An Icy Look at Climate Change: Part II WHOI Series Special

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By Neila Columbo
October 23, 2012

Editor’s Note: This is Part II of the article published  in August 2012 which followed the work of researchers studying the Arctic at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Falmouth, Massachusetts — As a follow up to our discussion with Senior Scientist John Toole and his team studying seawater properties in the Arctic, Sierra Club Green Home went back for more about the latest research from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).  Senior Research Specialist Rick Krishfield shares his experiences from his recent expedition to the Beaufort Gyre and his perspective on the dramatic transformation occurring in the Arctic region.

For over twenty years, Krishfield has been studying the Arctic region. His most recent project, a parallel to his collaboration on the Ice-Tethered Profiler (ITP) initiative discussed in Part I, is the Beaufort Gyre Exploration Project led by Andrey Proshutinsky, a Senior Scientist at WHOI.

Canada Basin’s Beaufort Gyre, a vast, clockwise circulation system of ice and water located north of Alaska, is currently under observation by scientists from the United States, Canada, and Japan. Since 2003, these scientists have travelled to the Arctic each summer for a month-long expedition to gain insight into how global warming is affecting the natural balance of the Beaufort Gyre. This Gyre is of particular interest due to its importance in regulating global climate patterns.

The scientists partaking in the project believe if the mechanics of the Gyre change, the large reservoir of freshwater that it contains could be released and begin entering into the Northern Atlantic Ocean, resulting in significant changes to ocean circulation and climate. Krishfield shares that this year’s  summer expedition was a remarkable example of the extent to which sea ice in the Arctic is changing. This year, Krishfield and his team observed firsthand a record low seasonal minimum, as reported in August of this year by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).

“Each year since we began the summer expedition in 2003, we have been able to stay three weeks on the ice to service the moorings and deploy ITP buoys. This year, the ship had to travel 200 miles further north beyond the 81st parallel to find ice,” Krishfield explains. “This was the first expedition where we were able to have only three days on the ice.”

Traditionally, during the summer season, a measure of sea ice melts around the edges of the expansive Arctic ice cover.  At the onset of winter, the ice cover “grows” again, making up for some of the seasonal melt. It was only in the 1970s with the advent of satellite observations that scientists began to observe annual sea ice loss patterns. Over the past several decades, it has become clear that annual ice loss is accelerating.

Describing his first experience in the Arctic twenty years ago compared to his most recent expedition this summer, Krishfield says, “The ice cover then was about three meters thick and extremely difficult to travel through during our cruise. During the last ten years, there has been trending each year toward sea ice loss, and now it is about 50 percent less thick than it was just twenty years ago.”

Krishfield describes 2007 as a pivotal year for recognizing these vast changes in the Arctic.  Politicians, the public, and the media  took notice, and “people began to say, ‘something isn’t right,’” he notes.

Currently, the NSIDC holds 2007 as the most significant sea ice loss year to date, and scientists are still studying the climate variables that contributed to it. With the 2006 release of Al Gore’s  global warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize  to Mr. Gore and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007, the subject of climate change had gained significant attention.

It was also during 2007 that the United States Navy began to consider the effects of global warming on the Arctic region and its need to protect U.S. resources given the epic changes occurring. While naval resources were deployed in the Arctic region during the Cold War, the end of the war in the early 1990s resulted in shifting focus away from the Arctic. However, the melting sea ice in the Arctic imposes considerable geo-political impacts due to the increasing new navigable shipping routes and sea lanes. Commercial assets, minerals, and vast economic resources including oil and gas supplies will provide new opportunities for countries with Arctic territory, including the U.S., Russia, and several European Union countries. Oil and gas reserves are now being explored by the U.S., Canada, Norway, Russia and Greenland.

Yet, the effects and potential dangers of such profound changes in the Arctic, on its ecosystem, and on the broader global climate are yet to be fully understood by scientists. While most anticipate that Arctic summers will be ice-free by 2050, Krishfield’s observations of the ice loss during his recent expedition give him concern that it could be much earlier—perhaps even within the next ten years.

“Given what my colleagues and I have just observed this year and the data collected, it is possible sooner rather than later that the Arctic ocean may begin to have a similar seasonality to the Antarctic—an ice cover in winter and a small, if non-existent, ice cap in the summer,” Krishfield says. While melting sea ice will not affect global sea level rise as floating ice displaces its own mass, melting glaciers (fresh water ice structures on land) in the Arctic will.

Such vast transformations in the Arctic are now impacting the lives of the local Inuit population and the habitat of Arctic species. After generations of living in the Arctic in balance with the seasons, Inuit communities find themselves compelled to adapt to a shorter hunting season as the annual sea ice continues to retreat. Symbolizing the transformation and impact on Arctic species, polar bears continue to be impacted by loss of sea ice habitat; the U.S. Geological Survey projects two-thirds of polar bears will not exist in the region by the year 2050.

As Krishfield and his colleagues at WHOI continue to study the Arctic, Sierra Club Green Home will be reporting on new developments in a continuing series. Check back for future articles in this series.

View an interview with the WHOI team about the Beaufort Gyre Exploration Project here. As well, dispatches from Krishfield and his colleague’s 2012 summer expedition to the Arctic can be read here.

For related articles, see:

Innovative Climate Device Paints New Picture of the Arctic
Global Warming is Now
Dalai Lama on Global Warming: ‘Take Care of Our Home’

© 2012 SCGH, LLC. All rights reserved.

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