Arctic melt: The threat beneath the ice

Here, in the waters of the Fram Strait, between Svaalbard and Greenland, is where ice comes to die.

A team of interdisciplinary scientists is here on a study facilitated by Greenpeace, at the start of the environmental group’s nearly year-long pole-to-pole expedition. The scientists want to learn more about this threat beneath the ice, which could potentially destroy the cycle of life that starts here, and threaten the lives of people all over the planet.

The Fram Strait is the main gateway through which sea ice leaves the Arctic Ocean.

A mosaic of fractured ice

The inflatable boats carrying the scientists maneuver slowly through a sea of fractured ice, a mosaic of pieces that once were part of the Arctic ice sheet, pushed south by winds and currents into the Fram Strait.

Here, the scientists spend days working on top of the precarious ice floes, keeping a watchful eye out for polar bears while drilling into the ice to measure its thickness.

“It has definitely thinned in this area, it has thinned everywhere” says team leader, polar physicist Till Wagner, of the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Since 1990 the thickness of sea ice here has decreased by a third, from about 3 meters to 2 meters, according to the Fram Strait Arctic Observatory.

The Fram Strait is where warm waters originating in Mexico are brought up by the Gulf Stream, flowing thousands of miles through the Atlantic to meet the Arctic ice edge. 80% of the ice movement in and out of the Arctic Ocean happens through here.

Polar physicist Till Wagner.

“For the longest time the story of sea ice loss has been one of the higher air temperatures melting the ice from above,” Wagner explains.

But that story may be changing.

“This warm water is at the surface as it comes up [from the south] and then it drops under the ice as it goes into the Arctic Ocean,” says Wagner. “The layer that is under the ice has been coming up closer to the surface and melting the ice from underneath.”

The researchers are trying to better understand exactly why this is happening.

A forest of microscopic life

What the sea ice melt does to the ecosystem, and to us, is at the heart of this study.

Measuring the thickness and density of a recently extracted ice core.

The scientists extract ice cores from the floes, which hold clues that are invisible to the naked eye.

Read: Arctic’s ‘last bastion’ of sea ice is breaking up for the first time

“Oh wow, that’s beautiful,” exclaims biological oceanographer Mattias Cape, examining a meter-long cylinder of ice. “Inside this piece of ice is this microscopic forest; all these little bubbles, these little channels are home for these microscopic organisms.”

Greenpeace’s Arctic Sunrise has been converted into a floating lab and on board, ice core samples are distilled and examined. Under the microscope the frozen clues within come to life — a kaleidoscope of sea ice algae and phytoplankton, microscopic organisms that use sunlight for energy.

Cape explains that these organisms play a vital role in reducing climate change by pulling planet-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it as a long-term “carbon sink.”

“They photosynthesize and take in CO2 and expel oxygen as part of the process — which is the oxygen we breathe,” he says.

They will be further tested later on land, helping us understand how sea ice loss is potentially impacting their ability to take in and sequester CO2.

Web of life

These waters might look barren, but they are hugely productive when it comes to the building blocks of ocean life.

Read: Arctic permafrost is melting so fast it’s damaging scientists’ equipment

The underbelly of the ice teems with zooplankton — tiny crustaceans that feed on the phytoplankton. In turn krill and smaller fish feed on the zooplankton, big fish feed on the smaller fish and so it goes on up a food chain that includes whales, seals, sea birds, and even polar bears.

As the sea ice melts, ice algae and phytoplankton are released into the sea. In the short term, this creates something of a nutrient injection that jump starts the cycle of life in the ocean.

But this April saw a record loss of sea ice across the Arctic. Less ice ultimately puts that entire cycle at risk, with a smaller nutrient injection meaning less food further up the chain.

The team’s study confirmed their expectation.

Biological oceanographer Mattias Cape.

“In the top layer [of the ocean] you see there is a ton of biomass between 10 meters and 30 meters” Wagner says.

“And then right below there is this warm water, that is almost 3.5 degrees and this is the warm Atlantic water” Cape adds.

In this warmer water, away from the ice, they found significantly less phytoplankton.

Freshly melted ice not only injects life into the water — it creates a layer of cold water that protects sea ice above from more melting.

“It isolates the ice from the hot devil water sitting at the bottom waiting to come up” Wagner explains.

Less sea ice means there will be less of that protective cold layer, leading to even more melting.

Protecting our oceans

Greenpeace is traveling from the Arctic to the Antarctic to highlight the threats facing our oceans and part of its campaign for ocean sanctuaries.

With climate change and melting ice putting more pressure on Arctic sea life, the group wants more of our oceans to be set aside as protected reserves, free from commercial exploitation.

Interactive: Protecting the Antarctic

Negotiations towards a Global Ocean Treaty at the UN are under way and Greenpeace is part of a broader coalition that is campaigning for legislation that would see 30% of our oceans protected by 2030.

“We can put a deal in place that the status quo goes on or we can put a deal in place that has teeth, that will allow us to designate areas in the high seas for fully protected marine reserves,” says Sune Scheller, Greenpeace’s expedition leader. “And the risk of not doing that is pushing the marine ecosystem over the edge. In the end it’s the political will that needs to be there.”

Inside the military base at the heart of Putin's Arctic ambitions

But it may prove to be challenging, with some powerhouse nations, including Russia and the US, looking at short term economic gains at the expense of the planet’s future.

The US has not signed on to the Law of the Sea treaty, the UN guidelines on how countries use our oceans, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently hailed the economic opportunities presented by shrinking levels of sea ice opening up shipping lanes and a wealth of natural resources.

Read: Judge rules Trump executive order allowing offshore drilling in Arctic Ocean unlawful

“It’s tragic to hear something like that and I think this is an extreme case of cherry picking because obviously you can find small individual good things about climate change but in the broad perspective the negative downside of this to us as humans, the environment, the ocean, will outweigh the small potential benefits substantially,” says Scheller.

Traces of a polar bear kill.

As the ship heads further south, we come across red streaks of blood across the ice, the bloody aftermath of a polar bear kill.

The absence of sea ice doesn’t just threaten the top of the food chain, or the beluga whales we watch gently dipping along the ice edge, their deep breaths echoing across the silence of this remote region. Sea ice loss will impact us all, in ways that science is racing to understand.

Arctic soften: The threat beneath the ice

Right here, in the waters of the Fram Strait, between Svaalbard and Greenland, is the place ice involves die.

A crew of interdisciplinary scientists is right here on a examine facilitated by Greenpeace, at the begin of the environmental group’s almost year-long pole-to-pole expedition. The scientists need to be taught extra about this threat beneath the ice, which might doubtlessly destroy the cycle of life that begins right here, and threaten the lives of individuals throughout the planet.

The Fram Strait is the main gateway through which sea ice leaves the Arctic Ocean.

A mosaic of fractured ice

The inflatable boats carrying the scientists maneuver slowly by way of a sea of fractured ice, a mosaic of items that when had been a part of the Arctic ice sheet, pushed south by winds and currents into the Fram Strait.

Right here, the scientists spend days engaged on prime of the precarious ice floes, conserving a watchful eye out for polar bears whereas drilling into the ice to measure its thickness.

“It has undoubtedly thinned on this space, it has thinned all over the place” says crew chief, polar physicist Until Wagner, of the College of North Carolina Wilmington.

Since 1990 the thickness of sea ice right here has decreased by a 3rd, from about Three meters to 2 meters, in response to the Fram Strait Arctic Observatory.

The Fram Strait is the place heat waters originating in Mexico are introduced up by the Gulf Stream, flowing 1000’s of miles by way of the Atlantic to satisfy the Arctic ice edge. 80% of the ice motion out and in of the Arctic Ocean occurs by way of right here.

Polar physicist Till Wagner.

“For the longest time the story of sea ice loss has been one in all the larger air temperatures melting the ice from above,” Wagner explains.

However that story could also be altering.

“This heat water is at the floor because it comes up [from the south] after which it drops below the ice because it goes into the Arctic Ocean,” says Wagner. “The layer that’s below the ice has been developing nearer to the floor and melting the ice from beneath.”

The researchers are attempting to higher perceive precisely why that is occurring.

A forest of microscopic life

What the sea ice soften does to the ecosystem, and to us, is at the coronary heart of this examine.

Measuring the thickness and density of a recently extracted ice core.

The scientists extract ice cores from the floes, which maintain clues which are invisible to the bare eye.

Learn: Arctic’s ‘final bastion’ of sea ice is breaking apart for the first time

“Oh wow, that is stunning,” exclaims organic oceanographer Mattias Cape, inspecting a meter-long cylinder of ice. “Inside this piece of ice is that this microscopic forest; all these little bubbles, these little channels are residence for these microscopic organisms.”

Greenpeace’s Arctic Dawn has been transformed right into a floating lab and on board, ice core samples are distilled and examined. Underneath the microscope the frozen clues inside come to life — a kaleidoscope of sea ice algae and phytoplankton, microscopic organisms that use daylight for vitality.

Cape explains that these organisms play an important function in decreasing local weather change by pulling planet-warming carbon dioxide from the ambiance and storing it as a long-term “carbon sink.”

“They photosynthesize and absorb CO2 and expel oxygen as a part of the course of — which is the oxygen we breathe,” he says.

They are going to be additional examined in a while land, serving to us perceive how sea ice loss is doubtlessly impacting their skill to soak up and sequester CO2.

Net of life

These waters may look barren, however they’re massively productive in the case of the constructing blocks of ocean life.

Learn: Arctic permafrost is melting so quick it is damaging scientists’ tools

The underbelly of the ice teems with zooplankton — tiny crustaceans that feed on the phytoplankton. In flip krill and smaller fish feed on the zooplankton, large fish feed on the smaller fish and so it goes on up a meals chain that features whales, seals, sea birds, and even polar bears.

As the sea ice melts, ice algae and phytoplankton are launched into the sea. In the brief time period, this creates one thing of a nutrient injection that soar begins the cycle of life in the ocean.

However this April noticed a report lack of sea ice throughout the Arctic. Much less ice finally places that total cycle in danger, with a smaller nutrient injection which means much less meals additional up the chain.

The crew’s examine confirmed their expectation.

Biological oceanographer Mattias Cape.

“In the prime layer [of the ocean] you see there’s a ton of biomass between 10 meters and 30 meters” Wagner says.

“After which proper under there’s this heat water, that’s nearly 3.5 levels and that is the heat Atlantic water” Cape provides.

On this hotter water, away from the ice, they discovered considerably much less phytoplankton.

Freshly melted ice not solely injects life into the water — it creates a layer of chilly water that protects sea ice above from extra melting.

“It isolates the ice from the scorching satan water sitting at the backside ready to return up” Wagner explains.

Much less sea ice means there can be much less of that protecting chilly layer, resulting in much more melting.

Defending our oceans

Greenpeace is touring from the Arctic to the Antarctic to focus on the threats dealing with our oceans and a part of its marketing campaign for ocean sanctuaries.

With local weather change and melting ice placing extra stress on Arctic sea life, the group desires extra of our oceans to be put aside as protected reserves, free from business exploitation.

Interactive: Defending the Antarctic

Negotiations in the direction of a World Ocean Treaty at the UN are below method and Greenpeace is a part of a broader coalition that’s campaigning for laws that might see 30% of our oceans protected by 2030.

“We will put a deal in place that the established order goes on or we will put a deal in place that has enamel, that may permit us to designate areas in the excessive seas for totally protected marine reserves,” says Sune Scheller, Greenpeace’s expedition chief. “And the threat of not doing that’s pushing the marine ecosystem over the edge. In the finish it is the political will that must be there.”

Inside the military base at the heart of Putin's Arctic ambitions

However it might show to be difficult, with some powerhouse nations, together with Russia and the US, taking a look at brief time period financial positive aspects at the expense of the planet’s future.

The US has not signed on to the Legislation of the Sea treaty, the UN pointers on how nations use our oceans, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not too long ago hailed the financial alternatives offered by shrinking ranges of sea ice opening up transport lanes and a wealth of pure sources.

Learn: Decide guidelines Trump govt order permitting offshore drilling in Arctic Ocean illegal

“It is tragic to listen to one thing like that and I believe that is an excessive case of cherry selecting as a result of clearly you will discover small particular person good issues about local weather change however in the broad perspective the unfavorable draw back of this to us as people, the setting, the ocean, will outweigh the small potential advantages considerably,” says Scheller.

Traces of a polar bear kill.

As the ship heads additional south, we come throughout crimson streaks of blood throughout the ice, the bloody aftermath of a polar bear kill.

The absence of sea ice would not simply threaten the prime of the meals chain, or the beluga whales we watch gently dipping alongside the ice edge, their deep breaths echoing throughout the silence of this distant area. Sea ice loss will influence us all, in ways in which science is racing to grasp.

Facts Source: https://www.cnn.com/2019/06/08/world/arctic-beneath-ice-intl/index.html

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