The Arctic Ocean is an enigmatic, high-leverage environment. Small changes to the ecological and physical status quo in that environment have profound effects on global climate.
While those seas cover a region nearly the size of South America, most of that area remains remote, unpopulated and hard-to-access. Because of the operational costs associated with polar measurements, we scientists are unsure of some of the basic realities of Arctic sea ice, ocean, atmosphere, and ecology.
I am, in most senses, a mathematician. I use mathematical tools to describe and understand biological, physical, and earth systems. I was drawn to the Arctic Ocean, in many ways a totally “new” climate system that has emerged over my lifetime, where new scientific and mathematical approaches are required.
The problem was, I was studying a world that I couldn’t access. The costs of grant-supported Arctic travel are so high, that without a pressing operational need to travel there, the possibility of doing on the ground research seemed impossible for someone like me. I might as well have been studying Mars. Being part of the Enduring Ice expedition changed that.
Out of the lab, into the field
Unlike the other team members on the expedition, this was my first time in a self-contained wilderness setting. I was a nerd, and a city nerd at that. I didn’t grow up in remote areas, or spend much time in wilderness environments. Despite that, I didn’t die out there! Instead, I’ve been able to develop field and research experience in ways I could only have dreamed. The Enduring Ice expedition presented an opportunity to view an environment that few scientists, let alone citizens, have access to.
What we learned
Nares Strait is a critical region for Arctic sea ice – climate models suggest it possesses the thickest, largest sea ice floes left on Earth. When these floes break, sea ice from the Arctic pours through the Strait and melts. Like many of the components of the Arctic climate system, areas like this are seldom studied and their changes in the emergent Arctic are unknown.
We found, and have since reported, that there is no multi-year thick sea ice left in Nares Strait. As the major outlet for thick Arctic Ocean sea ice, this means there is none left in the Arctic basin. That this has occurred in 2017, more than 15 years before the most pessimistic predictions of climate models, has dire ramifications. I hope through the project we can explain why the thinning and fracturing of sea ice will have serious consequences for future climate simulations.
In many ways scientists are still uncovering answers to some of the basic questions about the world around us.