Why We Are in the Arctic


Photo by Haley Smith Kingsland



From: Haley Smith Kingsland, Stanford University


“Climate change in polar regions is expected to be among the largest and most rapid of any region on Earth.” — Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2001


ICESCAPE’s interdisciplinary and multi-generational team of scientists is working hard to better understand the complicated dynamics of the Arctic Ocean and its response to climate change. In the coming weeks, we’ll feature interviews with each principal investigator about his or her research. Below are a few key scientific concepts you’ll likely encounter in conversations with them.


Global warming


Imagine a blanket wrapped around the earth. Composed of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor, Earth’s natural blanket traps heat coming from the sun to keep Earth’s atmosphere and surface warm.


Industrial behavior such as burning fossil fuels like coal and gasoline releases an enormous amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide concentration is now about fifty percent higher than it was before the Industrial Revolution. All of this extra carbon dioxide has trapped more heat in the earth’s atmosphere, and global temperature is expected to increase up to six degrees by the end of this century.


Why worry about a mere six degrees? Well, if the temperature were to drop six degrees, Earth would plummet into an Ice Age. So the current temperature rise could create an entirely new climate unlike anything humans have ever seen. Changes are already rippling across the world, and the Arctic is particularly vulnerable because of the white reflective surface of its sea ice.


Ice-albedo feedback


In the Arctic, ice forms and melts by seasons. It’s so cold in late fall that the surface ocean freezes, expelling its salt to form sea ice of all different kinds like dark nilas, pancake, and shuga. When the Arctic tilts towards the sun in early spring and summer, some sea ice melts in the extra heat.


Scientists use the term “ice-albedo feedback” to describe a phenomenon responsible for amplifying Arctic sea ice decline. Think of albedo as the amount of light reflected off a surface: a white surface like Arctic sea ice reflects lots of light (it has a high albedo), while a black surface like the ocean reflects little light (it has a low albedo). Now that the bright Arctic ice is disappearing in large part because of melting due to global warming, a greater area of the dark ocean is absorbing more sunlight, thus heating the poles even more and making ice formation more difficult. As ICESCAPE co-chief scientist Don Perovich explained in a 2005 New Yorker article, “Not only is the albedo of the snow-covered ice high; it’s the highest of anything we find on Earth. And not only is the albedo of water low; it’s pretty much as low as anything you can find on Earth. So what you’re doing is you’re replacing the best reflector with the worst reflector.”


“Today, Arctic sea ice is melting 28 days earlier and forming 17 days later than usual, meaning that the Arctic melt season has increased more than 45 days,” says ICESCAPE chief scientist Kevin Arrigo. In late May 2010, less ice covered the Arctic than in 2007, the year known for having the least amount of sea ice since records began in 1979. Don Perovich likens the current amount of Arctic sea ice loss to an area nearly half the size of the continental United States.


Sea ice and biology are intricately intertwined. Polar bears have lost valuable time to hunt ringed and bearded seals that live on the sea ice, and walruses’ sea ice habitat is shrinking. But how has reduced sea ice cover affected tiny, microscopic organisms like phytoplankton?




Photo by Haley Smith Kingsland



Primary production


Phytoplankton are one-celled algae that float at the surface ocean. Even though they live for just a few days, they’re the base of the Arctic food web. Tiny shrimp-like animals called copepods feed on them as do whales, seabirds, and fish. All of the energy that fuels the Arctic food web ultimately derives from phytoplankton.


Not only are phytoplankton the building blocks of the Arctic food web, they are also regulators of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. Like plants in your garden that lean towards sunbeams, phytoplankton are miniature plants that perform photosynthesis. Using the energy they obtain from absorbing sunlight, phytoplankton pull carbon dioxide from the surface ocean and create oxygen and carbohydrates, a process known as “primary production.” By removing carbon dioxide from the surface ocean, phytoplankton create space for additional carbon dioxide to enter from the atmosphere. Without the activity of these short-lived algae cells, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be much higher than it is today.


How will reduced Arctic sea ice cover affect primary production? Scientists think phytoplankton will thrive in larger expanses of open ocean with more access to sunlight. These new periods of high phytoplankton growth, or “blooms,” will thus increase the productivity of the Arctic Ocean. Connecting phytoplankton to climate change, the flux of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the Arctic Ocean has tripled over the last three decades, and scientists are working to discover where that extra carbon has gone and how phytoplankton may be using it.


ICESCAPE in the Arctic


As you will see through interviews with ICESCAPE scientists in the coming weeks, our team spans a wide breadth of expertise. Some researchers are characterizing phytoplankton communities and primary production, some are taking measurements that will allow them to calculate carbon dioxide concentrations in the surface ocean, and some are investigating sea ice ecology. Others are observing the export of particles from the surface ocean to the bottom, and yet others are taking optical measurements that will improve satellite data. Daily interactions aboard the Healy between sea ice researchers, nutrient analyzers, biological and chemical oceanographers, plankton ecologists, optics specialists, and carbon cycle experts are helping the Arctic scientific community develop a more holistic, interdisciplinary approach to understanding this rich ecosystem.




This image of Alaska and its ocean environs from June 24 combines data from different satellites. Brown is land, gray represents Arctic sea ice, while the colored areas represent different levels of chlorophyll. Chlorophyll a, the green pigment that aids photosynthesis, is an indicator of the amount of phytoplankton in the ocean. In this image, red illustrates areas of high chlorophyll concentration, where there’s a lot of phytoplankton and hence a lot of primary productivity. (Created by Gert van Dijken, a science and engineering associate at Stanford University)


Science Labs on the Icebreaker Healy


From: Haley Smith Kingsland, Stanford University


“I enjoy walking through the labs while they are full of activity. Without the science party on board, they are empty. Now, the lab benches are full of computers, bottles, beakers, funnels, and test tubes, and look like a science fair without the posters describing what’s what.” —Captain William Rall


Scientists work in more than 5000 square feet of science labs and support rooms on the Healy. There’s a large main science lab at the stern of the ship, two climate-controlled chambers, a few smaller laboratory spaces, and two docking stations for portable lab vans (twenty-foot cargo containers). In fact, “most of the work takes place in the labs,” says Jim Swift, a physical oceanographer from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.


While science spaces within the Healy were under design in the 1990s, Jim chaired an oversight committee, the Arctic Icebreaker Coordinating Committee, to offer constructive suggestions. The committee advocated for as much science space as possible, as well as enough flexibility for scientists to customize their labs to their unique instruments and personal tastes.


“A research ship is an industrial environment. It’s not like a home or office,” Jim explains. “Everything is out where you can get to it rather than behind a wall.” He says the Healy’s flexibility “is considered almost perfect by scientists because they can configure their set-ups.” Lab benches are made with plywood that scientists can drill into, and there’s plenty of power, light, sinks, cableways, and hot and cold running water.


Full of bustle and late-shift dance parties, here are some pictures of the science labs with researchers hard at work inside.





Molly Palmer, a graduate student at Stanford University, is experimenting with algae during her time aboard the Healy. She’s interested in carbon cycling and biological productivity in both the surface and deep Arctic Ocean, data that satellites can’t always capture. In a climate-controlled cold room on the Healy, Molly is determining how algal communities recover from light shock. Her studies will create a baseline of data to help scientists understand and predict algae’s response to less ice cover and greater sunlight in the Arctic due to global warming.




Scientists have processed many samples in the past week on the Healy and are already learning from the data they have collected. Here Shohei Watanabe, a graduate student at Universite Laval, is reviewing some of his data so that he can better design his future experiments for the next three weeks.




Rick Reynolds of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography shoots a laser beam at a particle in order to measure how the particle scatters light. Susan Becker, also from Scripps, is measuring the amount of dissolved oxygen in water samples.




Christie Wood, a graduate student at Clark University, operates a machine that runs water samples from the ice stations in order to identify variations of dissolved organic matter throughout the ice and water column.




Kate Lowry and Zach Brown, graduate students at Stanford University, pose in front of their water filtration rack that allows two people to process 24 water samples at once. As soon as the CTD rosette rises from the ocean, Zach and Kate wait in line to fill carboys of seawater from its water sampling bottles. They run sub-samples from the carboys through this filtration rack to measure the amount of chlorophyll, carbon, and various nutrients in the seawater. “It gets really busy!” says Kate. “Especially if one person has to leave for another experiment and the other person has to watch all 24 filtrations at once!”




Sharmila Pal, a graduate student at the University of South Carolina, studies organic carbon, or dead particles, sinking from the surface ocean to the deep ocean. She samples water from the CTD rosette and spikes it with thorium, which sticks to dead particles, in order to measure their concentration. She also deploys a pump from the Healy’s stern to collect sinking dead particles and measure the amount that rains down from the surface ocean to the bottom.



Mike Kong and Kristen Shake, graduate students at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, and Marlene Jeffries of the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences intently contemplate the Arctic uptake of carbon dioxide. They study inorganic carbon, or living particles, in the ocean. Here they’re standing near a VINDTA, a machine that helps calculate the amount of carbon dioxide in the surface ocean.



Aimee Neeley of NASA records crucial information in her sample log. Nearby, her water filtration setup takes measurements of the surface ocean to match with satellite data. Hopefully, her numbers will correspond with those of the satellites. Amy’s work differs from academic research in that she’s developing and refining scientific standards. “I really enjoy bringing the community together to converge on methods and protocols,” she says.


All photos by Haley Smith Kingsland.



Reflections from the Chief Scientist




From: Kevin Arrigo, Stanford University


I have been on research cruises before, but this is my first time being Chief Scientist.  Here are a few early thoughts after a week on the job.


Let me start by saying that when the opportunity to lead the NASA-funded ICESCAPE program presented itself, naturally I jumped at the chance.  We would be doing important scientific work in the Arctic Ocean and I looked forward to the challenges of both helping to organize and lead such a complex oceanographic expedition. And while I welcomed the challenge, I didn’t fully grasp its scope at the time. I’m beginning to, now.


For those of you who are not aware of what a Chief Scientist does, it is fair to say that we are the last word when it comes to making scientific decisions during a research cruise.  In my case, the position also included a great deal of pre-cruise planning and organization, but my primary responsibility is to ensure that we do the best science that we can possibly do while at sea.  Personally, I like to consult with the other scientists on board before deciding on things like where the ship will go and what we will sample when it gets there. That means lots of meetings. And teleconferences. And e-mail back and forth. And when we get on the ship, even more meetings. Stan Hooker, one of the scientists onboard the USCGC Healy quipped, “I have been to more science meetings in the first three days of this cruise than I have on any whole cruise in my entire life!”  Suffice it to say, I think meetings are important.


It also means keeping things on schedule. For that, we have a scientific plan of the day that I post on the “Board of Lies.” And while I really don’t mean to lie, the plan has an effective lifespan of about three seconds. Invariably, as soon as the plan is posted, some unforeseen event transpires that throws it all out of whack. Or maybe I’m just a lousy judge of how long things should take, I’m not sure which. All I know is that yesterday alone I probably posted more than a half dozen different versions of the plan of the day.


“Can I pump some water at this station?” asks Sharmila. “Sure,” I say, knowing that it’s going to slow us down by an hour and a half. Need to post a new plan.  The ice is heavier that we expected and the boat can’t go as fast as I’d hoped.  Post a new plan. The three-hour sea ice station takes five hours. Post a new plan. I forgot to include the science meeting. A new plan. You get the idea. Changes are to be expected, but accounting for them sure keeps me busy!


Luckily for me, NASA put together a very knowledgeable group of scientists who are great to work with. Even though there are 50 of us and we work in so many different scientific disciplines, everyone is willing to look beyond their own self-interests and promote what is best for the program.  Sure, there are often strong opinions but there is also a willingness to cooperate. For this I am very grateful!


As chief scientist, I also rely heavily on Captain Rall and his crew, as does the entire science team. I have to say that this group of young men and women are a pleasure to work with. They have just the right blend of experience and enthusiasm and seem willing to do almost anything to ensure that our “mission” succeeds. They drive the ship, run the winches, operate the cranes, stage our equipment, ensure our safety, cook our food and they always do it with a pleasant attitude. We couldn’t accomplish our goals without them.


I could go on, but it’s time for another science meeting.


Arctic Weather?


From: Kevin Arrigo, Stanford University


68° 00’ W, 167° 30’ N, June 21 — When you plan a trip to the Arctic Ocean, you expect it to be cold. Perhaps bitter cold. And cloudy. And probably also windy with rough seas. Suffice it to say that the weather we have experienced the last few days is not at all what we expected.  We have seen nothing but bright sunny skies, temperatures in the upper 50s and almost no wind— the ocean is a sheet of glass. At times it’s easy to forget that we are actually on a ship floating in a vast ocean. The stillness is beautiful, but also somewhat eerie because it seems so out of place.


Luckily, this means that conditions for deploying our wide array of instruments couldn’t be better. Getting things into and out of the water on a ship bouncing around in rough seas can be a real challenge. But so far, rough seas are nowhere to be found. Some of our instruments have even been able to measure the effect that this beautiful weather is having on the Arctic Ocean. As the sun beats down on the ocean surface, the water in the topmost layer heats up and we are able to measure its increase in temperature. In some places, we can also detect a thin layer of freshwater that comes from the rapid melting sea ice. Usually, this layer is not so obvious because the winds stir up the water column so much. Under such calm conditions, though, this warm and fresh layer is very easily detected.


We do realize, however, that our good fortune with the weather will not last forever.  I expect that as we move further north we will encounter a more typical Arctic Ocean environment. But until that time arrives, we will just enjoy bathing in the anomalous sunshine!





Photos by Haley Smith Kingsland


On the Healy: The Daily Schedule


From:  Haley Smith Kingsland, Stanford University



“The Board of Lies,” or “half-truths,” jokes science system engineer Dale Chayes, hangs in the main science lab at the Healy‘s stern. Chief scientist Kevin Arrigo constantly updates this plan of the day for the science operations to keep us all on track. A camera photographs the Board of Lies every two minutes, and pictures appear on an internal computer server so scientists and crew can check the daily schedule from anywhere on the ship. However, the plan changes continuously and hence the Board of Lies is almost always wrong at any instant in time.




Arctic Circle Crossing

From: Haley Smith Kingsland, Stanford University


66° 33’ N, 179° 85’ W, June 18 — Friday night, the following pipe reverberated throughout the Healy: “Now attention all hands. The cutter Healy has crossed into the Arctic Circle — the cold, icy waters of King Neptune. Welcome home, Polar Bears. All Blue Noses beware! That is all.”


“Polar Bears” are those who have already crossed the Arctic Circle and gone through initiation. “Blue Noses,” on the other hand, have some surprises waiting for them. Everyone’s wondering what the secret initiation will be, including Blue Nose chief scientist Kevin Arrigo.


Immediately after the announcement, a crowd of scientists and Coasties gathered at the bow as the Healy passed through a belt of sea ice and herds of walruses. For many, it was the first sighting of both — a truly surreal night to remember.




“This is what I’ve been waiting for!” said Cedric Fichot, a graduate student at the University of South Carolina. (Photo by Haley Smith Kingsland)




The walrus’ scientific name, Odobenus rosmarus, means “tooth-walking sea horse” in Latin. Walrus tusks are really extended upper canine teeth that lengthen with age— up to three feet during a walrus’ lifetime. Walruses live on the sea ice edge over shallow continental shelves, and use their tusks to hoist themselves onto the ice and bore holes in it. Males also employ their tusks to threaten rivals. Walrus’ whiskers, or vibrissae, help them nuzzle and forage for shellfish on the shallow sea floor. How will climate change affect these gargantuan creatures? As Arctic sea ice melts and retreats from shallow continental shelves, walruses lose their habitat to water that’s too deep for them to dive for less abundant food. So instead they “haul out” to rest on coastal lands, and over-congregation leads to stampedes and trampling of young calves as well as stiff competition for limited resources. (Photo by Haley Smith Kingsland)




United States Geological Survey scientists have been tracking walruses with satellite radio-tags in order to trace their movements in the changing sea ice habitat. You can follow animations of the walrus’ paths in both the Chukchi and Bering Seas at <http://alaska.usgs.gov/science/biology/walrus/tracking.html>. (Photo by Haley Smith Kingsland)


Across the Bering Strait


From Haley Smith Kingsland, Stanford University

65° 46’ N, 169° 33’W, June 17-18 — With Russia to port and the United States to starboard, the Healy paused for seven stations across the narrow Bering Strait. Farther north, scientists requested an eighth station on the Chukchi shelf. Research is on a roll, and many ICESCAPE teams have divided their work into twelve-hour shifts.

Instruments deployed at the Bering Strait transect measured properties of the water column at four different sea depths — 2 meters, 10 meters, 25, and 50. “The transect went really well, much better than I would have expected,” said chief scientist Kevin Arrigo. “At one point we were even an hour and a half ahead of schedule!”


Here is ICESCAPE’s cruise track delineated by transects. We started at the Bering Strait transect and will continue to many more research stations in the Kotzebue transect, Chuckchi Hot Spot, Barrow Hot Spot, and sea ice. You can follow the Healy’s cruise track at <http://www.icefloe.net/cruisetrack.html> as well as <http://vislab-ccom.unh.edu/~schwehr/healy/>.





The light green squares represent the seven stations across the Bering Strait.





The International Date Line separates the two Diomede Islands, so residents of Little Diomede in the United States can gaze towards tomorrow on Big Diomede in Russia. Here, we spotted a small community on the very tip of Little Diomede Island. (Photo by Haley Smith Kingsland)




Fairway Rock from the fantail. (Photo by Haley Smith Kingsland)





Marine science technician Horace Brittle, or MST1, lowers the CTD rosette into the ocean. (Photo by Haley Smith Kingsland)




Elliot Weiss of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography operated a light sensor on the Healy’s bow walkway. (Photo by Haley Smith Kingsland)





During the Bering Strait transect, we felt almost warm on deck. Temperatures were in the mid-40s! (Photo by Haley Smith Kingsland)





Station eight was the first station we deployed the ASB, or Arctic Survey Boat. From it Stan Hooker’s team measured the optical properties of the ocean and collected water samples for those working in the main science lab. What’s it like to conduct research from a small boat? “It’s an excruciating amount of work,” says Stan. “We’re still in survival mode.” (Photo by Haley Smith Kingsland)




At station eight the PRR went off the Healy on a cable near Siberia. “Be careful you don’t deploy the package in Russian waters!” one of the marine science technicians warned. (Photo by Haley Smith Kingsland)




“We’re playing hard at work and working hard at play in the Arctic!” joked Greg Mitchell of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography as he ran from bow to fantail while deploying his optical packages. (Photo by Haley Smith Kingsland)


First Ice Sighted!

From: Haley Smith Kingsland, Stanford University


The “Aloft Conn” camera shot this image as the Healy passed through the ice belt early Thursday morning.



62° 36’ N, 168° 29’ W, June 17 — On Thursday morning, about 240 nautical miles south of the Arctic Circle, came an update from Captain William Rall: “I need to be careful what I ask for. At 1:00 a.m. last night/this morning, at about an hour BEFORE sunset, the Healy slowed to 7 knots to pass through a belt of ice. The ice was broken up with no pressure, the biggest pieces were only about the size of a truck. It may have woken up some of the light sleepers, and I did see a couple excited scientists up on the bow taking pictures. We still expect open water at our next planned science station which is at the narrowest part of the Bering Strait, although a wind shift can always change that and blow some ice in.”


Logistics at Sea


From: Haley Smith Kingsland, Stanford University


56° 50.131’ N, 167° 13.632’ W, June 15— The Healy is officially underway! At zero-eight-hundred hours Tuesday morning, line handlers threw off the Healy’s dock lines from giant cleats on the pier and the tugboat James Dunlap nudged the Healy out of Dutch Harbor. Captain William Rall’s departure was very smooth and we’re all becoming accustomed to the ocean now rolling beneath us. “It’s great to be on our primary mission!” the captain reported back to Coast Guard headquarters.



Photo by Haley Smith Kingsland



Coast Guard crew members at the fantail, the rounded area at the stern of the ship. (Photo by Haley Smith Kingsland)



The Healy passed The Deadliest Catch fleet on the way out of Dutch Harbor. (Photo by Haley Smith Kingsland.)



We’re heading north to the Bering Strait, planning to reach our first research station on Thursday. You can check out the “Aloft Conn” photographs taken from the Healy every hour.


Tuesday afternoon, the science party mustered for orientation with the Coast Guard. We absorbed the following rules: Take short “sea showers” to conserve water. On the mess deck, throw only wet trash in the “red goat” (garbage disposal), and no hats or open-toed shoes. In the laundry room, clean out the lint traps. Wear a lifejacket while working on the side of the ship. Fill out the online accountability form twice a day. Help yourselves to the candy jars outside the sick bay doors.





Those who had never donned “Gumby Suits” were required to learn how to shimmy into these protective neoprene immersion suits in the event of abandon ship. “It was a really strange feeling,” says Shohei Watanabe, a graduate student at Universite Laval in Canada. “The suit was so warm but so difficult to move around in— even just to move my hands. It was also hard to breathe!” (Photo by Karen Romano Young)




If we ever have to abandon ship, every Coast Guard crew and science party member has a specific raft assignment in a particular location. Here, we practice assembling in the proper places on the Healy’s helipad. (Photo by Haley Smith Kingsland)



Tuesday night, ICESCAPE scientists and Coast Guard marine science technicians gathered to discuss set-up progress and finalize the cruise’s operational plan. They have so many logistics to consider before scientific research on the Healy gets underway.


“Even though we had a number of planning meetings and weekly teleconferences, there are always last minute changes to make,” said chief scientist Kevin Arrigo. “It’s really important to get together as a group and hammer out the last details. Very soon we’ll be in serious science mode!”


Video: Scientists Prep for Arctic Voyage

 From: Steve Cole, NASA’s Office of Communications, Washington

Go onboard the U.S. Coast Guard’s icebreaker in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, as ICESCAPE scientists get ready to set sail earlier this week. Three of the expedition’s scientists describe what they hope to encounter and accomplish on the five-week Arctic ocean research voyage.