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 percent.
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?
Not far 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
"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 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.
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