In late March, the U.S. Navy established a camp on a severe and unforgivingly cold stretch of ice about 150 miles north of Deadhorse, Alaska. While most of us were looking forward to the long, hot, sultry days of summer, nearly 30 scientists eagerly accepted an Office of Naval Research invitation to head to the Arctic camp to study ice, sea, and atmosphere.
An interdisciplinary team of research scientists is focusing on the physical, biological, and chemical environment of the ice-covered ocean, and will provide the first late winter data on sea ice in the Beaufort Sea since 1997. Ice Experiment 03, dubbed ICEX 03, will assess both current conditions and dramatic interannual changes in the Arctic – such as decreased thickness and extent of the ice pack cover – that have affected the region over the past decade.
Take temperature for instance. "Rapid change in Arctic temperature is like the canary in the coal mine," explains Dennis Conlon, Arctic scientist at ONR. "Arctic ice cover affects Earth's temperature. The less ice there is to reflect sunlight back into space, the warmer we get. This ice camp gives researchers the chance to gather data and to help the Navy better understand the Arctic operational environment."
The ice camp sits on waters that are a mixture of the boundary current flowing along the continental margins around the Arctic Ocean, input from the Bering Strait, and dense waters from the shallow continental shelves. Scientists are documenting the physical conditions of these waters, including currents and the nutrients and elements they carry. One project will examine the arctic atmosphere to measure mercury levels to understand the controls of sea ice over atmospheric mercury deposition. This will contribute to our understanding of "Arctic haze" (believed to be composed of industrial pollution from lower latitudes) and the health of marine mammals in the region.
Using data from satellites, airplanes, and in situ measurements, researchers are verifying remote sensing methods and models. Biologists are studying ice algae and its role in the Artic food web. Several projects are being undertaken as part of the Shelf-Basin Interaction (SBI) program, funded by ONR and the National Science Foundation, which aims to assess climate change in the Arctic. In addition to scientists from the National Ice Center, the Univ. of Alaska Fairbanks, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and other research institutions, a team of specialists studying the ice cover on Jupiter's moon Europa will use the camp to gain "hands-on" experience with sea ice.
In April 2001, the Office of Naval Research co-sponsored a meeting of Arctic subject matter experts from the U.S., Canada, and Great Britain in a preliminary attempt to address a range of Arctic issues. That report, and a complete list of ICEX 03 participants, is available.