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AGU Fall Meeting 2016: Norwegian research on thin Arctic ice

By Liz Kalaugher

The Arctic in winter is cold, dark and dangerous. So it’s no surprise that it’s not seen too much research. But in January 2015 the Norwegian Young Sea Ice Cruise embedded a research ship in the ice, in only the second expedition of its type. The first was 20 years ago when the SHEBA expedition monitored multi-year sea ice in the Pacific sector. The N-ICE expedition, in contrast, moored in the Atlantic sector north of Spitsbergen, where the ice was first- or second-year and thin.

“Lots of the things we experienced took us by surprise,” said Mats Granskog of the Norwegian Polar Institute, who was chief scientist for N-ICE, at a press conference. “We saw a new Arctic, with ice 3-4 feet thick that behaves differently.”

This ice moves more quickly, breaks up more easily and is more vulnerable to storms and winds, Granskog explained. Learning about it should improve weather forecasts in North America and Asia. This is one of the reasons the team went, Granskog said – to find out how well we know the Arctic and to determine the validity of the ice data in our climate models.

During the trip the researchers had to “battle the dark, the cold” and cope when the ice broke up under their feet and they had to rescue their equipment. “It was no simple ordeal,” Granskog said of the six-month long expedition.
Amelie Meyer of the Norwegian Polar Institute was a member of the kit rescue team. The equipment had been installed on an ice floe a few miles wide next to the ship. On the morning of the 19th June, the floe cracked. Fortunately no researchers were out on the ice at the time. Within a few hours, the floe had broken up into hundreds of pieces. “It was a bit epic,” Meyer said, describing her trips in a Zodiac boat to retrieve the instruments, many of which contained data.

As well as the unplanned rescue, the researchers also saw way more snow than expected, Granskog said. In places, the snow was so heavy that it caused the sea ice to float below the surface of the sea, inundating the bottom layer of the snow with salt-water. This phenomenon has been seen in Antarctica, where the sea ice is generally thinner and there’s more snow, but this was the first sighting in the Arctic.

Von Walden of Washington State University joined the trip to characterise atmospheric conditions. In winter, the Arctic atmosphere tends to be either clear or overcast. When clear, he found, atmospheric conditions were similar to those discovered by the SHEBA expedition.

But N-ICE also saw significant storms, carried from the south by an unusual jet stream. These storms brought large amounts of warmth and moisture to the Arctic, restricting sea ice growth, whilst the winds pushed the ice out. Early February 2015 saw the lowest ever winter sea ice extent. One storm brought a temperature rise from -40 F to 32 F in less than 48 hours, and winds of more than 50 miles per hour, as well as increasing moisture levels ten-fold.

Whilst von Walden examined the atmosphere, Meyer was there to examine conditions below the ice. The Arctic Ocean is relatively warm, she explained, with temperatures of 32 F below the ice and 40 F a few hundred feet below the surface. It’s generally calm beneath the ice, which isolates the water from the atmosphere. But the winter storms, Meyer discovered, made the ice drift so fast that it mixed the water beneath, bringing warm water up from the depths and melting the ice from below.

Algae bloomed early beneath the thin ice, the trip revealed. You might think that would absorb more carbon, Meyer said, but these algae didn’t sink well, so didn’t export carbon to the ocean depths.

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