NPEO Near Completion

April 26, 2010

When oceanfront property isn't a good thing. Photos: Jim Johnson, U Washington

Research is winding down at the North Pole Environmental Observatory (NPEO), the suite of Arctic Ocean measurements collected by National Science Foundation-funded scientists (Jamie Morison, U of Washington, lead).  In fact, the entire Russian ice camp, Barneo, is also winding down—or breaking up, as the photo above shows. 

At a camp known for unique logistics challenges, this has been an outstanding year. Weeks ago, just as the first NPEO researchers arrived at Barneo, the ice floe cracked; a good chunk of the runway broke off as researchers, adventure seekers and wedding parties alike all rushed to relocate the camp’s infrastructure before it drifted away.  Later, the eruption of the Iceland volcano disrupted travel for several NPEO researchers.  While flights from Svalbard to Barneo north of the ash plume continued, the journey to Svalbard was more complicated. Principal scientist Kelly Faulkner’s trip to Barneo had something of the quest about it—a long journey beset by troubles, her trip lasted a week and involved planes, trains, automobiles, and boats—but no dragons (other than the volcano). 

NPEO researchers were able to complete much of their work: They recovered a mooring that had been anchored to the ocean bottom for two years, dropped new buoys and serviced old ones, and completed many water sampling stations. Though they were not able to recover an acoustic bottom pressure recorder, they were able to “ping” it to recover several years worth of data.  Information from the NPEO gives scientists crucial information about the Arctic Ocean’s temperature, chemistry, sea-ice, circulation, and more. 

Men hustle an NPEO tent to safer ice.

Visit the NPEO Web site for the latest news on field activities.

Read the Barneo Chronicles.

If the weather holds, the NPEO group should complete work and clear off the ice camp this week. Turning homeward, they will grapple with whatever travel delays last week’s air travel disruptions from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano still may present. 

North Pole Environmental Observatory

April 13, 2010

A winch at the National Science Foundation's North Pole Environmental Observatory is used to retrieve a mooring that has been collecting oceanographic data from the Arctic Ocean for a year. Photo: Peter West/National Science Foundation

American research teams returned this week to ice station Barneo, a Russian logistics hub floating on sea-ice covering the Arctic Ocean near the North Pole. There, they continue some baseline measurements of oceanic and atmospheric conditions collected since 2000. With National Science Foundation funding, the University of Washington’s Jamie Morison leads the North Pole Environmental Observatory (NPEO) effort, an international collaboration.

“Six personnel flew to Barneo on 10 April over the course of two flights,” wrote Tom Quinn (Polar Field Services), who is now positioned at Longyearbyen, on Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago, through April. Tom in Longyearbyen and Andy Heiberg at Barneo are coordinating NPEO logistics from both locations.

The armchair North Pole scientists among us will recall that the true course of work at ice camp Barneo is always a challenge, and so far, this year is no exception.

“During the evening/early morning a large lead opened up across the runway and through camp,” Tom wrote over the weekend. “The runway was 1.8km in length but it is now unusable. The field staff at Barneo have marked out a new runway and taken several passes on it with a bulldozer to groom it. The field staff are also moving structures such as the galley and berthing tents across the lead to consolidate the camp in one place.”

Over the next two weeks or so, NPEO researchers will pass between the Longyearbyen staging point and the ice camp Barneo, approximately 700 miles away. They will fly to the ice camp via a chartered AN-74, a Russian STOL jet airplane. (The An-74 gets its nickname, Cheburashka, from the large engine intake ducts, which resemble the oversized ears of the popular Russian animated creature with the same name.)

Members of the team will recover an instrumented mooring that has been fixed to the ocean floor some 2.5 below the surface since 2008. The mooring holds instruments that capture baseline measurements—ocean temperature and salinity, current strength and direction, and sea-ice conditions, for example. Other NPEO researchers will fly hydrographic surveys in a Twin Otter, deploying instruments that will collect similar information as they sink slowly through the water column. In addition, a MI-8 helicopter will land near individual instruments previously deployed; researchers will send a radio signal and the instruments will release their data payload, sending atmospheric, weather, sea-ice and upper ocean water column information to the team on the sea ice.

Arctic Stories: New Multi-Media Web site

January 21, 2010

Not your typical office. A research building at Barrow, AK. Photo courtesy Arctic Stories

We’re pleased to welcome Arctic Stories, the brainchild of Purdue University atmospheric chemist Paul Shepson, to the online effort to educate and inform people about arctic research and life. (In 2009, we supported Shepson and others working at Barrow, Alaska, on an international study called OASIS. Shepson headed an NSF-funded study of halogen chemistry.)

With children’s book author Peter Lourie, Shepson has built a multi-faceted Web site with NSF funding to present information on the science, wildlife, climate, and people of the Arctic.

The site features video interviews with natives and researchers like polar bear researcher Steven C. Amstrup of the USGS. It also showcases compelling photographs, and links to science institutions. In short, it’s another fantastic resource for following the ongoing work in the Arctic.

This is helpful as the public strives to understand the myriad messages about climate change, research, and more. With news stories reporting that the Arctic is warming twice as quickly as the rest of the planet, that sea ice is melting, and that species are losing habitat and nourishment, sites like Arctic Ice and ours aim to inform readers about the efforts being made to understand the science behind the phenomena.

The science is complex, designed to measure and help us understand changes in the atmosphere, land, plants and animals, human societies and water in the Arctic. To advance these goals, scientists conduct fieldwork in some of the most extreme environments on Earth–and their experiences are often as compelling as their data.

We encourage readers to check out Arctic Ice as they follow their curiosity about work in the far north.


January 4, 2010
By Marcy Davis

Adriane Colburn's "Who’s on Top? Arctic Ice: 1980, 1985, 1990, 1995, 2000, 2003, 2007 and East/West Lines, 2008." Paper, Aluminum, wood, gouache, watercolor, latex paint, string, ink and graphite. For more views and the artist's notes on this installation, click on the picture. All photos courtesy Adriane Colburn

Adriane Colburn works all the time. By day she’s a technician at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center. By night, she’s a renegade sculptor, pushing the boundaries of her favorite medium – paper. Colburn has long been inspired by the human impulse to visualize the world through cartography, by the act of communicating data and information through maps in order to better understand environment and processes. Maps led her to merge creative pursuits with science.

“My artistic motivation is that my subject must be intellectually challenging – the result of research. Science and politics and art are all related,” says Colburn, a Vermont native who has lived in San Francisco since 1990.

While surfing the Web one day, Colburn happened upon the home page for the University of New Hampshire’s Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping (CCOM) Joint Hydrographic Center where she read about the Law of the Sea Mapping Program, an intensive, multiyear partnership between UNH, NOAA, the NSF and others, aimed at mapping the seafloor to support U.S. claims to the extended continental shelf. The arctic seafloor maps immediately caught Colburn’s attention.

“I already had a strong interest in the Arctic and climate change. I did a project using sea ice extent maps, but they weren’t exactly what I was looking for. When I came across the CCOM Law of the Sea bathymetry maps, I became interested in the ways mapping the sea floor is pivotal in the Arctic — the role of these maps in geopolitics, natural resource exploration, and unexplored frontier,” Colburn explains. “The maps are simple and uncomplicated in their own right, but also rich and complicated in their links to highly charged topics.”

"For the Deep, Phase I," 2008, Inkjet prints, aluminum and paper, 12'x14'

After reading about a 2007 arctic cruise led by Larry Mayer (UNH) and Andy Armstrong (NOAA), Colburn cold-called CCOM to find out more. The call led to a visit and the visit led to her participation in a September, 2008, arctic cruise aboard the USCGC Healy. While on board, Colburn worked as a watchstander, monitoring computers used for sonar data collection during an eight-hour shift.

Watchstanders monitor a fleet of computers taking data on the sea floor.

“The thing I was really interested in was collecting the data – the interruptions and inaccuracies. The flaws in the process are fascinating. As a non-scientist I always assumed that data collection was inherently accurate, but I became aware of the subjectivity, of the personal decisions that go into it, and how the arctic seascape determines what you can do,” she says.

The rest of Colburn’s time she dedicated to photography, gathering audio and video footage, journaling, and talking with at-sea colleagues, an eclectic mix of scientists, graduate students, technicians, Coast Guardsmen (and women), a lawyer, and a member of the U.S. State Department. Colburn felt that she was “having this really rare experience most people never get to have and that the science was really interesting. I felt like I had this responsibility to share it rather than be narcissistic.”

Yo, Adriane! The artist having some fun aboard the Healy.

Back home in San Francisco, Colburn spent six months working up pieces for an exhibition at the Kala Art Institute entitled For the Deep, which showcased her arctic experience through a series of large, colorful installation pieces made of cut paper – arctic bathymetry maps. Round photos of the arctic landscape reminiscent of portholes dot the work. Colburn encouraged viewers to interact with her sculptures by looking into telescope-like vessels, rewarding them with video clips of the open ocean and of the Healy breaking ice.

"For the Deep, Phase II." The telescope-like viewer (up and to the right of middle) shows videos of the Healy breaking ice.

“What I tend to do in my artwork is decontextualize. I present the data without the scientific context. It is an abstraction. I thought a lot about how people understand places and about what comes back to the population from a far-off exploration,” says Colburn. “We try to understand places remotely so I intentionally forced distance between the person and the place. But mapping is also very interactive in our digital world. I wanted to include that element as well without having my work be totally immersive.”

Reactions to Colburn’s work are what she calls “multi-tiered”: what people get out of her art is what they bring to it. And whether that is something technical, scientific, or purely aesthetic doesn’t matter to her. She admits that her own sense of beauty has changed dramatically as a result of experiencing life at sea. She says “the Arctic has a specific light. It’s like being on another planet. You can’t really know that from pictures and words. It’s a transient landscape – one in which you can get a foothold because the ice is solid. But it’s also constantly shifting and changing and very dynamic.”

Colburn still works with scientists. She’s moved her attention to warmer climes but still focuses on climate change, measuring carbon in the Amazon with researchers at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute. Colburn also had the opportunity to attend the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. And she says she’s “trying to get back to the Arctic at least one more time,” if you happen to know anyone who’s looking to fill out a field team.

Adriane Colburn’s recent work is currently on display in an exhibition entitled Earth:  Art of a Changing World, at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, December 3, 2009, to January 31, 2010.

What Lies Beneath

December 18, 2009

For years, scientists thought that melted water beneath Greenland’s coastal glaciers such as the Jakobshavn and Helheim lubricated the giant sheets of ice above, accelerating their plunge into the ocean and contributing to loss of sea ice. Turns out, that was an over-simplified explanation, said Ian Howat, assistant professor of earth sciences at Ohio State University.

Speaking in a press conference Wednesday at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), the NASA-funded, CPS-supported scientist explained that the subsurface dynamics beneath glaciers is significantly more complex than previously thought.

“In the science community it’s been accepted that basal lubrication due to increased melting and warming is responsible for accelerating glacial advance and breaking off,” said Howat. “We’re finding out that’s not true.”

A calving glacier drops huge ice chunks into the sea. Photo: Martyn Clark, National Snow and Ice Data Center

Specifically, a complex, subglacial “plumbing” system involving the ocean, meltwater, and ice evolves, which drives the glacial calving. In fact, early evidence from Howat’s research suggests that ocean changes have a greater impact on the rate at which outlet glaciers spill into the sea than does meltwater.

Much of the melt water comes from early summer hot temperatures, which melt the glacier’s surface. The water flows through cracks in the ice to the ground surface.

Ian Howet in the field. Photo: Ohio State University

In the early summer, the sudden influx of water overwhelms the subglacial drainage system, causing the water pressure to increase and the ice to lift off its bed and flow faster—up to 100 meters per year, he said. The water passageways quickly expand, however, and reduce the water pressure so that by mid-summer the glaciers flow slowly again.

Inland, this summertime boost in speed is very noticeable, since the glaciers are moving so slowly in general. But outlet glaciers along the coast, such as the Jakobshavn, are already flowing out to sea at rates as high as 10 kilometers per year — a rate too high to be caused by the meltwater.

“So you have this inland ice moving slowly, and you have these outlet glaciers moving 100 times faster. Those outlet glaciers are feeling a small acceleration from the meltwater, but overall the contribution is negligible,” Howat said.

His team looked for correlations between times of peak meltwater in the summer and times of sudden acceleration in outlet glaciers, and found none. So if meltwater is not responsible for rapidly moving outlet glaciers, what is? Howat suspects that the ocean is the cause.

Through computer modeling, he and his colleagues have determined that friction between the glacial walls and the fjords that surround them is probably what holds outlet glaciers in place, and sudden increases in ocean water temperature cause the outlet glaciers to speed up.

However, Howat said meltwater can have a dramatic effect on ice loss along the coast. It can expand within cracks to form stress fractures, or it can bubble out from under the base of the ice sheet and stir up the warmer ocean water. Both circumstances can cause large pieces of the glacier to break off, and the subsequent turbulence stirs up the warm ocean water, and can cause more ice to melt.

Rapid Coastal Erosion Correlated to Diminishing Sea Ice

December 16, 2009

Retreating sea ice leaves the Alaskan coast vulnerable to the full force of the ocean. Photo: Benjamin Jones, USGS

Rapid erosion of the northern coastline of Alaska midway between Point Barrow and Prudhoe Bay is accelerating at a steady rate of 30 to 45 feet a year, according to CPS-supported scientists presenting a study at the annual American Geophysical Union meeting this week in San Francisco. As the coast erodes, frozen blocks of silt and peat that contain 50 to 80 percent ice topple from bluffs into the Beaufort Sea during the summer.

The acceleration is caused by a combination of large waves pounding the shoreline and warm seawater melting the base of the bluffs, said CU-Boulder Associate Professor Robert Anderson, a co-author on the study. Once the blocks fall they melt within days and sweep silt material out to sea.

Anderson, along with collaborators Cameron Wobus of Stratus Consulting and Irina Overeem of CU’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) have studied the coastline for the past two summers with Office of Naval Research support. Equipped with two meteorology stations, a weather station, time-lapse cameras, detailed GPS and wave sensors outfitted with temperature loggers, they documented the summer ocean/shore dynamic.

Triple Whammy

Declining sea ice, warming sea water, and increased waves create a “triple whammy” that expedites erosion. For the majority of the year, the Beaufort Sea is covered with sea ice that disconnects from the coast during the summer. These ice-free summer conditions are lasting for longer periods of time, allowing warmer ocean water to lap the coast and weaken the frozen ground. And the longer that sea ice is not connected to the coastline, the further the distance grows between the ice and the shore.  This open-ocean distance between the sea ice and the shore, known as “fetch,” increases both the energy of waves crashing into the coast and the height to which warm seawater can come into contact with the frozen bluffs, said Anderson.

The shoreline bluffs are made up of contiguous, polygon-shaped blocks, primarily made of permafrost and measuring roughly 70 to 100 feet across. Ice “wedges” (created by seeping summer surface water that annually freezes and thaws) are driven deep into the cracks between individual blocks each year. The blocks closest to the sea are undermined as warm seawater melts their base, and eventually split apart from neighboring blocks and topple during stormy conditions, said Anderson.

Impacts of Erosion

As the coastline submits to the ocean, old whaling stations, military and oil related infrastructure and entire towns threaten to fall into the sea. In addition, the loss of sea ice alters ocean systems and diminishes habitat for creatures like the polar bear.

According to a 2009 CU-Boulder study, Arctic sea ice during the annual September minimum is now declining at a rate of 11.2 percent per decade. This year, only 19 percent of the ice cover was more than two years old — the least ever recorded in the satellite record and far below the 1981-2000 summer average of 48 percent.

November Arctic Sea Ice Extent Third Lowest On Record

December 14, 2009

Reductions in arctic sea ice during the past decade have elevated scientific and societal questions about the likelihoods of future scenarios. Photo courtesy USGS

Arctic sea ice levels over the Barents Sea and Hudson Bay were the third lowest on record since officials began monitoring the area by satellite in 1979, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). Last month the sea ice extent averaged 3.96 million square miles, 405,000 square miles less than the average from the period between 1979 and 2000.

Monthly November ice extent for 1979 to 2009 shows a decline of 4.5% per decade. Source: NSIDC

Arctic sea ice experiences significant melting during the summer months. By November, darkness sweeps the Arctic, air temperatures plummet, and sea ice grows rapidly. However, both the Barents Sea and Hudson Bay experienced a slow freeze-up this fall.

In the Barents Sea, ice growth was slowed by winds that pushed the ice northwards into the central Arctic. The deepest of the Arctic’s coastal seas, the Barents Sea is open on its southern and northern boundaries, which creates a significant wind corridor. Southerly winds created a high-pressure area over Siberia and low pressure in the northern Atlantic Ocean in November. Those winds transported warm air and water from the south, and pushed the ice edge northwards out of the Barents Sea.

The map of sea level pressure (in millibars) for November 2009, shows low pressure in the North Atlantic and high pressure over Russia, which led to winds that brought warmth to the Barents Sea and pushed the ice northward. Source: NSIDC

By contrast, the Hudson Bay is a nearly enclosed, relatively shallow body of water that tends to capture ice. The lack of ice is likely related to warmer-than-normal air temperatures in the region.

The map of air temperature anomalies for November 2009. Source: NSIDC

Sea ice in the Arctic is now declining at a rate of about 4.5 percent per decade, according to researchers.