Live from the Arctic: Following a Research Expedition
A Scientific Expedition Retraces Franklin's Expedition With Modern Tools and Scant Sea Ice
by Mary Miller • July 19, 2019
Beginning July 23rd 2019, the Exploratorium will host a series of live public chats with scientists and students about the Icebreaker Oden in the Arctic. As part of the Northwest Passage Project, we’ll link up to the ship with the first live broadcasts from the Arctic. I’m excited to follow along on the 18-day expedition team as they study change in the Arctic from weather and ocean conditions to the thriving ecosystems of gigantic whales and microscopic plankton. Of course, we’ll be on the lookout for polar bears and narwhales, iconic marine mammals that only survive in icy habitats.
Sailing from Greenland through the tangle of bays, inlets and islands of the Canadian arctic, the Northwest Passage will retrace part of the route that doomed Sir John Franklin’s expedition in 1845. The location of Franklin’s wrecks and the fate of the crew remained a mystery until 2014 when the HMS Erebus was discovered resting on the Arctic seafloor. Unlike Erebus, Oden is an icebreaker that can easily traverse through sea ice, but this year’s expedition expedition will face nothing like the ice that crushed Franklin’s ship.
That's because over the last 40 years, sea ice has been disappearing at an alarming rate (data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center). Sea ice naturally melts during the long Arctic summer and freezes during the winter, but since 1980 it’s been losing considerably more ice than it gains leaving large expanses of open water in the summer. While the entire globe is warming, polar regions are warming up to three times faster leading to melting land-based glaciers, which raises global sea levels, and disappearing sea ice cover. This July is on track to become one of the warmest years the Arctic has seen, rivaling a record-breaking sea ice loss in 2012.
With less sea ice earlier in the season, more ships can move freely across the Northwest Passage and Arctic Ocean including tourist cruise ships, naval vessels, research ships and oil exploration rigs. The loss of sea ice, with its white reflective surfaces, means more heat is absorbed by the ocean leading to further warming. Loss of ice cover can also disrupt ecosystems, when plankton can absorb sunlight earlier in the season leading to a bloom in the ocean food web before birds and mammals have migrated north.
It’ll be a crowded Arctic this summer and fall. Another path-breaking research expedition called MoSAIC is getting ready to head up to the Arctic where it will spend an entire year adrift in an ice floe to study how sea ice and the Arctic climate system influences global weather and climate patterns. The German icebreaker Polarstern, with an international group of scientists from the U.S. and 16 other nations, will sail north in September 2019 and let the ship freeze in place, drifting with the sea ice across the North Pole until it melts again the following year. It will be the largest Arctic research expedition ever mounted with a rotating cast of 300 scientists with instruments to collect billions of observations that will help us better understand how a changing Arctic will affect those of us farther south.