Tracking Ocean Changes in the Arctic Switchyard
Arctic ice is declining rapidly—a trend with enormous implications for global weather and climate. Freshwater pours into the Arctic Ocean from the ice sheets and glaciers, and sea ice over the ocean itself is declining. Ocean Channels and currents there act as a kind of switchyard, sending fresh water into the North Atlantic, and small changes here may have larger impacts on climate downstream. To understand these processes, scientists are landing in small aircraft on the floating sea ice, and drilling down to study the water and currents below. Lamont-Doherty researchers Bill Smethie, Ronny Friedrich, Dale Chayes and Richard Perry report on their work here.
Updated: 37 min 50 sec ago
Click here to view the embedded video.
This video depicts the activities of the LDEO Switchyard field team, which deploys annually and uses ski-equipped aircraft to reach a series of sample sites between the North Pole and Ellesmere Island in Canada.
After landing, a hole is drilled through the ice, and the sampling system is lowered through the hole to a depth of about 700 meters. The sampling system (the thin hole rosette) which was designed and built at the Lamont-Doherty Instrument Lab, allows the LDEO field team to examine the water as the assembly descends and to collect water samples for later analysis when interesting properties are observed. This work is supported by the US National Science Foundation.
This video was shot by Switchyard team member Dan Greenspan, who is a researcher at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. Check out his blog, and his recent entry: “Traveling to the North Pole, Part 10: Eclipse, with Wolves.”
Time is flying, bringing us to our final days in Alert. We were able to recover samples from 12 stations, which is a great success and the second most successful year on record. Thanks to everyone who made it happen: Dale, Richard and Dan who went out every possible day to collect samples; Al and Jim for their support in Alert and of course our friendly Canadian colleagues..
The next two days are filled with packing and arranging the equipment and samples for their long journey home to New York. We plan to fly out of Alert on May 22 to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland but don’t know yet when the Air National Guard will pick us for the flight to New York. We hope to be home by May 25.
Locations of the 12 stations where we collected samples this season.
Alert hosted the first northernmost cancer-fighting fundraising event “Relay for Life,” an event sponsored by the Canadian Cancer Society to celebrate cancer survivors, remember loved ones lost to cancer and fight back against all cancers.
Lights to honor loved ones.
The 12-hour-walk was organized by Kristy Doyle, who lost her grandfather to cancer in 2010. Participants raised a whopping $7,580 and collectively walked 900 kilometers. I admit that I feel proud for doing my small part by walking 8 kilometers.
More than 900 kilometers walked in 12-hours
The weather has improved considerably and we were able to fly out today to collect more samples. Yesterday, some of us went to explore Crystal Mountain, a 900-foot peak about five miles from Alert that offers an excellent view of the surrounding landscape.
Crystal Mountain at the left.
Ronny Friedrich on Crystal Mountain.
Alert is a Canadian military station located in the far north region of Qikiqtaaluk, Nunavut, Canada–the self-proclaimed “northernmost permanently inhabited place in the world.” There is no doubt that Alert is unique, with its 10-months of snow cover, extremely harsh winters with temperatures as low as -40 degrees C (-40 F) and average summer temperatures hardly above freezing. Alert is named after the HMS Alert, a British ship that spent the winter of 1875-1876 about 10 kilometers east of present-day Alert while exploring the arctic. The HMS Alert was the first ship to get that far north. Alert was settled as a weather station in the early 1950s and at the height of the Cold War became a military base due to its proximity to what was then the Soviet Union.
View toward Alert and the Arctic Ocean. Alert is the darker spots to the left.
Alert is a fascinating place that has seen more than its share of downed airplanes and where the hardships that earlier inhabitants endured are still apparent. Nowadays, life is easier and does not evoke the romantic images of arctic exploration of the past. Sure, the Internet moves at a snail’s pace and telephone-use is restricted to 30 minutes per day, but the food is excellent, and we are warm and dry.
Today I got another chance to go out with team CASIMBO to drill ice-cores. The weather was beautiful with no wind, a few clouds, bright sunshine and a balmy temperature of about 5 degrees F.
The smooth snow and ice in the foreground is the Arctic Ocean "beach" while the rubble in the back is actual sea ice.
When I first saw sea ice near Alert a few years ago, I was very surprised. It wasn’t anything like I had imagined. One might expect sea ice to be like lake ice: smooth and flat. But Arctic Ocean ice is in constant motion, driven by winds and ocean currents. Big chunks of ice break-up, smash into each other and create ice that looks more like a rubble field.
Trying to find a way through the ice field to the sampling location.
As we drove over the icy rubble on our snowmobile, we searched for a route to our sampling location, about 3 to 4 miles away from Alert (45 minutes by snowmobile). Taking an ice-core is relatively simple. One of the pictures shows Ben using the corer. It is basically a plastic pipe with cutting knives at the end that drills into the ice while keeping the ice-core trapped inside. After 3 feet of ice is cored, the corer is lifted out of the hole and the ice core is packed into containers for further processing in Alert.
Ben drilling an ice-core
The ice above was about six feet thick but generally, thickness varies. There is thin ice that has just formed on open water between ice floes, first year ice, or ice that has formed this winter, several-feet thick and ice that has formed over several years that can be more than 20 feet thick.
The weather became increasingly cloudy yesterday with low visibility and snow. That means no flying. The forecast for the next 24 hours doesn’t look promising either. As usual in the Arctic it’s better not to forecast — everything might change within hours.
Getting ready to get ice-cores together with colleagues from University of Alberta.
In addition to the standard suite of samples that we usually take, this year we will take ice-core samples to see how the melting sea ice below is affecting the ice. Our colleagues from the team CASIMBO, at the University of Alberta, have shared pictures of their ice-cores with us.
An ice-core under polarized light showing snow cover on top and ice crystals forming below.
To get a feeling for the amount of work necessary to drill an ice-core, I tried to join CASIMBO out on the ice via snowmobile, but due to the bad weather we had to return to the base. The wind and snow was picking up, and clouds prevented us from judging the condition of snow-covered surface we were driving on. (There are no roads here!) The risk of getting lost was far too great. I wore several layers of clothing, including three pairs of heavy socks, but was still shivering in the cold.
Not much to see in bad weather. Total white-out.
The 2012 field season started out better than we could hope for. The weather has been great for flying and sampling water below the thick sea ice that covers much of the Arctic Ocean. Good weather means no low clouds or fog to prevent our pilots from seeing where they are going. Unlike regular airplanes that can land and take off in most weather, our planes don’t have the fancy technical instruments such as radar that can peer through cloudy skies. We were able to recover water samples from three stations, including one at the North Pole–a big success since the North Pole is crucial to understanding global ocean currents. The North Pole station is the farthest from Alert, requiring four to five hours of flying to get there, including a stop to refuel on the way and sometimes on the way back. To refuel, we land on the ice where we have have prepared a make-shift gas station several days earlier. The station consists of several drums of fuel and a beacon that allows us to find it on a constantly shifting landscape of ice; the sea ice moves several hundred meters each day. Unlike the South Pole, the North Pole is surrounded by water and so the landscape here looks very uniform. It’s hard to know that you’ve arrived some place special.
To collect our water samples, we drill through up to eight feet of ice and lower a special sampling device into the hole that will measure the water’s temperature, salinity (conductivity) and dissolved oxygen as it descends. Today we are not allowed to fly and so we will spend the day resting and preparing our equipment for the days ahead.
Our annual trip to the Arctic starts in Albany, where the Air National Guard will fly us north in a venerable C130 Hercules military transport plane.
Inside the C130. No first class here, not even economy.
First stop is Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, where we will stay overnight. Kangerlussuaq (in Danish: Søndre Strømfjord) is a settlement in western Greenland, home to Greenland’s largest commercial airport. As usual, we were greeted by our friendly colleagues from the Kangerlussuaq Science Support Center (KISS) that supports all science operations in and around Greenland. Temperatures are getting much lower than down south at about 40F (5 degrees C). Kangerlussuaq is home to Greenland’s most diverse land-based wildlife such as musk oxen, caribou, gyrfalcons and the Greenland sled-dog.
Me and the Greenland sled-dog.
Next stop is the U.S. Air Force Base Thule in Northern Greenland, where we refuel and head to Alert. On the way from Kangerlussuaq to Thule we fly along the coast of Greenland, over Baffin Bay, where the Arctic starts to show its icy face. For me, Greenland is fascinating for its mild temperatures, diverse wildlife in the south and breathtaking frozen state in the north. I also like the Danish pastries served in the airport cafeteria – it reminds me of home.
Coast of northern Greenland
Finally, we arrive at the Canadian Forces Station (CFS) Alert around noon. Our home for the next few weeks.
Arctic summer sea ice is declining rapidly: a trend with enormous implications for global weather and climate. Now in its eighth year, the multi-year Arctic Switchyard project is tracking the Arctic seascape to distinguish the effects of natural climate variability from human-induced climate change. The University of Washington is leading the project.
- A) The Canadian Forces Station, Alert
We will fly from the Canadian military base at Alert, Ellesmere Island, land on the ice by ski plane to drill holes, deploy instruments and retrieve water samples. We will measure water temperature, salt content and levels of dissolved oxygen, and a wide variety of natural and man-made substances. Our goal is to understand how much fresh water is entering the system, where it is coming from (sea ice melt, river run-off and so on) and where it exits the arctic, altering currents in the North Atlantic Ocean.
During the next few weeks we will blog from the field; Follow our work on the Arctic Switchyard project page.