Arctic Scientists Take On ‘Emerging Research Questions’

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Webcam from the Sea Ice Group at the UAF Geophysical Institute.

Environmental changes from climate warming are hitting the Arctic harder and faster than anyone predicted.  This week, top Arctic scientists have been meeting in Anchorage looking for better ways to investigate and even track the changes and what they could mean.

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They are called “emerging research questions,” and the Polar Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences has put together a committee to identify them and recommend how to tackle them.

The committee called on all kinds of other scientists for help – hydrologists, mappers, oceanographers, biologists, weather analysts, sociologists, anthropologists, geologists and more.

Henry Huntington. Photo from The Pew Charitable Trusts.
Henry Huntington. Photo from The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Committee co-chair, Alaska anthropologist Henry Huntington, says the emerging issues are ones that scientists did not anticipate.

“Many of the important questions are things we’ve been asking for quite some time and are continuing to answer and refining our answers for,” Huntington said. “The emerging questions are what are the things that are new that we have not really been thinking about or anticipating.”

A really big one is weather, and if a connection can be drawn between changing conditions in the Arctic and extreme weather elsewhere. That has become a specialty for committee member Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University.

“And this past fall, winter and spring have just dished up an unbelievable array of very unusual weather patterns, so the more that happens, the harder it is to say that there isn’t some connection to the Arctic, and to climate change in general,” Francis said.

Francis knows what she is talking about. For the past year and a half she has been poring through past weather records and comparing them to climate models. She’s found that a warming Arctic tends to loosen the jet stream – it wanders more to the south and north and the weather systems fall into patterns.

Image from the American Geophysical Union

“We’re looking at how the waves in the atmosphere, how those have changed in their shape, in their speed of motion, where they tend to be setting up – you know there are some places where we tend to get these big northward swings in the jet stream, which cause these what we call blocking patterns, and we’re seeing that they’re definitely changing over time, and they are seeming to appear in certain places rather than in other places,” Francis said.

The big rushes of warm air that Alaska got a couple of times this past mid-winter are examples of that.  Is this the new normal for air circulation?  That’s the emerging research question.

There are plenty of other ones – the consequences of more freshwater coming into the Arctic and whether the waters will begin to mix more, and what that might do to the deep currents of the North Atlantic.  And then there is the evidence that huge amounts of methane stored in undersea permafrost are entering the atmosphere off the coast of Russia.

Dozens of scientists, dozens more research questions.

Nobody knows much yet about how plankton are changing because of thinner ice, letting more sunlight in instead of reflecting it. So far it looks like it’s leading to more plankton, which feeds the whole food chain, or maybe falls into the sediments because there’s nobody to eat it.  Then there’s the ice itself.

In the past,  part of the summer pack ice has been thicker, formed sometimes centuries ago, but now most of the ice in the Arctic Ocean is thinner, formed within the year, and it acts differently, says sea ice specialist Julienne Stroeve of the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Julienne Stroeve. Photo from the National Snow & Ice Data Center.
Julienne Stroeve. Photo from the National Snow & Ice Data Center.

“The whole marginal ice zone is expanding, and the biological and ecological impacts of the increase in the first year ice is really not something that’s well understood yet,” Stroeve said.

One thing they learned this winter was that first year ice can break up more easily under extreme wind conditions, because that’s what it did in the Beaufort Sea in February.

The committee will meet next in Canada, and hopes to turn in its recommendations for new research directions – and the infrastructure it would require – at about this time next year.

sheimel (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8454 | About Steve

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