Arctic Researchers On An Expedition To Study Shrinking Polar Ice A massive scientific mission is underway in the Arctic. Physicists, chemists, and biologists are studying the changing region, so they can better predict what might be ahead for the Arctic...and the planet. But first, they had to find a patch of ice suitable to get stuck in, so they could freeze in place and study it for an entire year. Reporter Ravenna Koenig was along for the journey. You can find photos from her trip here. Follow Maddie Sofia on Twitter @maddie_sofia or Ravenna @vennkoenig. Email the show at shortwave@npr.org.
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Polar Bears, Ice Cracks, And Isolation: Scientists Drift Across The Arctic Ocean

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Polar Bears, Ice Cracks, And Isolation: Scientists Drift Across The Arctic Ocean

Polar Bears, Ice Cracks, And Isolation: Scientists Drift Across The Arctic Ocean

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/784691513/787534021" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: Maddie Sofia here. Today's episode is about a scientific expedition to the top of the world. Reporter Ravenna Koenig is here to tell us all about it. Hey, Ravenna.

RAVENNA KOENIG, BYLINE: Hey, Maddie.

SOFIA: All right, let's not waste time. Tell me where it starts.

KOENIG: So this expedition that started back in September, in Tromso, Norway, which you should really look on a map. It's way up there. Tromso's where I first stepped onto this massive German ice-breaking ship called the Polarstern, where around 200 people were moving massive amounts of equipment on board, unpacking instruments and starting to install and test them. One of the people involved in all this activity was Matthew Shupe, a scientist with the University of Colorado and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

MATTHEW SHUPE: Excited and nervous - I am both of those things.

KOENIG: And Shupe is a co-coordinator for this endeavor, which for this part at least, involves two ships. It's known as - are you ready for an acronym?

SOFIA: Mmm hmm.

KOENIG: The Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, or MOSAiC.

SOFIA: You know what scientists are good at, Ravenna?

KOENIG: What are they good at, Maddie?

SOFIA: Science. Do you know what they're bad at?

KOENIG: Acronyms?

SOFIA: Yup, nailed it.

(LAUGHTER)

SOFIA: OK. So that brings us to why the boat was actually being packed up in Norway. It's headed for the north-most section of the Arctic?

KOENIG: Correct. And the reason why is that, as the Arctic has warmed over the past few decades, the sea ice on the Arctic Ocean has gotten thinner, and it now covers a lot less area. So the overarching question that these scientists are trying to answer is what are the causes of diminishing Arctic ice and what are the consequences?

SHUPE: As we have a thinner ice pack that changes the way that energy transfers through the ice, it changes how the ice breaks up, how the ice moves around. So there's so many different kind of new behaviors of the ice because it's taking on a new character that we really need to study.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KOENIG: Here's the best part - to do all that, the MOSAiC team had to find an ice floe that they could freeze their boat in next to...

SOFIA: (Laughter).

KOENIG: ...And spend an entire year studying.

SOFIA: So today on the show, Part 1 of a two-part look at science and life aboard the MOSAiC expedition and what one year on a frozen ocean could teach us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: OK, Ravenna, before we hear some icebergs crackling...

KOENIG: (Laughter).

SOFIA: ...Let's explain why Arctic sea ice is so important, scientifically.

KOENIG: Right. So in the Arctic, this sea ice, the atmosphere and the ocean, they're all linked. When the sea ice in the Arctic changes, it could mean a cascade of effects on everything from how clouds are formed, to how much carbon dioxide is being absorbed by the ocean, to how organisms that depend on the ice are functioning.

SOFIA: Right. And we know the Arctic is changing - right? - like, big time.

KOENIG: Yeah. And scientists need to understand how so they can better reflect the region in climate models. But there's a catch. What these scientists are about to attempt, it is really tricky. Here's what the leader of the MOSAiC mission said to me.

MARKUS REX: I think we'll find a nice situation, but it's not clear yet, and I'm nervous about it, of course.

SOFIA: That's exactly how I hoped he would sound.

KOENIG: Yeah. His name is Markus Rex.

SOFIA: Getting better. Keep going.

KOENIG: So Markus told me this whole plan to study one chunk of ice by basically getting stuck in it, this really doesn't happen without finding a relatively thick piece of ice.

REX: You want to have a stable platform for our research city. For that, we would like to have a floe that is at least a meter - better a meter 20 - thick.

KOENIG: That's, like, 3 to 4 feet. If all they cared about was ice thickness, they could have gone to a different part of the Arctic, where there's still some remnants of thicker ice left.

SOFIA: Sure.

KOENIG: But because they want to understand the thinner ice of this new Arctic, they had to try to find something that was thick enough in a thinner area - not an easy balance to strike. And then even after they find it, they still face some really big challenges.

SOFIA: What kind of challenges are we talking about?

KOENIG: The main one is that the ice floe that they pick could break up or melt out before the year is up. Then there's a chance this piece of ice could wind up taking them somewhere they don't want to go.

SOFIA: (Laughter) Right.

KOENIG: Like too close to Russia, where they're actually not allowed to take measurements or a spot called the Beaufort Gyre.

REX: That's a large gyre of ice where the ice just circles around for many years north of Greenland and north of Canada. We don't want to get stuck in that.

SOFIA: I don't see what the problem is with an eternal circle of ice, Ravenna, but go on.

KOENIG: (Laughter) It's not for me. But the good news is MOSAiC used over a decade of satellite data to help them figure out where they should start to best avoid getting taken to those places. But they still needed to find a piece of ice they thought would last a year. So we cast off from Norway, and this is what it sounded like when the Polarstern left the dock.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN)

SOFIA: Ah (laughter). Yeah, that tracks for a big boat, OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN)

SOFIA: Oh, it's still going.

KOENIG: It was very loud in my ears, too. Yeah, just wait for it.

SOFIA: It's still going, huh

KOENIG: It's still going.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN)

SOFIA: Yup.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN)

SOFIA: (Laughter) I didn't expect it to come back.

KOENIG: So I was traveling on a support vessel that was helping out. It's a Russian ship called the Akademik Fedorov, and we left the next day with, sadly, no fanfare.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

KOENIG: But we did all go out onto the deck and wave goodbye to a handful of people who were on the dock.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, it's Nina (ph). Bye, Nina.

SOFIA: Hashtag who's Nina? Keep going.

(LAUGHTER)

KOENIG: And we began this five-week trip sailing way up into the Arctic Circle, looking for the start of the ice. It took us five days to get to the edge of it. We actually wound up getting there on an evening when we were having a party. We knew that we could expect the ice pretty much at any moment, and people kept going out to look. Anticipation was pretty high.

Do you see anything?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I don't see anything.

KOENIG: There's nothing out there?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: No.

SOFIA: (Laughter) Was that you?

KOENIG: Yeah.

It just looks like water.

SOFIA: You're so sad (laughter).

KOENIG: I know I sound really sad. That's me feeling pretty disappointed, after one of the guys on the ship - his name is Falk Ebert - came running in to tell everyone he'd seen a piece of ice. But when the rest of us went out there, there was nothing to see - just darkness. So not a super fun moment to be Falk (laughter).

We don't see anything.

FALK EBERT: Oh, come on. I'll lose all my credibility.

KOENIG: And then, finally...

MAURO HERMANN: Oh, there's ice.

KOENIG: Oh.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

KOENIG: That right there? Yeah. Tell me what you're looking at. Tell me what you're looking at.

HERMANN: It looks like white, and it stays there. So it's another wave.

KOENIG: The student Mauro Hermann was explaining how it's easy to confuse a little piece of ice with whitecaps, of ocean waves, because obviously they're both white. But whitecaps disappear; chunks of ice don't.

ROBBIE MALLETT: I thought I might cry actually when I first saw sea ice. I was quite worried. But I don't think I am going to cry; I think I'm just excited, which is good.

KOENIG: (Laughter).

This is another student, Robbie Mallett, and he talked about the sea ice like an endangered species, which in a lot of ways it is.

MALLETT: It's such a precious resource that - it's not going to go away in the winter a while, but - for a while, but it's certainly going to change. Yeah, we're privileged to be here and see it, I suppose.

SOFIA: It's got to be kind of a confusing mix of emotions.

KOENIG: For sure. But as we got further north, we did start to see bigger and thicker ice floes. Even though they weren't as thick as they might have been decades ago, they were still really impressive. This one day sticks out where we tested the thickness of an ice floe by driving through it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRASH)

KOENIG: Whoa (laughter).

SOFIA: So you're just smashing through it.

KOENIG: Yeah. And where we were at this point, the ice was so consolidated and vast, it looked almost like land, like snow-covered land stretching out to the horizon.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRASH)

KOENIG: So what you're hearing there is the sound of the hull making contact with the ice and these chunks the size of couches and cars breaking off and turning over in the water. It was honestly one of the most amazing things that I've ever seen.

SOFIA: But, OK, I thought the plan was to get stuck in the ice. This sounds very much like smashing the ice.

KOENIG: Right. So they actually thought that this floe was too close to where the ice meets the water, and they were worried that waves could break it up. But they thought that the thickness could be representative of other ice floes further north, which is why they wanted to check it out. And that's actually where the hunt went next. Teams went out by helicopter and snowmobile to gauge ice thickness at different spots. They were using airborne sensors and taking direct measurements with drills.

SOFIA: This feels like movie science, you know what I mean? Like science in the movies with the helicopters.

(LAUGHTER)

KOENIG: Anyway, after three days of this, the picture didn't look great.

THOMAS KRUMPEN: They all - they're all not looking very promising. They're all very thin.

KOENIG: That's Thomas Krumpen, a sea ice physicist who was part of the search. And remember how earlier I said that finding the perfect patch of ice was no sure thing?

SOFIA: Yeah. Yeah.

KOENIG: Well, so even on some of the thicker ice floes, only the top foot or so was solid, stable ice. Underneath there was this layer - they call it rotten, meaning it's degraded and slushy. And there are different factors that could explain why the ice in this area was so thin this year, but it's pretty clear that decades ago this kind of weakness in the ice would have been far less likely.

KRUMPEN: There is a change that can be related to Arctic warming. Ice is getting thinner. Ice is retreating further north.

SOFIA: So did you eventually find some good ice?

KOENIG: Yes.

KRUMPEN: Welcome, everybody. So I have some good news.

KOENIG: So 11 days after we left Norway, Krumpen announced that the team on the other ship had found a piece of ice that they thought would work. Even though parts of it were thin, it had a centerpiece of thicker ice, in some places 13 to 16 feet.

KRUMPEN: Really, it's like a hidden treasure. And I must say that we can be quite lucky that something like this was discovered. So great.

SOFIA: So great.

(LAUGHTER)

SOFIA: That some science joy right there.

KOENIG: So they decided this was the place where the expedition would hook into the ice for the year. But finding this ice floe is just the start of a long road of challenges.

SOFIA: OK, so they found their ice. That was about two months ago. Have you heard how things are going?

KOENIG: So since I've been back on land, I've actually gotten an update. Storms are one of their biggest worries, and in November, a storm caused some pretty major breaks in the ice. Things have since refrozen, but it really just underscores what's so important and so challenging about this whole expedition. The reason it's important to study the Arctic is that it's changing so rapidly, but that same rapid change may also make it more challenging to study.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOFIA: And that's what we'll talk about in the next episode, Part 2 of your reporting, Ravenna. We'll explain what scientists are actually trying to study on the MOSAiC expedition and how it could help us understand climate change. So Ravenna, we'll see you again soon?

KOENIG: Sounds good.

SOFIA: I'm Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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