International Polar Year Kicks Off
IRA FLATOW, host:
Global warming is happening faster at the poles than anywhere on the planet. Scientists say the arctic maybe free of all summer ice within the next century.
So for the rest of the hour we're going to talk about an interesting new project that kicked off this week. It is the International Polar Year. You may remember 50 years ago - I remember, I'm old enough to remember - the International Geophysical Year, which is, as I said, 50 years ago when people were studying the poles for the first time. And now they're going to go back to studying them again because the ice, the polar regions are very, very important.
We talked about the artic here being free of ice in the summertime, while at the other end of the Earth, in Antarctica, the ice is melting, too. And that's very important because 70 percent of all the water, all the fresh water on the planet, is locked up in that most southern of continents.
And of course melting ice off the continent leads to rising sea levels. You have flooded seacoasts and not to mention potentially catastrophic changes to warm ocean currents that keep hundreds of millions of people warm in the winter.
The polar seas are also, you know, home to microscopic plants and animals. We think about the poles - you see pretty pictures of the polar bears on the ice. Well, there are incredible numbers of microscopic plants and animals at the bottom of the food chain right up there that live in the ice. Of course, being at the bottom, we have the larger animal that feed on them and so on, and so on, and so on, up the food chain.
So it's no surprise then that scientists want to understand the ecology of the polar regions and how they are changing due to global warming. And as I say, to learn more they are fanning out until the end of the year after two years of intensive study. And so for the rest of the hour we're going to preview the International Polar Year, talk about the kind of questions the researchers from over 60 countries hope to answer with their expeditions. And a bit later we're going to catch up by satellite phone with explorer Will Steger. Will is in the midst of a 1,200-mile expedition, complete with dog sleds, across the Canadian arctic. So if you'd like to join our discussion, our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK.
Let me introduce my guests to you. Mary Albert is past chair of the U.S. National Committee for the International Polar Year, a senior research engineer at the U.S. Army's Cold Region Research and Engineering Lab, and she's also adjunct professor in the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire. She joins us today from Hanover. Welcome to the program, Dr. Albert.
Dr. MARY ALBERT (Engineering, Dartmouth College): Thank you for having me.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Jody Deming is a member of the U.S. National Committee for the International Polar Year. She is professor of biology, oceanography and astrobiology at the University of Washington in Seattle. And she joins us from Member Station KUOW in Seattle. Welcome to the program, Dr. Deming.
Dr. JODY DEMING (Professor of Biology, Oceanography and Astrobiology, University of Washington Seattle): Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Dr. Albert, it's really two years, right? We call it the International Polar Year; it's really two years. If, you know, you're doing research at the polls you need to years to get one year's worth of research done.
Dr. ALBERT: Yes. Basically, we wanted time to allow a full year at least of research at both poles. And because a lot of the research activity occurs when we can access the poles, and that's usually in the summer in each polar region, and the fact that the summer in the polar regions are opposite. In the arctic, the summer is in May, June and July, and in the Antarctic it's November, December, January. So it's easiest access when it's warm there and we wanted to allow two full years in each area.
FLATOW: Let's talk about what the goals of the IPY are. Give us, Dr. Albert, first. What are you looking to accomplish here?
Dr. ALBERT: Right. Well, it offers - this is a unique point in time and this is a terrific place to join hands internationally to develop a better understanding of how the global climate system works. We recognize that the polar regions play important roles, but there are many, many unknowns. And coming to an understanding of how it works in the whole planet system can really help us get a sense of our future. Another goal is to bring out fundamental discoveries in many research areas. There are areas that are just poised to make huge discoveries - genomics in biology, polar biology, and adaptation to change. How do these things work?
In addition, leaps in medicine. There's an Arctic Human Health Initiative that many nations are joined in to look at the affects of pollution, climate change impact on disease, and circumpolar infectious disease surveillance. And the National Institute of Health will be active in that. And finally, the third goal is to spark growth and education, and inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers and physicians. So we would love to have a giant campaign of reaching out to students of all ages, whether they be kindergarten through high schools, college; or whether they've graduated from college or not, people in the community and senior citizens. Involve everyone in learning.
FLATOW: All right, Dr. Albert. We'll get back to you and also talk with Dr. Deming after this short break about the International Polar Year. Stay with us. We'll be right back. I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
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FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking this year about the kickoff this week of the International Polar Year, studying the poles, both the north and south poles. Of course, the North Pole is basically floating sea ice, and Antarctica is a whole continent. And the pole in Antarctica's under two miles of ice, and it's laying under it. And so they're going to be looking at a lot of stuff down there. I'm talking with Mary Albert, past chair of the U.S. National Committee for the International Polar Year, Jody Deming, member of the U.S. National Committee for the International Polar Year. Our number: 1-800-989-8255.
Dr. Deming, what interests you most about studying the poles, or the ice there?
Dr. DEMING: You hit the correct word, the ice. The ice determines so much about what happens in the Arctic Ocean. As you said, it's the ocean we have on this planet that's unique because it's covered with ice. So ice determines not only weather patterns and how the ocean flows, but how life exists in that ocean, how ecosystems are structured. And the ice itself passes through some very severe conditions as we go through the Arctic winter. And so it's an opportunity to study the limits of life on our planet. As things get very cold and very salty, it turns out in ice. So I'm interested in ecosystems structure and the changes that we're going to be seeing, that we are seeing, as climate changes - and so rapidly in the Arctic - and the types of genetic systems that we may lose the chance to learn about as we lose the ice where they live.
FLATOW: What genes are in the ice?
Dr. DEMING: Well, they're all - most of them are from microbial organisms, microscopic organisms that we can't love in the same way that we love polar bears but that we should be quite interested in because they've evolved for a long time on this planet. They have very interesting genes that have helped them to survive severe conditions. We could take advantage of those genes in human health perspectives, for example. Some of these little microbes, they coat themselves up with essentially mucus to protect themselves from the severe cold. The genes that produce those compounds - those compounds themselves could be very useful in health initiatives. There's one favorite example I have of bone healing that can be facilitated by these kinds of mucoid compounds. And here in the polar environments, who would have ever thought that we might have a pool of genes there that could help us solve some of our own human conditions.
FLATOW: And so what does the global warming do to, you know, this gene pool, or the microorganisms there? Is it just simply that the melting of the ice would lose a home for where they live during the year.
Dr. DEMING: Well that's a good question. We'll certainly use the home that they are dependent on. The question is, can they survive in the ocean as it warms up?
FLATOW: And that's what you'll be studying?
Dr. DEMING: That's what I have been studying for some time now. That's in my capacity as an astrobiologist, because I'm very interested in the extremes of life on this planet.
FLATOW: Because - well, let me just go that direction a little bit. As an astrobiologist then, if you study what's available - what can live on this Earth under extreme conditions, then you might find what to look for in other planets out there?
Dr. DEMING: Well, that's the idea.
Dr. DEMING: Earth is not the only planet in this solar system that has an ocean. Europa, the moon to Jupiter, has a full ocean that's larger than our ocean. And it's also capped by ice, much more ice than we have here. And our - if we ever have a chance to sample that moon, we'll be sampling the ice. So if we have any expectation of life being in that ice, we'd better fully understand the ice on this planet and what lives in it before we lose it all as the planet warms up.
FLATOW: As the planet is warming and as the poles - and let's continue to talk about this ice for a bit - are you seeing changes in the life in the ice? And is it adapting, or what is happening? What changes are occurring?
Dr. DEMING: Well let me put it in a slightly broader context now, because the primary production that goes on in the Arctic Ocean, either the plants that make organic matter from CO2 in the atmosphere and sunlight, a good portion of that production that happens in the Arctic Ocean right now happens in the ice itself. So we have ice algae that are living at the base of the ice in conjunction with the ocean below. They're getting just enough light through the ice above and all their nutrients from the water below. They flourish early in the spring, they fall out, they fuel the life that lives at the bottom of the ocean, and go up the food change from there. Larger crustaceans and mollusks, the seals and fish that feed on them, the polar bear that feed on the seals. And there you have the whole ecosystem.
Well, as we lose the ice, we shift away from this ice algal production to an open water system like the rest of the world's oceans. And the rest of the world oceans don't support the same sort of higher trophic levels, or larger animals, that we know. And one area we might want to be quite concerned about is the area of fisheries. Most of our major fisheries of the world are at high latitudes, if you've ever thought about it, and we're warming those high latitudes. The good news may be that we have some new fisheries develop further north than we've imagined or been able to access. The bad news may be that we'll lose some of our favorite ones.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Mary Albert, you are a snow and ice researcher. What questions do you want answered?
Dr. ALBERT: I'm involved in efforts to look at ways in which we can understand the past and current climate change from the secrets in the snow and the ice. One effort I'll be involved with in Greenland is looking at how the snow - and I'll explain here now - snow that's more than a year old we call firn. So in central Greenland it's so cold that the snow never melts. It just piles up for centuries and centuries, and thousands of years. And on the surface you have snow as we know it, is less than a year old, but that doesn't melt. So below that it's about 100 meters of firn, which is really old snow that becomes compacted.
And firn serves as an archive for old air so that we're looking at how we can - what's the interaction between the structure of the firn and the air within the firn with the ultimate goal of being better able to use chemistry of firn air records to look at the atmospheric composition before the industrial revolution, or around the time of the industrial revolutions, so that we can actually go into the firn and study air that was in the atmosphere at that time.
FLATOW: So the climate is stored in that air?
Dr. ALBERT: The climate is stored in that air, and contaminants are stored in that air, too. I'm partnering with some French from Grenoble in France who are measuring mercury in the firn air to see, you know, our current mercury emissions. We don't have a baseline for what mercury was in the past. And if we can understand how the system works, we may be able to determine what mercury content was in the atmosphere before the industrial revolution.
FLATOW: Now we've heard news that the Greenland ice sheet is melting three times faster than they had thought it would be. Is that part of your bailiwick or is that someone else who would be studying that?
Dr. ALBERT: Yes. Well, I mean all of this involves many, many researchers, so Jody and I aren't the only ones involved. There's researchers form many nations looking at many aspects. And actually ice sheet stability is the topic that - and climate change in ice sheets - is a topic that many in the United States will be studying using satellites from NASA to look at large patterns of melt, and using geologists and geophysicists to understand how does the surface melt percolate down through the ice and enable the ice to break up and slide off of the ice sheet, off of the continent faster, to understand how the mechanism works. So I'm one small player in one very large system.
FLATOW: And many countries - we talked about 60 countries being involved. Why so many?
Dr. ALBERT: Well the problems that are being addressed in the International Polar Year are problems that not one nation could address alone. They require many, many people with different perspectives and different measuring techniques coming together as partners to try to attack these large problems and see if we can make some progress and understand the Earth and how it works.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-825 is our number. We're talking about the International Polar Year this hour. And we're going to bring up because we have him and we don't know how long we'll have him for. We have Will Steger, who is in a 1,200-mile dogsled expedition across Baffin Island in the Canadian arctic. And to get you centered, that's just due north of Montreal, west of Greenland.
Will Steger has been leading expeditions to the arctic and Antarctic for more than 30 years, but this is the first trip of his Global Warming 101 expedition, which is aimed to arrange awareness of climate change and how it's affecting the polar regions. He's not alone. Included on his expedition are four Inuit hunters whose way of life is threatened by the warming taking place at the end of the Earth. And he's calling in now from Baffin Island to talk about his trip. Welcome to the program, Mr. Steger.
Mr. WILL STEGER (Polar Explorer): It's good to be here, Ira. Hello.
FLATOW: Thank you. Tell us how the expedition is going so far. Where have you been? Where are you headed?
Mr. STEGER: We're heading around Baffin, basically going around the five communities for 1,200 miles. We're presently right out in the open right now. It's about thirty mile-an-hour wind. So we're traveling on skis and on dogsleds, and there's seven of us on the expedition.
FLATOW: And how far do you travel each day?
Mr. STEGER: Right now, we're traveling about 20 miles a day. It's about nine hours of light now at this time. It's a little bit stormy. The dogs are getting in shape. Later on, we'll be traveling 30, 35 miles a day. We've got 44 dogs on the team and four sleds.
FLATOW: Give me an idea, a thumbnail sketch of why you're doing this.
Mr. STEGER: Well, I traveled in the arctic, as you mentioned, for over 30 years and I've been a witness in some of the great changes. I've crossed the Larsen A and B ice shelves. These are both disintegrated.
Yeah, I've heard you talking about the Greenland ice cap. We crossed the Greenland ice cap in '88. That's now totally changed. Every route that I've taken on the open ocean has now changed. And we need to bring about awareness to global warming. It's real, and it's first happening here in the arctic and it's really affecting the cultures of this area.
FLATOW: And you have four Inuit hunters with you. Are they symbolic?
Mr. STEGER: Yeah. Well, they are, actually they're our eyes and ears of what we're observing. For example, we just passed through a small canyon. There was a stream that's wide open that's normally frozen. They've never seen, actually, that particular stream open like this. And typical things like this that they are observant of and pointing out to us that we normally would miss.
FLATOW: And these are things that they might never have seen before in the frozen arctic.
Mr. STEGER: Yes, it is. For example, around the coastline of Baffin Island, the first 50 miles - we're in the interior right now. The first 50 miles is really hard packed, windy. They've never seen situations like that. It's because of the stronger winds and the thaws that they have in the fall. And because of this, there's no game in that area at all. We wouldn't normally - we wouldn't even observe that, but they have pointed all these details as we're traveling along.
FLATOW: Are you seeing other obvious signs of global warming?
Mr. STEGER: Well, today, it's pretty warm. It's zero degrees Fahrenheit, which is almost like spring weather that we've had the last week. We saw ravens today. Normally, we don't see ravens in the wintertime, especially in the interior like this. Birds are normally not in this area in the wintertime. Very subtle things like this, and these signs will change a lot more once the spring weather. We really see it when we saw them flying out in the spring, the earlier thaws, new type of wild life appearing on the scene.
FLATOW: I understand that a bit later you're having a celebrity guest. Virgin chairman Richard Branson is going to join you.
Mr. STEGER: Yeah, Branson is joining us up in a small village by name of Clyde River. He's going to cross Baffin Island with us, about 300 miles. It's a pretty rugged section there, and we're going back with - we're going to conclude in the village (unintelligible) lake, where our four hunters are from. As you know, Branson is very concerned about global warming, too. He's lending his name to this. And we're getting him behind the Inuit cause, show people around the world here that this cause is really affected by global warming.
FLATOW: And how long will it take you to make your trip?
Mr. STEGER: We should be finished around May 10, May 12, so a little couple of more months from now. Relatively short expedition for us, but we try to end a month early because of the early springs now that occur.
FLATOW: Well, we wish you good luck and maybe we'll have the opportunity to talk to you later on your expedition.
Mr. STEGER: Okay. Thanks, Ira. I appreciate the interview.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Will Steger is a polar explorer based in (unintelligible) in St. Paul, Minnesota and the leader of the Global Warming 101 Expedition to Baffin Island.
I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
Our number 1-800-989-8255. We're talking about the International Polar Year with my guest Mary Albert, past chair of the U.S. National Committee for the International Polar Year, and Jodi Deming, member of the U.S. National Committee for the International Polar Year.
I don't know if you ladies remember the first IGY 50 years ago. I do. That was the first time that we sort of ventured out scientifically into the poles, past the great exploratory year of 100 years ago.
Dr. ALBERT: Yes, I was a kid and I remember seeing IGY stuff in comic books. Donald Duck, I believe, had an IGY episode, and just vaguely aware of it from my early youth.
FLATOW: Times have changed. I don't think you'll see too many, you know, International Polar Year comic books, will you?
Dr. ALBERT: Well, we - the kids nowadays, you know, are active on the Internet. They do still read, and so we do hope to have children's literature books put out in a variety of nations, a variety of languages about the Polar Year and about science. But now what is really different with kids is the Internet and television, and so that is one way to easily reach many and to link many together.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number.
Dr. DEMING: If I can jump in on that subject.
FLATOW: Sure. Jump in, please.
Dr. DEMING: Yeah. One of the things we are trying to do in the Arctic Ocean on the oceanography side is to bring high school kids onboard the research icebreakers. Actually give them a chance to experience what the scientists do on a daily basis and experience the environment itself.
Canada, for example, has a program called International Schools Onboard. And there's a competition to go through with your local high school to get selected to come onboard the ship. And then you get to work right alongside with us and help do science, and project, using the Internet from the ship, back to your high schools, back to your home communities.
FLATOW: That's terrific. Let's go to John in Anchorage. Hi, John.
JOHN (Caller): Hi.
FLATOW: Go ahead.
JOHN: I just wanted to comment on - I have lived in Alaska all my life and I've noticed a change ever since, you know, probably about, like, around 10 years old and the winters that we up here. I mean we used to have winters where, you know, like snow would, you know, be covering up all the way up to your driveway or all the way up to your garage door.
But in the last 10 years, 10 or 12 years, it's been - we've had really just weak winters up here, you know, like - as if, if you're a snowboarder or a skier and there's not much time for you to actually go snowboarding or skiing. The winters were really warm. Not a lot of snowfall at all, you know.
It would get cold, you know, in February. And we have this kind of warming period in February up here, and it's so kind of constant that construction builders up here can kind of plan around it. But in the last 10 years, it's kind of been off in that sense. And we've had like, you know, in the past I would say like three years or so there's birds still kind of like flying around in huge flocks in the middle of January and February - and I don't mean ravens or anything like that - but normally when you wouldn't see birds you do then.
FLATOW: All right, John. Thanks for calling. We're going to have to take a short break. Come back, talk lots more about the International Polar Year with Jodie Deming and Mary Albert, and take more of your phone calls. So please stay with us.
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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking about the poles, and the international polar year, which kicked off this week, and the study of the climates and cultures of people living in the polar regions.
My guests: Mary Albert, who is a senior research engineer at the U.S. Army's Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, Jody Deming, professor of biological oceanography and astrobiology at the University of Washington in Seattle. Our number, 1-800-989-8255.
We were talking to Will Steger just a few moments ago, Dr. Deming, in Baffin Island - a good place to look for polar change and study the ice and culture?
Dr. DEMING: Absolutely. I was there in that region at the end of October, early November, just this past fall, on a Canadian research icebreaker. We were confronted with transiting through the archipelago near Baffin Island, where we just heard about.
And our captain had to take some serious measures in anticipation of passing through a very narrow strait. At that time of the year, historically, no ship had ever passed through Belle Strait or Fury and Hecla Strait, because those straits are known to be completely blocked by ice and something we call multi-year ice, very old ice that just clogs the straits.
So as we entered the strait, we were all absolutely shocked to find that it was wide open, not a single bit of sea ice anywhere. And we sailed through for the first time that late in the fall. We went through two straits like that. So this is just witnessing the changes that have happened - the loss of ice, the opening of these navigable passageways. It's going to mean a change of thinking internationally about how we look to the north for various navigational issues.
FLATOW: Why is the warming occurring so much quicker in the polar regions? Why are we seeing this kind of melting in the open sea, the sea opening up so much, Dr. Albert?
Dr. ALBERT: The polar regions are more sensitive to climate change, perhaps, than the mid-latitudes. Because even under the coldest conditions, snow and ice as natural materials are much closer to their melting point than other surface materials, you know, like sands and stone, and things like that. So they're sensitive to the environment, and in addition there are important feedbacks that occur.
For example, when arctic sea ice melts, the sun, instead of being reflected off of the top of the snow back into space, goes down into the ocean and it warms the water. And the warmer water then reflects heat that goes back up and adds more heat into our greenhouse effect. So there are feedbacks caused by the different nature of the covering surface. We call the albedo, the amount of sunlight that's reflected versus the amount that's absorbed. And so when more is absorbed, it increases warming.
FLATOW: George in San Francisco, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
GEORGE (Caller): Thanks, Ira. We would like to know if we can demonstrate a correlation between movements of massive ice sheets such as you've mentioned -Greenland, South Pole and Arctic ice sheets, maybe a couple of miles of ice -between the movement of those, maybe miniscule movements that wouldn't notice if you're in camped right on the ice, but perhaps the water that trickles down and lubricates the surfaces beneath, perhaps all the way to bedrock, might cause slight movements in the ice that could trigger seismic activity.
FLATOW: You mean at the ice, or someplace else - where you're living?
GEORGE: Well, you know, nothing happens in a vacuum. So I suppose that geologists and seismologists would say that all of those parts of the crust are ultimately connected. But we would be asking that question, too, wouldn't we?
FLATOW: Yeah. Let me see if I can get an answer.
Dr. ALBERT: Yeah, that's true. Just as ocean waves can propagate huge distances between continents in long waves, seismic activity, and activity that propagates in a seismic way through the earth, can propagate long distances and be heard further away.
I don't know the extent to which we can sense ice sheet movement from far way, but I would think seeing the evidence that ice sheets leave on rocks that they've gone over. They gouge the rocks; it leaves a clear imprint on the surface after an ice sheet has been in a place. It would not be at all surprising if you could detect movement seismically.
GEORGE: That ice sheet is how heavy?
Dr. ALBERT: Well, it's basically - the Greenland ice sheet is two miles thick in the center. I don't know the total weight, but that's a huge mass.
GEORGE: We could take that mass and we could measure the mass, and then we could calibrate that against various leverages and pressures that it exerts on the landmass under it. And then we could be looking for or anticipating any changes in the seismicity in the immediate area and possibly radiating from it.
FLATOW: I think you need to file a paper with the NSF to try that out.
GEORGE: I'd best get on that.
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FLATOW: Thanks for calling. 1-800-989-8255. Although, in fact, I have read stories in papers about an increase in what sounds like seismic activity - but the ice is just moving at a much faster rate in Greenland - by measuring the seismometers.
Dr. ALBERT: Yes, I imagine that there are people who have started to measure this.
FLATOW: Yeah, it's very interesting because I don't think people have any idea of how much ice locked up in Greenland or Antarctica. How much water is there?
Dr. ALBERT: Well, quite a bit. If it would melt, it would - if all the Greenland ice sheet would melt, Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., large parts of Florida would be underwater, as well as L.A. and a lot of major cities. So it can contribute substantially to sea level rise.
FLATOW: Let's go to Spencer in Iowa. Hi, Spencer.
SPENCER (Caller): Hello.
FLATOW: Hi there.
SPENCER: I'm curious to know, what is to prevent us from pumping freshwater or even saltwater - I guess is what we'd have to use - back under the North Pole so that we could replenish the diminishing ice. It's a way of, you know, just reestablishing frozen materials that we need to sustain our present ocean levels?
FLATOW: Describe what you mean to me. You take water, you pump it out of the ocean, and pump it where?
SPENCER: Pump it up onto the North Pole. Pump it up to the ice shelf and ice sheet. And possibly even on certain ice ridges in the Antarctic as well. Using water rams, for example, they require no other energy than their own presence and water movements just - you're familiar with water rams, I'm sure.
FLATOW: Well, you know, considering that the North Pole is just a bunch of floating ice to begin with, pumping it back up wouldn't - you know, I'll ask my guests, Dr. Albert, Dr. Deming?
Dr. ALBERT: I appreciate the motivation to try to stop what's happening or try to slow it down. I think it's a good motivation. In practice, the sea ice, you know, the arctic is ocean and is covered by sea ice, which is on the order of meters thick. And if you pump water on top of that, it would actually decrease the albedo of the surface and they could melt faster. I suppose you could try snow blowing but it would still - they - I think you're fighting a losing battle because these problems are - the global warming is the whole planet.
And it's sort of like walking down the street with a full bag of groceries and you have a little hole on the corner and something falls out. You stop to pick it up and walk on, something else falls out. It's just, it's really hard to - the Earth is a complicated system.
SPENCER: I appreciate what you're saying there. I think we might also want to consider the possibility of creating a mist. Maybe it would actually take, you know, more energy or even something like a nuclear submarine. But, you know, during the colder times of the year, the water could be jetted out into a fine spray so it actually produces snow. But it's just a thought.
FLATOW: Okay, thanks for calling, Jim.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. People have original ideas here.
Dr. ALBERT: Great. I would like to comment on an early - the first caller talked about observations that he had made and then he had seen in his lifetime. And I just want to say that that's an important thing that people - human observations and the way people see things and the way people know things is an important method of observation. I think we can learn a lot from the people in Alaska and the circumpolar peoples of the arctic. They have been observing this for a long time.
FLATOW: You know, I talked to an engineer a couple of years ago who was around to build the George Washington Bridge here in New York. I think it was finished in 1936. And he was over 90 years old. He had worked on it. And if you know anything about the Hudson River, which is under it, and actually there's a little bit of ice on it now - I asked him what did you do? What did people who lived by there do before the bridge was around? And he said we walked across it. And to think that you could walk across the Hudson River, you know, at the turn of the century a hundred years ago, at that point just showed to us here in New York how the climate has changed.
Dr. ALBERT: Yes.
Dr. DEMING: I mean one of the goals of the International Polar Year is to give voice to the people who live in the north, and who experience these changes directly and have this history to bring forward. We don't always pay attention to what they have to tell us, and they are witnessing what we're trying to study.
FLATOW: Is that part of this project? Could you just…
Dr. ALBERT: Yes, yes. There will be - I think you'll see many, many efforts to partner with the people of the north. Whereas we down here in the mid-latitudes see things with satellites and scanning electron microscopes and microbial processes, you know, high-technology equipment, equally important are human observations. And I think you'll see a lot of efforts to partner on an equal basis with the people of the north, who are seeing and knowing through their own senses.
FLATOW: Hi, Tony in St. Louis. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
TONY (Caller): Good day. First of all, the solution for global warming is nuclear winter. And the liquid water that lubricates the ice sheets is also melting the ice sheets because it has more energy in it than the ice can absorb, which leads to my question. Which is measuring the temperature of the ice sheets so we know how fast they're warming up, especially at the last degree, the phase-change degree between solid and liquid, which the difference is between 32-degree solid and 32-degree liquid is 80 degrees. Which means if it warms up, absorbs one degree of temperature of energy each year, it would take 80 years to do the change. And so please speak to measuring temperature of the ice.
Dr. ALBERT: Yes, it is true that there's a huge amount of energy locked up in phase change. The change from water to ice takes a lot more energy than it does just to change the temperature one degree. These days, the way we're measuring temperature of massive areas is through NASA's satellites. And the satellites have sensors that can detect at least surface temperatures of the ice sheets, and they have mapped areas where, you know, how much melting is occurring and how it's warming in other areas. That was a really sensitive indicator of climate change, and so these changes that occur change the structures snow not only from ice to water, but within the structure itself. And all that's observable in satellite imagery.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking about the International Polar Year this hour on TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
Dr. DEMING: Can I jump in on the measuring…
Dr. DEMING: …temperature in the ice, because in the marine environment, in the Arctic Ocean, one of the focuses for IPY is to establish observatories or to enhance the observatories that are already established. And these include temperature probes that are inserted in the ice and exist they're through all the seasons measuring the ice temperature on a continuous basis.
There are observatories like this north of Barrow, Alaska, run by scientists at the University of Alaska. Some of my colleagues here at the University of Washington are running an observatory at the North Pole where they're monitoring changes in temperature in the ice and the ocean below.
So the whole concept of marshalling all of our forces together to have observatories where we can clock and measure what's happening on a continuous basis is a very important aspect of IPY.
Dr. ALBERT: That's true. I'd like to jump in.
Dr. ALBERT: In addition to the sea ice, there's permafrost observatories throughout the circum-arctic in Russia, northern Scandinavia, Canada, Alaska to look at how fast the ground is warming, because the permafrost is thawing and that's causing huge problems with infrastructure, and roads and things.
In addition, there are atmospheric observatories monitoring, again, around the arctic and all the different nations, the chemical content of the atmosphere - how is the ozone changing? What's the chemical composition?
And so these are efforts that could not be done by one nation and really require an impetus to come together and join the data together, make the data available so that we can better understand what's happening on a planetary scale.
FLATOW: The disruption of all the plant, the algae, the plant life in the ice that there we're so used to, are there human effects of this disruption in other forms of life also, the effect with people?
Dr. ALBERT: Yes. Actually, on the west coast of Greenland, one of the larger towns is named Ilulissat, and the Danish name for that was Jakobshavn. When the Danes were - it was conventional to have Danish the names of things. But they are a fairly large community. They have Internet. If you go there, the kids have half-pipes skateboarding in the backyard.
Yet they are kind of plainly moving because a lot of their livelihood depends on using dogsleds and depends on the sea ice, the fishing, and the snow to go from one community to another. They are contemplating moving the community because conditions in the last four years have changed so much.
FLATOW: What about conditions in the lower latitudes where, you know, over the winter, some of the lakes are not freezing? You may have algae blooms that are coming back.
Dr. ALBERT: Exactly. The polar regions are just the tip of the iceberg. There are an indicator of a larger issue of global warning. And the frequency and occurrence of storms, weather patterns that affect us down here are very much connected to the climate system so that we are going to see changes.
Dr. DEMING: The ecosystem shifts that we're expecting in the high arctic we're all ready seeing in the sub-arctic. So for example, on the Bering Sea, the coast of Alaska, we've already seen in the last few years there are complete crash of the ecosystem with all the players shifting.
Things are in a recovery mode now, so we have a chance to study what it's like to see an ecosystem crash and recover. But we have to expect that these things are going to happen as warmer waters move further and further north, as warmer air temperatures reduce the availability of ice to maintain the current ecosystem.
FLATOW: Well, I want to thank you both for taking time to talk with us. We'll be keeping track of the research as the couple of years goes on.
Dr. ALBERT: Thank you.
FLATOW: You're welcome.
Dr. DEMING: Thank you.
FLATOW: Jody Deming, member of the U.S. National Committee for the International Polar Year, professor of biological oceanography and astrobiology at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Mary Albert, past chair of the U.S. National Committee for IPY and she is senior research engineer at the U.S. Army's Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab, an adjunct professor in the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College in Hanover.
FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow in New York.
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