they're important for regulating temperature - kind of like a thermostat. Depending on the season, whether the clouds are over water or ice and the features of the clouds, they can wind up cooling or warming the Earth below them.

CREAMEAN: That affects how much heat can basically help melt the sea ice. Or it can actually reflect sunlight from the sea ice. So it has a big role in controlling how much sea ice we have here.

KOENIG: Creamean and Stanton are two among hundreds of scientists from different disciplines who are trying to better understand how different parts of this changing region work.

MATTHEW SHUPE: How the atmosphere interacts with the sea ice, how the ocean interacts with the sea ice, the ecosystem, the bio-geochemical processes.

KOENIG: That's Matthew Shupe, an atmospheric scientist and one of the coordinators of the expedition. So why do scientists need to know all this?

SHUPE: This whole project is aimed at improving our models.

KOENIG: When Shupe says models, he means the computer simulations scientists use to get estimates for things like how much the earth could warm in the next 50 years. The better you reflect reality in those simulations, the better a prediction you'll get. But because so little is known about the Arctic ice system, Shupe says that the predictions for how it will respond to climate change vary a lot.

SHUPE: The Arctic is a place where the models agree the least. So that tells us that we're missing something.

KOENIG: Improving the models will help forecast things like when the Arctic Ocean might have its first ice-free summer, how quickly the globe is going to warm as a whole and how the melting Greenland ice sheet will add to global sea-level rise. By observing how all the little pieces of the system fit together over the next year, scientists hope they can bring that big picture into clearer focus. For NPR News, I'm Ravenna Koenig in the central Arctic Ocean. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.