CORVALLIS, Ore. – A team of scientists, including two oceanographers from Oregon State University, will explore the frigid waters beneath the North Pole this April for clues to the circulation patterns of the Arctic Ocean.
The project is particularly important, researchers say, because fresh water from the Arctic – via melting ice or continental runoff – has a major influence on the circulation of other oceans, including the Atlantic and Pacific.
“The Arctic is an extremely sensitive valve that regulates heat exchange and the deep circulation of the world’s oceans,” said Robert Collier, a professor in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. “Yet we don’t really know a lot about how the upper 1,000 meters of the Arctic Ocean circulates. These kinds of observations are critical to better understanding how the oceans may respond to global climate change.”
Collier will join OSU doctoral student Matt Alkire on the project, which will take them to “Barneo,” a remote outpost operated by a Russian logistics team just a handful of kilometers from the North Pole. There, from their tent camp, the researchers will travel by small plane to some 30 sites around the North Pole where they will land, drill holes in the ice, and take a series of measurements down to a depth of 1,000 meters.
They will run continuous water sampling profiles, collecting data on temperature, salinity, water chemistry and oxygen levels; and they will collect water samples to analyze chemical “tracers” that reveal the source of the water.
Kelly Falkner, an OSU professor of oceanography, helped establish this observatory effort and has made several trips to the North Pole over the past years. She is on an assignment from OSU to the National Science Foundation, where she is interim director for NSF’s Antarctic Ocean and Climate Science program, coinciding with the International Polar Year.
“The International Polar Year is significant because the scientific community can learn a great deal about these integrated systems when everyone focuses on them at one time, pooling our limited resources,” Collier said. “The last equivalent was the International Geophysical Year, which brought long-lasting significant changes in our knowledge about the Earth.
“Our knowledge of the poles and their integration with global earth systems should increase greatly through this and partner projects,” he added.
The temperature near the outpost this week was minus-18 degrees (F), with steady 30-mile-per-hour winds.
But there is more to the weather than meets the eye, the scientists say. During the last couple of decades, the atmospheric pressure and winds over the Arctic and North Atlantic have shifted, causing changes in ocean circulation and source waters. Scientists are still unsure if those shifts are due to global climate change or natural cycles.
“We’ve never observed these large changes before, partly due to the difficulty of working in this region,” Collier said.
Alkire’s research suggests that the distribution of source waters in the Arctic may be returning to their more traditional pattern, responding to the change in atmospheric conditions under way. The degree to which these changes are natural cycles, or human-influenced, is literally and figuratively up in the air.
“This underscores the importance of long-term observatories throughout the world’s oceans,” Collier pointed out. The research is part of the North Pole Environmental Observatory, a project supported by the National Science Foundation.
Collier said the research also is important to gain more insights into the role the Arctic Ocean plays in sequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide. High-latitude waters pull in anthropogenic CO2 from the atmosphere, and the currents transport it to the deep oceans.
“The Arctic plays a critical role in controlling the transport of atmospheric gases into the deep oceans, and although we know the basic mechanisms, there is much we don’t know about the details of how the machinery works,” Collier said.
Interested persons can follow the scientists and field programs online at: http://psc.apl.washington.edu/northpole/NP2007Reports.html