The Big Melt

Notes from the Front Lines of Climate Change


photo of ice-covered sea, broken into a wake behind a ship; all arctic photos by the author

There is no sunrise or sunset. It is December, nearly 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle. What light there is comes as a deep cobalt blue that begins shortly before noon and heightens to a liquid lilac before sinking back to darkness above a prism-edged horizon by 3 p.m. Temperatures have been hovering around 0°F, with windchill down to almost -30°F. We are surrounded by ice in every direction as far as the eye can see. Our ship is the only one now at sea in the Arctic.

I began writing this on board the CCGS Amundsen, a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker and scientific research vessel that is the first to spend the winter moving through sea ice north of the Arctic Circle. This expedition, which involves more than 200 scientists from 15 different countries, is the largest International Polar Year project underway. The expedition’s mission is to hug the path of open water, called the “flaw lead,” between the central sea ice pack – the ice that builds up and moves south from the Polar Ice Cap – and the coastal ice, a place particularly sensitive to environmental changes. This gives scientists the first opportunity to study open water and the adjacent ice throughout an Arctic winter, enabling them to gather information vital to understanding and predicting the impacts of global warming. Indicative of what will happen as temperatures rise and sea ice disappears, this thread of open water, also called a polynya, is literally on the front line of climate change.

I joined the Amundsen on the moonlit evening of November 26, arriving by helicopter from Sachs Harbour, a tiny Inuvialuit community on Banks Island in the Arctic Archipelago – the last hop in a trip that began two days and five plane flights earlier. After a two-hour Twin Otter flight north over the frozen Mackenzie River Delta from Inuvik, the eight of us who were the incoming crew for what is formally called Leg 4B of the expedition waited in the garage-sized airport, listening expectantly for the sound of rotors. Posters announced the Northwest Territories government’s prices for caribou samples and pelts, and warned that passengers not dressed for sub-zero temperatures might be denied travel. A couple of local men arrived by snowmobile, wearing enormous mittens of longhaired Arctic wolf fur and thick brown musk ox hide. There was a rumor of frozen fog and a sighting of the ship’s lights offshore. Then, with a great clatter, the chopper appeared, and we rushed outside in the frigid dark as the propellers kicked up a cloud of snow. We were aloft in what seemed like a matter of seconds. No more than 20 minutes later, we were ushered onto the Amundsen’s flight deck and were hauling our gear down the steep interior steps.

For almost a month, my home, which I shared with an international science crew of 20 and Coast Guard crew of 45, was a 300-foot-long floating laboratory capable of slicing through ice one meter thick. My companions for this journey were from Belgium, Canada, China, France, Spain, and the US. Because many of the scientists and almost the entire Coast Guard crew were Québécois, conversation was bilingual, with French often serving as the ship’s home language. The Canadian Coast Guard, unlike its US counterpart, is not a branch of the military, but part of Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, with a mission that includes scientific research. The Amundsen – named after the Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen, whose dour portrait hangs in a corridor – is the only Canadian Coast Guard ship devoted entirely to science.

Boat_cmyk.epsAll Arctic photos: Elizabeth GrossmanThe CCGS Amundsen’s expedition was the first of its kind. Ten years ago, there would have been too much ice.

Inside, the ship is warm, dry, and brightly lit. The engines thrum constantly. From the engine room below to the bridge six flights above, work goes on 24 hours a day. With the loss of sunlight, days seem suspended. Outside, beyond the double sets of heavy metal doors, the decks are covered with frost and fine crystalline snow. From my tiny berth on the lowest level of the ship, I could hear the roar of breaking ice just beyond my porthole whenever we moved. An extraordinary grinding, creaking, and crashing sound, it was like being in the scoop of a giant snowplow. Sometimes it was loud enough to drown out a normal speaking voice. There were times when the ice would move on its own, and with loud, groaning squeaks, snap and crack against the ship’s hull.

For the three-and-a-half weeks I was on board, we navigated the ice in the Amundsen Gulf, the westernmost reach of the Northwest Passage, some 90 miles south of the Polar Ice Cap. By the time the Amundsen returns from its current outpost in the Beaufort Sea to its home port of Quebec City later this year, it will have been in the Arctic for 15 months and traveled more than 50,000 kilometers. Logistically difficult and resource intensive – full throttle icebreaking uses about 4,000 liters of fuel an hour – the $40 million expedition (funded largely by the Canadian government) is being undertaken because of the urgent need to learn how global warming is affecting the Arctic. Conditions are changing drastically here, say expedition scientists, and may signal what’s to come farther south.

“The evidence of global warming is irrefutable,” says expedition co-leader Gary Stern, a senior scientist with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and a professor at the University of Manitoba. “It’s happening fast,” he says levelly as we sit in his office on the Amundsen. Stern is investigating the movement of contaminants in the Arctic, pollutants that include mercury and pesticides. He is the chief scientist for Leg 4B, and clearly relishes sharing his knowledge. He brings up a map on one of the two computers on his desk and turns the screen toward me. Between 2006 and 2007, some 1.3 million square kilometers – nearly twice the size of Texas – of Arctic sea ice was lost. In September 2007, the sea ice reached an historic low of about 4.12 million square kilometers (1.59 million square miles). The extent of open water seen here this November was greater than any seen before, say scientists who’ve been on board the Amundsen.

“Arctic sea ice is like the forest in the Amazon,” Stern explains. “Losing the ice is like losing the forest. It changes everything.” Ten or 15 years ago, this expedition would not have been possible. There was simply too much ice.

photo of people being lowered onto the ice in a cage
A large metal box – the “ice cage”
– lowers scientists off the ship.

Being in the Arctic in winter, you learn quickly how ice rules. There is a whole world of ice, complete with nomenclature and identifying characteristics. The first few days I am on board, we move swiftly through newly forming ice – through the scattered crystalline ice called “frazil,” through thin translucent sheets called “nilas,” through “grease ice” that rides the waves like an oily gray sheen, through round, layered pancake ice (glace en crêpes in French), and through the small brine crystals called “frost flowers” that look like tiny bougainvillea blooms. When we move through the same stretch of Beaufort Sea several weeks later, we are nearly trapped by blocks of ice almost a meter thick.

But this was all what’s called “first-year ice,” ice that has formed this winter. What scientists are watching warily is the ratio between first-year and multiyear ice – ice that has lasted through at least one summer melt season and is, on average, 13 years old. “Twenty years ago, multiyear ice made up about 60 percent of the Arctic sea ice cover. There is now only half that much,” explains Jinping Zhao of Ocean University in Qindao, China, who is on the Amundsen investigating how light penetrates sea ice. Multiyear ice is arguably the old growth of ice. Massive, hummocked, and imposing, it is – like ancient forest – an ecosystem anchor. What’s happening now as temperatures warm is roughly analogous to what happens when an ancient forest becomes riddled with clear cuts. Amundsen Captain Stéphane Julien, who has over 20 years of experience in the Arctic, calls multiyear ice “an endangered species.”

“This November, we went north up the coast of Banks Island into McClure Strait where the multiyear pack ice was heavily decayed,” expedition leader Dave Barber tells me in January. “We were the first ever to do this. The multiyear pack ice is retreating much farther north toward the Queen Elizabeth Islands. Over the last several years – and over the last 30 years – we’ve been losing about 70,000 square kilometers of ice (about the size of Lake Superior) each summer. We expect to see a minimum ice year this year too.”

With so much ice lost, the ocean is open to more solar radiation, making the surface layer of the Arctic Ocean much hotter all the way across to Siberia. This extended warmth delays the onset of ice formation.

“Ice is the keystone feature of the system,” says Barber. “Lose the ice and you change a white system to a dark system.”

From where we are on the Amundsen, north of 70°N, it becomes abundantly clear how sensitive the environment is, and how open water can change everything. There are times when it is possible to see heat steaming out of the water – water that is -1°C into air that is about -20°C. The stark contrast between the dusky white expanse of snow-covered ice and the intense indigo water illustrates how ice acts like a blanket, regulating heat transfer between ocean and atmosphere. As Barber puts it: “The ice is like a little two-meter cap on top of 500 to 1500 meters of water. Take off the cap, and the ocean is able to talk to the atmosphere.”

What happens then can prompt a chain of events cascading across the hemisphere that can affect everything on the planet. On the Amundsen, Matthew Asplin, a doctoral student at the University of Manitoba, shows me data he’s collecting for his PhD on Arctic storm systems. “More and more open water changes surface temperature. This changes circulation and feeds the atmosphere with more energy, which influences Arctic storm systems,” he explains. Asplin has been launching weather balloons from the ship’s flight deck. His research team has also been placing tracking beacons on chunks of multiyear ice. The information these devices send back will help Asplin’s team understand the forces driving this winter’s perturbing ice conditions.

“The reduction in ice is causing all of the changes we’re seeing in the Arctic. If we could slow this down it would halt the changes, but we can’t do that,” says Barber.

The loss of multiyear ice in the Arctic is analagous to what happens when an
ancient forest becomes riddled with clear cuts.

To understand what these changes mean, scientists on the Amundsen are studying every aspect of the Arctic environment: atmospheric and ocean circulation, ice structure, nutrients, contaminants, the movement of carbon dioxide (CO2), and the communities of microscopic organisms – phytoplankton, zooplankton, bacteria, and viruses – that make up the base of the marine food web. Here, at the top of the world, where the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific mix, it becomes easy to understand how this spot is the vortex for the many interlocking feedback loops that maintain the Earth’s ecological balance.

Labs housing sophisticated analytical equipment are tucked into corners of the ship, some accessible only from the chilly decks. A cold lab is kept at temperatures down to almost -15°F to preserve ice samples. There, through a polarized lens, Dustin Isleifson, who’s working on his PhD at the University of Manitoba, gives me a look at the crystal structure of different aged slices of ice. Multiyear ice is mostly water and dense like an ice cube from the fridge, while new ice is laced with brine crystals, little pockets that can harbor life.

Another key to understanding the forces driving climate change is knowing how CO2 moves through oceans and atmosphere. The research team investigating this phenomenon is studying the role sea ice plays in the transfer of CO2 between air and water, an important but poorly understood part of this process. Excess CO2 in the world’s oceans is causing a process called “acidification,” which is wreaking havoc on corals and harming organisms that build shells. To take daily readings of instruments measuring atmospheric CO2, Brent Else of the University of Calgary dons a climbing harness and ascends a seven-meter tower on the bow deck. To understand how sea ice influences the flow of CO2 between air and ocean, this data will be compared with measurements of CO2 in ice and sea water that Else and colleagues take throughout the expedition.

The Amundsen also has indoor access to the Arctic Ocean through a kind of trapdoor in the base of the ship called the “Moon Pool.” Not far from my berth, whenever the Moon Pool is open, I can smell the sea. An array of large water sampling bottles known as the “rosette” and nets to collect plankton are lowered almost daily through the Moon Pool to collect plankton. Microbiologists on board are investigating how changing ocean conditions may be prompting these tiny plants and animals to alter when they bloom and grow.

The ice alongside the ship is also a laboratory. A large open metal box known as the “ice cage” is maneuvered by crane, and lowers scientists and equipment onto the ice. Arctic research is clearly not for the weak. Heavy boxes holding ice corers, ice augurs, temperature gauges, water bottles, electric drills, handsaws, small workbenches, logbooks, coolers, and other equipment are hauled out onto the ice. Work goes on in the short Arctic twilight and full dark, illuminated by the ship’s powerful spotlights.

What’s the biggest challenge of Arctic winter fieldwork? I ask the scientists. The cold? The dark? Fingers, they all say, smiling – keeping fingers warm while working on the ice. Big mittens do the job well, but many tasks require dexterity. To ensure I have the full experience, I am given small jobs: recording measurements, sealing sample bags, retrieving ice cores. I agree without hesitation – fingers.

No one is allowed on the ice without a rifle-bearer to keep watch for polar bears. The Coast Guard crew and a couple of scientists have firearms training, but Trevor Lucas, a lifelong resident of Sachs Harbour and wildlife monitor for this leg of the expedition, is usually the gun-bearer. Lucas, who’s in his 30s, has been hunting for about 20 years. Arctic wolf, musk ox, caribou, Arctic fox, ringed seal, bearded seal, as well as birds – tundra swan, snow geese, ptarmigan – and polar bear, all live and are hunted on Banks Island. Lucas says that in the last couple of years, birds have started arriving at different times of year. “The permafrost has been melting really badly on Banks Island,” he tells me, “especially near the inland lakes and along the coast.”

At our first stop on an ice floe large enough for scientists to work at some distance from the ship, four snowmobiles are lowered over the side of the ship along with cargo sleds. Eight of us take off for a trip to see the surrounding ice. We zoom along in the lowering light, bumping up and down layers of ice. We’re about two kilometers from the ship when we see the polar bear tracks. We stop to inspect them. They are big, the tips of the claw prints deeply incised. Lucas says they are from just the night before.

The Amundsen’s self-contained, self-supporting universe runs so seamlessly that it’s easy to forget how extreme our environment actually is. But the ship carries lifeboats – enclosed ovoid vessels about 20 feet long and 5 feet high – equipped with food and water rations to last two dozen people a month. We practice donning the yellow inflatable survival suits known as “Mustang suits” and are shown how to operate the ship’s interior watertight doors. We’re also given helicopter safety training. We learn how to use the seat armature as an exit ladder and where the satellite phone is stored. Keep all hood and mitten strings away from the rotors, we’re cautioned. “One of those gets caught and we’re all fox food,” says the pilot.

This last piece of advice comes as we embark on an aerial ice survey. The best way to view ice conditions is from the air, so regular scouting trips are made with the helicopter that’s dedicated to the Amundsen.

On a sunset-pink afternoon, five of us clamber aboard – the helicopter floor is the height of my hips – and lift off in a gentle spiral. The Amundsen quickly seems like a small red toy. From the air, the ice resembles a vast piece of pastry, crackled like a cooling crust, marbled in places with blue veins of water. With a GPS unit, satellite image printout, and pen in hand, the captain makes constant notes on the position of leads and large floes of unbroken ice. What we’re after today is a chunk of multiyear ice on which a tracking beacon can be placed. This will mean landing on the ice.

As the helicopter hovers closer and closer to the ice, the rotors whip up a tiny blizzard of fine snow that whirls around us in a luminescent cloud of apricot, blue, and yellow. We come to a vibrating halt, and I spot a ridge just beyond us that’s at least as high as the helicopter roof. We climb out into what turns out to be almost knee-deep snow. Dustin Isleifson and Gary Stern haul a locator beacon to plant atop the high ridge. It will track this piece of ice through its seasonal drift. While they’re at work, the captain waves me over to see where the massive multiyear ice has collided with the first-year ice. Huge glacial blue chunks rise vertically, like an upended ancient stone wall.

A month later, I check in to find out where this piece of ice has traveled. “The beacons we’ve planted on multiyear ice have flagged the fact that the ice is moving very quickly,” Barber tells me. “There are large fractures in the multiyear ice moving it away from the first-year ice in the Arctic Archipelago and toward Siberia. Eastern winds blow ice toward Siberia, and when there is less multiyear ice, it blows very fast.” A massive pack ice fracture is now being monitored in the Beaufort Sea.

This past year, the Bering Strait was open into early December and the south Beaufort Sea has been warm. As a result, this winter’s multiyear pack ice is interspersed with first-year ice. “When multiyear ice congregates, it protects itself,” Barber says. “With thinner ice in between, it accelerates the melting.” The increasing Arctic melt is also pushing more ice out through Fram Strait into the North Atlantic.

Is there anything we can do to halt this process? I ask Barber. “Ten years ago we could have, but not now. There’s too much inertia in the system,” he says. “We’re at a crossroads in the choices we make today as a civilization. Between a bad or a really bad future.”

This expedition cannot solve climate change, but it will deepen our understanding of how it’s affecting the Arctic’s intricate ecological balance. What’s happening is deeply disturbing, yet being able to see this landscape and expedition firsthand is inspiring. Scientists and crew on the Amundsen are working with impressive collaboration, enthusiasm, and good humor across languages, backgrounds, and generations for long hours under difficult conditions. “It (climate change research) is a puzzle with many pieces,” says Gauthier Carnat, a 22-year-old PhD student from Belgium. “No one can solve it all, so everyone is giving a little.”

“Twenty years ago, the general circulation models for the general climate told us to expect general warming in polar regions. We now have observations that match these models,” says Barber. “We have to take these models as warnings and take them very seriously. That’s what the Inuit are doing, and the science community is doing. We have to get these messages to the public. As long as people make this a priority and tell the politicians we’ve hired to represent us that they need to think not just four or eight or twelve years ahead, but further out than that, we’ve got a chance.”

Elizabeth Grossman is the author, most recently, of High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health. She writes from Portland, Oregon.

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