Geographer and glaciologist Julienne Stroeve travels to the Arctic Ocean this fall to study sea ice at its lowest extent since satellites started measuring it in 1979. Stroeve is a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center and studies sea ice to understand how a seasonally ice-free Arctic will impact climate in the Northern Hemisphere. Stroeve’s research expedition comes at the cusp of fundamental changes to the Arctic’s sea ice cover–from older ice that is hard to melt, to seasonal ice that melts more quickly.
I was sad to leave the ice pack. On our way out, the large swells made for a special treat as the ice-covered ocean pulsed with the waves. I tried to capture it on video, but since the boat was also moving up and down, it’s hard to capture the scale of the movement. Naturally, once we left the ice, I was once again sea sick, though not like I was the first time out. This time it was a more general malaise. I slept a lot the first day back into the open ocean, lulled to sleep by the motion. But happily I was able to eat so overall felt much better. Spent more time on the deck outside, getting fresh air.
We arrived in Svalbard on the 17th of September. We could see the islands off in the distance for several hours, and I spent hours on deck watching Svalbard get closer and admiring the views of the snow-capped mountains and glaciers. Longyearbyen was our final stopping point. It was great to step foot back on solid ground that evening, and we spent a few hours at the 5 or so pubs in Longyearbyen. The next day I tried to go for a hike with a couple of folks from the boat, but since we didn’t have a gun, we were advised not to leave the city limits. The hill outside of town that we were hoping to climb to had a fatality last year by a polar bear, so we wisely turned around and walked around the town instead. Would love to come back to Svalbard though and do some hiking and camping. I admire the folks though that live there year around, winter is long and dark there.
Looking back it was an amazing experience. It’s always great to have a chance to see in person what you’re studying. So much of my time is spent in front of the computer analyzing satellite data. It gives me a new perspective. I will be looking into more detail as to why the satellite data was suggesting there would be quite a bit more ice than I saw out there. The Arctic Ocean recorded the least amount of September ice this summer, at least since 1953 when we have reliable observations. The thin, first-year ice we mostly encountered is certainly behind the continued ice loss each year. As the Arctic loses more of its store of old, thick ice, that is replaced by thinner, first-year ice, summers like this will become the norm.
Climate models all suggest that the Arctic will eventually be open water in summer as the planet continues to warm from increases in greenhouse gases. The dates as to when this will happen are continually being revived in the models, with the models now saying sometime around 2050. Yet the ice loss we’re seeing today is still happening faster than many of the models can capture. So perhaps the Arctic will become ice free during summers even sooner. It’s hard to imagine that animals like the polar bears can adapt to such quick changes in their environment. I felt lucky to see as many bears as I did (6 total). I can’t imagine an Arctic without ice and bears.
I hope that doesn’t come to pass.
It’s been a few days since I’ve written, and a lot has happened.
On the evening of September 11, we abandoned our original sailing plan of searching for larger ice floes. We left the ice pack and headed west along the ice edge where we ran into a rather large swell. Once were in more open water, half the crew and guests were once again seasick. Luckily, we only spent half the night and half the next day along the ice edge, so I was able to resume my ice watch observations around 2 p.m. on September 12.
Along the ice edge at 82.27N, 21.27E, I observed a lot of ice at 80 to 90 percent ice concentration. However, after a couple of hours the ice concentration dropped dramatically, typically to values of around 40 percent. I have been surprised by the vast expanses of open water that we came upon after entering the ice. The average ice concentration of the last five days has been about 65 percent, with about 36 percent of that ice being first-year ice, 14 percent being multiyear ice and 10 percent being brash ice (small broken ice floes). Air temperatures have been above freezing, even at 82.82N, 15.16E, so that there have been no new ice formation observed the last five days. Mixed sea and ice surface temperatures range from -2 to -3C.
Because our objective was to find a large ice floe, we once again sent the helicopter out to try to locate one that we could moor to. We finally had success on the 13th of September. This floe was about 100 meters long and 60 meters wide. One of Greenpeace’s objectives was to place flags from the 195 United Nations countries on a floe as a statement to turn the Arctic Ocean into a sanctuary—thus the need to find a large floe. They were able to place half the flags on the floe on September 13. The Cambridge University scientists placed their wave height buoy on the ice and I was able to make one thickness measurement (205 centimeters) before the drill got stuck and we had to spend a couple of hours digging it out. Then it was dinnertime.
After dinner, a large swell began to penetrate the ice. By 8 p.m. we could tell the floe we were moored to was flexing and it was only a matter of time before the floe would break. Sure enough around 9 p.m. the floe broke. A handful of errors caused the ship to lose the floe the following day, which still had the expensive buoy fixed to it.
The entire next day was spent searching for the floe. The weather unfortunately was not good; there were lots of low clouds making visibility difficult. The helicopter made several flights to search for it but was unsuccessful. Everyone was taking turns in the crow’s nest trying to spot it as well. We had all but given up when Grant spotted the floe around 6 p.m. on September 14.
Everyone quickly went about setting up the rest of the flags, while I drilled into the ice for another thickness measurement. This part of the ice floe ended up being a lot thicker than anticipated. After about 270 centimeters, we had to give up, as the drill couldn’t go any further. I had originally thought this was a first-year ice floe with a pressure ridge. I’m thinking now it’s likely a second-year year floe. I should note that this second hole showed biological activity in the ice (algae and other material).
Today is September 15 and I was hoping to take the helicopter out to individual floes for half the day to measure their thickness. Unfortunately the weather is not cooperating. A storm is on its way and the visibility is less than 750 meters. Instead we will moor to a few more floes so that I can make a few more measurements and the Cambridge folks can collect a few more wave height data. Ten-meter swells await us when we leave the ice pack. Looks like I’ll be skipping dinner tonight.
The last two days were spent searching for floes larger than 100 meters. However, since we reached the ice edge we have not found any large floes. Most have been around 20 to 50 meters in size. Today I set foot on a larger floe that was 65 by 55 meters. This floe was likely second-year ice, with a mean thickness around 2 meters. It had five frozen melt ponds. On top of the floe was a granular surface of 1- to 2-centimeter grain size ranging between 8- to 16- centimeter deep. I drilled through the largest frozen melt pond (though not entirely frozen as water came up when I drilled through the top layer), that had a total ice thickness of 165 centimeters.
According to the satellite data, we should have already reached nearly 100 percent ice concentration, yet at 83N, the ice concentration remains less than 40 percent. It could be that the heavy fog has resulted in an overestimation of the ice concentration from the passive microwave satellite observation.
As the temperatures have dropped further in the day (below -5 degrees Celsius), frazil and grease ice have increased the total ice concentration to 80 percent. Helicopter reconnaissance shows no large ice floes within at least one day of sailing.
Several polar bears were sighted today, including a mother and her two-year-old cub. Amazing to watch them from the ship. So curious!
Just heard that a storm is on its way. Appears to be some light snow now. Our plan is to start heading west in hopes of reaching some larger ice floes.
We reached the ice edge around 6 a.m. LST on Monday, September 10 at 82N. At first we encountered small first-year ice floes and some brash ice. As we went further into the pack, it was mostly first-year ice (less than 100 meters in size, and less than 1 meter thick) and brash ice, equaling 9/10ths ice concentration. Lots of polar bear footprints on the first-year ice and we saw our first polar bear off in the distance. Because of the heavy fog I wasn’t able to get a good picture of the bear. We are also not flying the helicopter until the fog lifts.
As of 11 a.m. LST, we are at 82.23N, 25.44E and it’s still foggy. Ice concentration has dropped to 5/10ths. Ice now consists of first-year ice floes between 1 to 2 meters thick (still less than 100 meters in size), second-year ice (2 meters thick), and some brash ice. A few scattered pressure ridges, but mostly undeformed ice.
Location: 82.23N, 25.44E
It’s anticipated that we’ll reach the ice edge at 4 a.m. LST on Monday morning. We are currently at 80.99N, 29.99E. We saw our first sea ice today: pancake ice. Not much though, just five small floes within about a three-mile radius. Air temperature was at 3 degrees Celsius, and conditions have been foggy since yesterday. There are four helicopter flights planned tomorrow if the weather permits. I will be on one of those flights out to a multiyear ice floe, which we plan to land on. KT19 is working fine and collecting SSTs. The ship’s crew has been extremely helpful getting everything set up. Seasickness has finally subsided.
Location: 80.99N, 29.99E
Woke this morning at 1 a.m. and didn’t fall back to sleep until about 4 a.m. when another crew member knocked on the door to wake my roommate for her early morning watch. Everyone goes to bed and gets up at different times on the ship, as watch duties are rotated throughout the night. Though we haven’t left port yet, routine has begun. The next knock came at 7:30 a.m., just when I was sound asleep. Okay, so maybe it will take another day before I’m on European time. Keeping my fingers crossed. Could be tonight I’ll just pass out from the meds I’m going to take to help with the sea sickness that will likely happen as we head out into the rough waters. My last post said four-foot swells, what I meant to say was four-meter swells. That’s a bit more extreme.
Everyone is now on the boat. Met the scientist from Cambridge University, Nick Tolberg and his technician. They will be deploying some buoys to monitor wave activity in the ice pack. Nice to have another scientist on board. We also have two journalists with us, Camila Alves from OGlobo in Brazil and John Vidal from the Guardian in the United Kingdom.
Was able to go on a nice walk to town before the helicopter arrived at 4 p.m. The helicopter is now secured to the boat and we’re ready to fuel up. Keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll get a chance to fly out on the helicopter over the ice – that will make for some nice filming of the ice conditions.
Lots of anticipation for tonight’s journey. The chef is cooking up some Thai food to celebrate. I wonder how spicy food will go with wave motion. Hmm, guess I’ll know soon enough.
Next posts will come via satellite phone. They will be short, but will update on ice and weather conditions when I can.
Up at 3 a.m. – seems the usual wake time my first night in Europe. I’m sort of relieved we are still going to be at port today. September 4 was originally our departure date, but it’s been postponed until tomorrow. Part of the reason for the delay is that the helicopter has not yet arrived. Another reason is the weather. Waves larger than 4 feet mean this small ship will be tossed around quite violently. The crew keeps mentioning how sea sick most people get on the Arctic Sunrise. At the briefing today more mention was made of sea sickness – now I’m starting to get worried. I brought along the patches, I hope they work!
Today it’s been raining on and off all day. I spent part of the day setting up the radiometer for measuring sea surface temperatures (SSTs) and making sure everything was working. So far so good! Haven’t installed it yet on the rail of the ship since the conditions during our passage will mean the instrument will be wet the entire time. I’ve been told it will take about three days to get to the ice edge. I hope at some point conditions will be better so that I can collect some SSTs.
One thing I will be doing before we are able to get physically onto the ice is making two hourly Ice Watch observations from the ship’s deck using Ice Watch software from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. This will involve recording the ice concentration and type of ice types encountered. First-year ice will be determined from multiyear ice primarily on the basis of topography. I will also try to estimate the fractional areas of melt ponds (mostly frozen melt ponds), sediment-laden ice and biologically rich ice. In addition to the ice observations, photographs and video taken from the ship will help to further characterize the ice conditions. After all the talk about sea sickness I’m not too psyched for the journey out to the ice, but really looking forward to getting to see it!