Charting the Mystery of the Arctic Ocean's Origins

The origins of the Arctic Ocean have long puzzled scientists. Alex Chadwick examines the mystery with Bernard Coakley, a marine geophysicist serving aboard the U.S. Coast Guard research vessel Healy. The crew of the ship is currently crossing over the North Pole, collecting data about the Arctic Circle's landscape and sediment.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

This is high travel season in the Arctic Circle, such as it is. Continuous sunshine at this time of year softens the ice a little and makes travel to the top of the world easier. It's a good time for scientists to work around the clock, too. The US Coast Guard icebreaker ship the Healy is on a research voyage that will take it across the North Pole from Alaska to Norway. Scientists on board are collecting data on the shape of the Earth's surface beneath the ocean to learn more about how the basin of the Arctic Sea formed. Earlier, I spoke with one of the lead scientists on the Healy, Bernard Coakley of the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska. He's finishing up an 18-hour day.

Dr. BERNARD COAKLEY (University of Alaska): Oh, we're at 82 degrees, 46.9 minutes north and about 180 degrees longitude. So we're about 800 kilometers from the Pole.

CHADWICK: Eight hundred kilometers from the Pole. And how long is it going to take you to get there?

Dr. COAKLEY: We're expecting to be there about September 12th, after we rendezvous with the Swedish icebreaker Odin in about five days.

CHADWICK: And tell me, how do things look? Are you encountering a lot of ice now?

Dr. COAKLEY: Yeah, right now, the ice is pretty heavy. For the first two weeks we were operating up here, the ice was fairly mushy and loose, which let the Healy advance like a hot knife through butter. But right now, we're encountering multiyear floes. The ice is blue and solid. There are many fewer melt ponds. It slows the progress of the ship quite a bit. Sometimes we have to do what they call backing and ramming. When the ice is so thick and resistant that we can't make forward progress, we back off and go at it again, and sometimes we have to go at it three or four or five times.

CHADWICK: You are actually interested in the geologic structure of the whole Arctic region and the different marine ridges that are down there, yes?

Dr. COAKLEY: That's correct. And the history, you know, particularly how they formed. We're also collecting what we call multichannel seismic reflection data which lets us see one to, say, four kilometers into the sedimentary record, and by looking at how the sediments are layered, we can make some assessments of, say, the sequence of events that formed these different features. Plate tectonics--you know, that's been kind of an issue up here in what's known as the Amerasian Basin, where we are now, because there's no commonly agreed upon plate tectonic model for the Amerasian Basin and, in fact, that's part of the reason we're here. Because if you look at the oceans everywhere else in the world, what's happened in the last 50 years or so, we've understood the oceans and we've been able to use that to understand the adjacent continents, and here, it works kind of the other way. So how we understand the Arctic continents, the continents that ring the Arctic Ocean, is somewhat restricted by the fact that we don't really understand how the ocean formed.

CHADWICK: When you say how the ocean formed, you don't mean the water. You mean the ocean basin.

Dr. COAKLEY: That's correct.

CHADWICK: Yeah. Why is it that this region is not understood and why is it that it matters so much to you?

Dr. COAKLEY: Well, it's not understood partly because it's been inaccessible; it's been very difficult just to get here. Historically, people have worked from drifting ice islands, which you don't really have control over where you go, and I think it's only been in the last 10 years that we could begin to say more confident things about the structures, their history and formation, come up with hypotheses to test. And that's where we are right now.

CHADWICK: Bernard Coakley of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska.

Dr. Coakley, thank you.

Dr. COAKLEY: OK, thank you.

CHADWICK: Good luck getting to the Pole.

Dr. COAKLEY: It's all downhill from here.

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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