By Alek Petty
Hello and welcome to my new blog. I’m Alek Petty, a sea ice scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, currently making my way to the northern coast of Canada (a small town called Kugluktuk) to embark on the 2016 Joint Ocean Ice Study (JOIS) – a research expedition around the Arctic Ocean’s Beaufort Gyre. The Beaufort Gyre is a slowly-rotating icy body of water north of Alaska (see map), which covers an area roughly ten times the size of Lake Michigan and stores a significant fraction of the Arctic Ocean’s freshwater.
The expedition I’m going to be on has occurred every summer since 2003 – coinciding with the Arctic annual sea ice minimum, which typically happens in September – providing us Arctic scientists with a unique opportunity to monitor this harsh, but climatically significant region. The goal of these expeditions is to better understand the Beaufort Gyre’s circulation, freshwater content, water mass properties and biota distributions. I’ve been lucky enough to be invited on my second expedition to support this year’s planned sea ice observations.
We will be taken around the Beaufort Gyre by the Louis S St. Laurent, a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker specially designed to smash its way through the sea ice covered oceans (sea ice can be several meters thick in places). About a week ago, we observed this year’s sea ice minimum, which tied 2007 for the second lowest on record. The Arctic sea ice declines over the past decades have meant yachts and even a luxury cruise liner (with the aid of an icebreaker, they often leave that bit out in the news stories) are now navigating through the southern Arctic Ocean, including the newly opened Northwest Passage – made famous by Franklin’s failed traverse back in 1845 (when the ice was a lot thicker) and commemorated in this heartfelt tune by Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers.
While the diminished Arctic sea ice cover has made navigation easier than it used to be, especially for icebreakers, one of the primary objectives of our expedition is to deploy buoys into the ice that can collect measurements of the sea ice-atmosphere-ocean system as they drift through the Arctic Ocean (ice-tethered profilers). One of our initial goals will therefore be to search for sea ice thick enough to ensure that the ice isn’t going to melt out any time soon. One of my primary activities over the next few weeks will be to observe the extent and magnitude of sea ice freeze-up as we make our way north, the days begin to shorten, and the temperatures start to drop.
I look forward to giving you a better overview of what the trip is all about in future blog posts (we’re not just scouting for polar bears, promise), including some background to all the various scientific projects being undertaken. Stay tuned!