RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
Today, scientists will report that for the fourth summer in a row, an extraordinary amount of Arctic sea ice has melted. If this trend continues, the Arctic Ocean could eventually lose all of its ice during future summers. That would have serious consequences for the planet, starting with Arctic ecosystems. An expedition this summer set out to figure out what lives in this ocean today and what could be at risk tomorrow. NPR's Richard Harris tells the story of that cruise through the eyes of two biologists.
RICHARD HARRIS reporting:
If you like adventure, scenery and an intellectual challenge, this has got to be one of the best jobs in the world.
Dr. ROLF GRADINGER (University of Alaska Biologist): Actually, I like this outdoor work a lot.
HARRIS: Rolf Gradinger has been delivered to the middle of the Arctic Ocean by a 420-foot icebreaker. He's been lowered to the floating ice by crane, and now he's walking across this spare and beautiful landscape to a hole he had recently drilled in the ice for an experiment he's doing.
Dr. GRADINGER: All right. So let's get the sample.
HARRIS: Gradinger is a slight man with a salt-and-pepper beard. He moves an ice chest out of the way and reaches for a cord that disappears down the hole in the ice.
Dr. GRADINGER: So here's my little carabiner to secure it. Now out comes--my bottles out.
(Soundbite of dripping water)
HARRIS: He's a biologist at the University of Alaska. He's also chief scientist on this monthlong expedition into the unknown. It's been dubbed The Hidden Ocean cruise by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which funded the icebreaker's trip. His bottles of microscopic plants are just one experiment of many here, conducted by more than two dozen biologists.
(Soundbite of items being moved; voices)
HARRIS: At first it seems just plain strange that biologists would come out to a place where it's rare even to glimpse a living creature. But seeing isn't necessarily believing out here. We trudge back to the Healy, a US Coast Guard icebreaker. Gradinger points out turquoise ponds of water sitting on the surface of the ice.
Dr. GRADINGER: Did you try whether they are salty?
HARRIS: No, I didn't. Tastes like fresh.
Dr. GRADINGER: It's fresh water.
HARRIS: Melting ice, I guess, huh?
Dr. GRADINGER: Yeah.
And what we did, we took quite some samples out of these melt ponds and melt puddles, and what we found is it's full with ciliates and protozoans and small plants.
HARRIS: So there are freshwater organisms out here in the middle of the ocean.
Dr. GRADINGER: Yeah. Yeah. Amazing, huh?
(Soundbite of laughter; voice over loudspeaker)
HARRIS: We load a sled of gear onto a large metal basket at the end of a crane...
(Soundbite of metallic click)
HARRIS: ...and step in, too.
Dr. GRADINGER: You ready?
Dr. GRADINGER: OK.
HARRIS: Up we ride, 50 feet to the Healy's helicopter deck.
Dr. GRADINGER: ...(Unintelligible), you're here.
HARRIS: Rolf Gradinger is captivated by the life here...
(Soundbite of metal chain)
HARRIS: ...but also worried about this ecosystem in a time of rapid climate change. Summertime ice has been declining steadily and some forecasts suggest it will be gone entirely in a matter of decades.
Dr. GRADINGER: So sometimes when I'm standing on a ice floe, I think, `Ooh, in 80 years from now, there will be container ships crossing here.' It will be a different sea. It will be completely different, and so that's one of the reasons why we are here, because there is so little information available about these ice-covered waters. We want to figure out what lives here now before all these big changes happen.
(Soundbite of ship's horn)
HARRIS: Figuring out what's here now is tough. Just ask Bodil Bluhm as she wanders out to the ship's fantail, rubbing her eyes and giddy from lack of sleep.
It's 4 in the morning. What are you doing out here?
Ms. BODIL BLUHM (Biologist): We're trying to get the trawl ready here. We're hoping to catch ...(unintelligible) on the sea floor here.
HARRIS: And why is this happening at 4 in the morning?
Ms. BLUHM: Because we're using--we can't just wait until everybody's up.
HARRIS: Bluhm was also out here on deck at 1 AM, sifting through a sample of mud that had been brought up with another piece of gear.
So have you slept at all?
Ms. BLUHM: An hour. I'm gonna sleep after the cruise.
HARRIS: Now she's running on adrenaline. Bluhm is jazzed at the prospect of getting a rare netful of creatures from the bottom of this little-known ocean. She's dressed in an orange survival suit and her long brown hair spills out from under her hard hat.
(Soundbite of work on deck)
HARRIS: She and her colleagues coax the trawling net off the stern of the ship and start the hours-long task of reeling out more than two miles of wire, enough to get it to the sea floor.
So back to bed for you now?
Ms. BLUHM: Yeah.
HARRIS: Yeah. Me, too.
(Soundbite of laughter)
HARRIS: Bluhm is married to Rolf Gradinger, but sleep this morning will not be a cuddle with her husband. For one thing, they're assigned separate sleeping quarters. Besides, they are so busy with their own schedules they're lucky to get 10 minutes a day together.
(Soundbite of voices)
HARRIS: It's now after breakfast. Rolf Gradinger is back in the lab. His hair is tousled, but he's fresh from several hours of sleep. He pours water, melted ice, from a sieve into a petri dish. Then he slides the petri dish under a microscope to look for tiny life forms.
Dr. GRADINGER: It's the most exciting moment. Oh, I see something. That's good. A little worm. Do you want to take a look?
HARRIS: Sure. Oh, yeah, sort of squiggling away.
Dr. GRADINGER: Yeah, squiggling away.
HARRIS: Just a little white worm. Almost looks--wow. And that was living in the ice.
Dr. GRADINGER: That's living in the ice. Pretty cool.
HARRIS: Cool, but also bittersweet. These animals depend on sea ice that won't be melted by the summer sun, and that so-called multiyear ice could become a casualty of global warming.
Dr. GRADINGER: The life conditions are getting worse and worse for these little critters, and for some of those which are specialized (unintelligible) sea ice, when that ice is gone, probably these species are going to be extinct.
(Soundbite of ship's horn)
HARRIS: OK. It is now 9 in the morning, and the trawl that's been underwater for five hours is coming up. Bodil Bluhm and her team are back on deck, looking anxiously over the fantail to see whether their gear survived the trip into the abyss.
Ms. BLUHM: Oh, look on the bottom, Brenda. The floors are muddy.
(Soundbite of voices)
HARRIS: The trawl net is hauled up onto the deck. The scientists gather around to pick through the catch--Bodil Bluhm, Brenda Holliday(ph) and Katrin Iken.
Ms. BLUHM: Ooh, ...(unintelligible). Very nice, and very clean.
Unidentified Woman #1: Very clean!
(Soundbite of laughter)
HARRIS: It just had a two-mile bath.
Ms. BLUHM: Yes, that's very true, but sometimes you still get up a lot of mud, and--which is good, because it packs the animals a little bit and protects them. But of course this is--oh, look, it's sea stars, two of them, here.
Unidentified Woman #2: Oh, here's another one.
Ms. BLUHM: Oh, three, wow.
Unidentified Woman #2: ...(Unintelligible) sea water...
HARRIS: Bluhm scoops the catch into a plastic tub and brings it over to a work table so she can get a closer look at her treasure from the deep. It's a fabulous catch, but it's still a frustratingly small look at the sea floor that's larger than the entire United States. And there's no easy way to do better.
Ms. BLUHM: You can't really automate trawls or net hauls or something like that. You still need the people with it, so we're way behind in a way, the physical oceanographers, for example.
HARRIS: The physical oceanographers can say how much the ocean is warming and how much the ice is thinning.
(Soundbite of icebreaker)
HARRIS: Biologists can't say much as yet about how the ecosystem in changing.
In the evening on the last day of the cruise, the Healy captain decides to finish the trip with a bang. He guns the engines and heads the prow toward a large ice floe.
(Soundbite of icebreaker)
Unidentified Woman #3: I guess we're in ramming mode.
HARRIS: The scientists gather at the bow one last time to drink in the scenery. Bodil Bluhm looks down on the turquoise pools on the ice below.
Ms. BLUHM: Those melt ponds just look like bathtubs, don't they?
HARRIS: Yeah, they do.
Ms. BLUHM: Oh!
HARRIS: The stark beauty of this place tugs at the heart.
Dr. GRADINGER: Like a day like yesterday, at about 3 in the morning, the sun was really low, with these long shadows. The light was yellowish. And then suddenly we saw polar bear running around in the middle of these ice packs. And it's just--I feel a little bit at home in this region.
HARRIS: After a few more runs against the ice, the Healy bursts into open water and heads south. Land is there, somewhere over the horizon.
Richard Harris, NPR News.
INSKEEP: You can hear more about the Arctic Ocean expedition later today on "All Things Considered." And you can also see photos of the trip on our Web site, npr.org.
You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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