Arctic Exploration for Climate Science

Four explorers set off in the Arctic as part of the 2011 phase of the Catlin Arctic Survey. Credit: Catlin Arctic Survey.

In recent years, there have been many indications that the Arctic is suffering the effects of climate change more rapidly and seriously than almost any other region of the world. In particular, temperatures at the top of the planet have been rising much faster than the global average, and all that additional heat has melted vast quantities of Arctic sea ice.

Scientists have spotted these trends thanks to satellite data and other techniques, but there is still an awful lot that researchers don’t know about how the Arctic is responding to global warming. It’s no surprise, really; the Arctic is a harsh environment and it is difficult for scientists to get out there and study it in-person. But some of this on-the-ground data is exactly what climate scientists need in order to get a more complete picture of how the Arctic is changing and what ramifications there might be for the rest of the world. The quest for such data underpins a unique collaboration between scientists and explorers, known as the Catlin Arctic Survey, which just kicked off its third year. The survey is sponsored by Catlin Group Limited, an international insurance company.

Earlier today, a group of four seasoned explorers set off into the Arctic wilderness, armed with scientists’ tools to monitor the environment. Measuring changes in Arctic Ocean temperatures and salt-water content, the team will be trekking for 10 days before returning to a base camp at Resolute Bay in the northernmost region of Canada. At camp, they will hand the data over to scientists from around the world (including a group from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., which is the only American institution taking part in the survey this year), who will use it to investigate aspects of Arctic climate change that have, until now, only been closely studied from a distance, via remote sensing techniques and computer models. 

According to the expedition's communication laison, Rod Macrae, this is the third year of Catlin's Arctic Survey, and already the collaboration is helping scientists collect useful data they've not yet been able to access from such a far-flung and treacherous region.

“It is just too brutally hard for regular scientists to get out there,” says Macrae. At this time of year, overnight temperatures can dip as low as -40°F, and in preparation for the miles upon miles they will traverse under such frigid conditions, the explorers have trained for months. Nevertheless, Macrae says the data extracted from the snow and ice at such far-away distances is information scientists can't get from satellites. “The precise detail can only be obtained if you go out there, drill a hole, and measure it.”

In 2009, the researchers looked for clues as to how much longer the Arctic is likely to have sea ice cover during the entire year. For all of human history, the Arctic has had extensive Arctic sea ice coverage throughout the year, but in recent years the summer ice extent has fallen well below the 1979-2000 average. In fact, 2007, 2008 and 2010 saw the three smallest minimum extents of Arctic sea ice coverage on record. Already, measurements of sea ice thickness from Catlin's 2009 expedition have helped scientists predict that within 20 years, the Arctic may become largely ice-free during the summer melt season. 

During its second year, 2010, researchers investigated how ocean acidification could affect the Arctic’s marine ecosystem. The scientific team hasn't yet published any papers based on the 2010 expedition, but Macrae says they expect a few studies to be released during the next few months. 

This year, the exploration’s research focus is how all the fresh water melting off Arctic sea ice is influencing ocean circulation, in particular, the thermohaline circulation. The thermohaline circulation is a global ocean current that flows through the Arctic, and affects climate and weather around the world. The circulation is way for the planet to redistribute heat from the equator to the poles, and it functions based on differences in water density, among other influences. As more freshwater pours into the Arctic Ocean and begins to dilute the dense salt water, researchers are unsure how the water’s currents might change.

The following video, which features one of the lead scientists from Catlin's 2011 expedition, goes into more detail on the thermohaline circulation.   

An overview of Catlin's 2011 Arctic Survey expedition, featuring Dr. Simon Boxall from the University of Southampton in England. Credit: Catlin Arctic Survey.

The 2011 phase of the survey is just beginning with this first expedition. After this initial 10-day trek, the foursome of explorers will gather more data as they hike from the geographic North Pole towards Greenland. Stay tuned here for more about the team's progress over the next six weeks. You can also follow the survey on Twitter at @ArcticSurvey.