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Arctic a danger zone for scientist trying to unravel disappearing ice mystery

Ben Deacon, Saturday March 3, 2018 - 12:06 EDT
ABC licensed image
Dr Amelie Meyer cuts a hole in sea ice in the Arctic. - ABC licensed

It was a science mission to the freezing Arctic Sea in the middle of winter so it was always going to be something of a challenge for Australian oceanographer Dr Amelie Meyer.

If it sounds dangerous, it was.

Dr Meyer was on the voyage to try to help unravel one of science's great questions — how and why is the Arctic's sea ice disappearing?

Arctic weather has far-reaching influence because it is linked to the freezing weather southward, causing cold snaps like the one Europe experienced this week, called the "Beast from the East".

On her mission, Dr Meyer faced shifting, thin ice, wild storms with minus 40-degree winds and of course, polar bears.

"The polar bears were curious, and they were attracted to the food smells on the ship," Dr Meyer said.

"In fact, they were just incredibly good at hiding, say behind a piece of ice, even though they were so big.

"We had rifles on our shoulders and flare guns in case they got too close.

"We'd see the bears sneaking up on us while we worked," Dr Meyer said of the 2015 mission aboard a scientific research ship.

"Sometimes we'd be distracted and take our eyes off them for a second and when we looked back they were gone.

"They'd come right up to our instruments that were monitoring the ocean and sea ice and they'd be really inquisitive.

"And they often chewed our stuff or tried to take it away. We'd come out the next morning and everything would be broken."

Warm Arctic and freezing Europe

Understanding the polar climate also has new urgency after a heatwave this winter led to record low levels of sea ice for this time of the year.

A weather station near the North Pole recorded an extraordinary 61 hours above freezing in 2018.

"You just don't think of the North Pole in winter as being a place where things melt," Walt Meier, a climatologist from the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre, said.

"It's a cold, icy place. The fact that you have temperatures above freezing for extended periods in and around the pole is pretty remarkable, and it really is an indication of just how dramatically things are changing and have changed in the Arctic".

To properly understand complex processes like Arctic weather requires masses of data, but there are huge gaps in even basic observations from the Arctic in winter.

There's a reason this kind of research is rare. Studying one of the most hostile environments on the planet is expensive and genuinely dangerous.

Drifting research station

Which is why Dr Meyer found herself on a ship trapped in the ice.

She was working for the Norwegian Polar Institute when it mounted an expedition in 2015 to the Arctic Sea.

Their mission was to update knowledge of an environment that is changing so fast, scientists are calling it "The New Arctic".

The plan was to sail a former sealing ship called the RV Lance towards the North Pole and then allow it to be frozen into an ice floe.

There, the Lance would become a drifting research station, literally going with the floe.

"The plan for the expedition was made on data from the Old Arctic," Dr Meyer said this week.

"And when we went up there, there were these big winter storms that are happening more and more, like the one we had this week."

The violent storms kept pushing the ice and the ship trapped in it southward and the Lance was repeatedly spat out into open water.

"The storms were pretty difficult to handle in terms of being out on the ice and being dangerous."

Data from the expedition confirmed the Arctic is not only becoming hotter, it's also becoming stormier, and these warmer storms are breaking up the sea ice, accelerating ice loss in the spring.

Hotter, stormier weather breaks down the ice. And less ice leads to hotter, stormier weather.

It's part of a vicious cycle scientists call "Arctic amplification", where the Arctic warms faster than the rest of the world.

Polar Vortex is weakening

At the same time, a protective ring of weather around the Arctic called the Polar Vortex is weakening. Scientists are debating whether this is causing the increase in storms.

What's not in doubt is that the warm storms in the Arctic and the freezing storms in Europe and North America are connected.

"When you have warm air going north, you have to expect cold air coming south, and we do see a link with global warming," Dr Meyer said. "However, the exact mechanics behind it is being debated."

"People are talking about an ice-free Arctic in 30 years or so.

"How fast that's going to happen depends on how much carbon dioxide we have in the atmosphere. So the more greenhouse gases we have in the atmosphere, the sooner the Arctic is going to lose its ice."

From the far north to the far south

This year Dr Meyer is back in Australia looking at the impact of climate change on the Southern Ocean, between Australia and Antarctica, working for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes in Hobart.

Also this week, the Australian Antarctic Division announced Antarctic sea ice has shrunk to its second-lowest extent on record.

For Dr Meyer, the two ends of Earth — the Arctic and Antarctic — are connected.

"All the planet's systems are changing globally," she said.

"It's not just the Arctic, not just Europe, it's also in the southern hemisphere.

"The patterns are changing due to global warming and we should be expecting this kind of thing.

"It's just when we have such an extreme event, it's a reminder that it's happening and we should be paying attention."


© ABC 2018

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