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Going with the Floes

Exploring the Fringes of the Arctic Ocean

During four weeks aboard the US Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star in the summer of 2002, scientists and sailors battled Arctic Ocean ice to observe one of the world’s least-studied bodies of water. As they deployed moorings and cast instruments into the cold, deep water, Research Associate Chris Linder (Physical Oceanography Department) documented the scientific efforts and the raw beauty of this alien land. “Viewed through my lens,” he says, “the landscape seemed harsh and unforgiving, and at other times delicate and fragile. These photographs and accompanying text are my attempt to convey the awe I felt while working ‘in the ice.’”

I stared out over the sea of ice from my perch in the bow of Polar Star, the world’s most powerful non-nuclear icebreaker. The sun had just dipped into a fog bank and tinted the surrounding floes with brushstrokes of peach and magenta. Before us lay huge blocks of ice tumbled together like an upended box of Legos.

When we first passed from the steel-gray waters of the Bering Sea into the frozen reaches of the Chukchi Sea, I felt a quickening of my pulse and a twitch in my shutter finger. The ice is hypnotic; you cannot resist the urge to stare at it. The wind and waves carve odd shapes, and the palette of colors ranges from  deep aquamarine to stark white to muddy brown.

As the ship battered the floes, it shuddered violently. The bow smashed into the larger chunks, fracturing the ocean’s cap. The cracking ice rumbled like distant thunder. We knifed through the slabs and thrust them aside, leaving a thin gap that would soon narrow, freeze, and close behind us.

This is the Arctic Ocean—a deep, frigid sea covered by a blanket of shifting ice. It’s another world, a place that for centuries lured explorers seeking fame and scientists seeking knowledge. Like Nansen and Sverdrup, Franklin and Amundsen, we are here seeking answers, though the questions have changed.

The Arctic has been described as a “canary in a coal mine” from which we will likely receive the first warning signal of the next great climate change. Understanding this isolated, delicately balanced ocean at the top of the world is critical to understanding climate all the way down to the tropics.

The Arctic Ocean is a deep basin rimmed by continental shelves and shallower waters. Through a new multi-year, interdisciplinary research project called “Western Arctic Shelf-Basin Ineractions,” WHOI scientists (led by physical oceanographer Bob Pickart), plan to observe how waters originating in the Pacific Ocean are transferred from the Bering Sea, across the Chukchi and Beaufort shelves, to the deep basin of the Arctic Ocean. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research.

Of paramount interest is the formation and maintenance of the cold “halocline,” the layer of salty water that resides 150 to 200 meters (500 to 650 feet) below the surface. This halocline acts as a barrier between ice at the surface and the reservoir of warmer water in the depths. If this shield weakens, there is more than enough heat stored in the deep water to melt the ice from below.

One of the objectives of our cruise in the summer of 2002 was to deploy a “picket fence” of profiling instruments, a closely spaced array of eight moorings that extends 40 kilometers (25 miles) along the edge of the Beaufort Sea. The array of instruments will measure the complex ocean circulation processes between the Pacific and Arctic Oceans as they have never been measured before.

In the autumn of 2003, the science team will return to retrieve a year’s worth of data, and then reset the moorings for another year of measurements. Never before has such a continuous, high-resolution series of data been collected in the Western Arctic Ocean. This “picket fence” approach is new in a region where scientists have typically been limited to one or two “fence posts.” We hope that these measurements can improve theories and predictions of changes in the Arctic Ocean...and help scientists listen for that proverbial canary of the climate. To learn more, visit www.whoi.edu/arcticedge.

Originally published: March 1, 2003