Taking an Icy Look at Global Warming Two young researchers find out just how difficult global warming research can be when they venture onto the Arctic ice sheet, north of Alaska. Data gathered there is critical to advancing knowledge of the phenomenon.
NPR logo

Taking an Icy Look at Global Warming

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/10283488/10283489" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Taking an Icy Look at Global Warming

Taking an Icy Look at Global Warming

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/10283488/10283489" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Scientists need good data to document and predict climate change. Collecting that data from the far reaches of the planet isn't easy. Earlier this spring, two Navy graduate students found out just how difficult it is when they set up a research project in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, two hundred miles north of Alaska.

As part of NPR's Climate Connections, our yearlong project with National Geographic, Alaska Public Radio Network's Annie Feidt went out on the sea ice with a couple researchers.

ANNIE FEIDT: It's 7:30 in the morning, the thermometer is reading 20 below and John Blydorn(ph) and Tim Migian(ph) have just one thing on their minds: heat. Overnight, the generator that warms their small research tent ran out of gas. So before they head inside, they fill up the tank.

Mr. JOHN BLYDORN (Oceanography student): Oh come on.

(Soundbite of generator kicking on)

Mr. TIM MIGIAN (Oceanography student): Oh.

Mr. BLYDORN: Hasn't been dead for very long.

FEIDT: Inside the tiny tent, with the generator humming along, Blydorn and Migian examined the thing that's occupying their every waking moment: a perfectly round hole in the ice, about a foot wide.

Have you lost equipment down there?

Mr. BLYDORN: Nothing important yet.

Mr. MIGIAN: Yet. Yeah. It's almost like you have to make an offering to the hole every now and then.

FEIDT: To keep it happy?

Mr. BLYDORN: Yeah.

Mr. MIGIAN: It worked for the Maya, you know. For a while anyway.

FEIDT: Blydorn and Migian are studying oceanography at the Navy Postgraduate School in California. And they've come this far north to research one very specific aspect of the frozen ocean: ice keels. When ice sheets collide, they form small mountains of ice above and below the water. Below, they're called ice keels. They look a bit like a keel on a boat. But they are not as easy to drill through.

Mr. BLYDORN: We got kind of stuck digging the hole. I took a little longer than we thought it would.

FEIDT: It actually took a lot longer than they though it would. Blydorn and Migian expected to have to drill through about 15 feet of ice, but they went through 40 feet instead.

(Soundbite of pounding)

FEIDT: But as they chip away at the thin layer of ice that formed across the hole overnight, Migian and Blydorn seem unfazed.

Mr. MIGIAN: We're happy to be at this stage now where we can actually start the project.

FEIDT: Starting the project means lowering a device called a CTD into the water.

(Soundbite of splashing water)

FEIDT: The CTD will help them identify the different layers of ocean that can sometimes mix together in the turbulent water that surrounds an ice keel. Later, they'll lower a sonar device, which will take pictures of the ice keel under the water. All of the measurements will become an important part of models that forecast where the arctic sea ice is moving and how fast it's melting. Those models include a lot of educated guesswork. And Migian says one of those guesses is how ice keels affect the process.

Mr. MIGIAN: You can actually pull up warm water from below. Because in the Arctic, the coldest water is at the surface and then it actually warms up a little below. That might be important, you know, in terms of, you know, who knows, it might cause melting the ice from below. We don't know. I mean, that's, kind of, why we're here.

FEIDT: John Blydorn says they came to the Arctic hoping to study three ice keels, but they ended up only having time for one.

Mr. BLYDORN: You come up here with a big laundry list of things that you hope to get, and you satisfy yourself with the things you're able to get. And so I -it's our first time doing research up here and it's very enlightening. It gives us a lot of respect for all the guys who have done it before.

FEIDT: But no matter how difficult working in the Arctic is, Blydorn and Migian say it's worth it. And Blydorn, at least, wants to do more. But next time, he plans to venture into the Antarctic.

For NPR News, I'm Annie Feidt in Anchorage.

ROBERTS: You can learn about other research on climate change in the Arctic in the current issue of National Geographic magazine.

(Soundbite of music)

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.