Blog: Unravelling the impact of sea ice loss on the Arctic marine ecosystem

  • Callum Whyte, Arctic PRIZE
  • Callum Whyte, Arctic PRIZE
  • Callum Whyte, Arctic PRIZE

Project Eco-Light looks to evaluate how changes in the snow and ice regime impact the timing and duration of primary productivity of the Arctic Ocean, including the grazing habits of zooplankton.

During our first icebreaker cruise to the Pacific sector of the Arctic on-board the IBRV Araon, we will be deploying 2 ice mass balance buoys to measure snow depth and ice thickness, 2 snow buoys for measuring snow depth as well as sea level pressure, air temperature and sea surface temperature, 1 optical buoy to measure incoming sunlight on top of the ice and also below the ice and 1 acoustic zooplankton fish profiler. A CTD will additionally measure ocean properties (temperature and salinity).

Proposed cruise track of the IBRV Araon in the Pacific sector of the Arctic during summer 2018. Image courtesy of the Korea Polar Research Institute.

A bit of down time 9-10 August 2018

The sun is shinning high and bright today, warm enough that you can join the outside world without more then a sweater. More and more polar bear tracks have been spotted, and the team spends a lot of time scanning the horizon for bears. The good news today was that the irradiance sensor finally worked. The problem that has been giving everyone on the ice-camp team a headache since day 1 was fixed by reconfiguring the cables of the mother board on the inside of the sensor (basically unplugging and plugging a cable back in). This means that taking hemispheric light measurements under the sea-ice can officially be worked into the ice-camp schedule.

After much deliberating, trying to work out what everyone needs in order to do their science, it has been proposed that we will go to a 1st ice camp further south for 24 hours before heading to ice-camp 2. The ice-team now needs to be ready to collect data in 2-3 days time, which feels like a lot more time to get organized then it actually is.  This first ice camp will consist of taking sea-ice thickness measurements, surveying of melt ponds, albedo and transmittance (ramses hyper-spectral radiometers) measurements, collecting ice-cores, and a drone flight with visible (Red, Green, Blue: RGB) and Infrared (IR). Ice-camp 1 will serve as a trial run to get used to the various gear and instruments we will be using in the second ice camp, such as the ice-corer and the 10-inch auger. That is when the real fun will begin for the ice-team.

All the IMBs have officially been set up on the helideck, tested and then taken back down, so they are now ready for deployment! For those of us who have never used augers before, we received a crash course on using power tools and how not to loose the auger bit into the Arctic Ocean or accidentally skim the top of your finger off. Essential stuff. Since most of the instruments have now gone through their test runs on the helideck the ice-camp team is in a bit of a waiting mode. There is some down time to either watch a movie, have a few Ping-Pong tournaments, or spend some time in the gym to work off all the ice cream we have all indulged in.

Ship Life 7-8 August 2018

At this time of year, the sun never sets this far North, and the people aboard the Araon never stop working either. Another mooring station was reached at 22:00 hours and at least one ice-pilot must remain on duty 24 hours a day. When you go to the bridge at 4:00 am to take ice observations and meteorological data, you notice the many other passengers awake as well, from individuals working in the lab, to those on the top deck outside taking measurements.  To accommodate these late hours, another meal/snack is served at 21:30 every night.

The first two IMBs on the helideck were taken down and two more were set up in their place. Trouble shooting of the unresponsive irradiance sensor also continued with a few phone calls to Germany for help, ice anchors were assembled, more mooring stations were reached, and many other various tasks continued. Walking around the labs on the main deck one can observe the various science projects in real time. You can talk to Youngiu about how she goes about measuring primary productivity using a Carbon-13 stable isotope or you can take a minute to look at some phytoplankton slides under the microscope. It is also important to take continuous trips up to the bridge to scan the sea-ice horizon with binoculars for polar bears. Although none have been spotted yet, fresh looking polar bear footprints and seal scat have been seen, so hopefully it is just a matter of time before they make their appearance.  Everyone on board is keen to get their first glimpses of the king carnivore of the Arctic.

Fresh polar bear tracks

In between all of this, ship life truly revolves around meals and the freezer, which is full of seemingly endless ice cream. Meal times are the time of day when the most interesting conversations are initiated. With so many brilliant minds in one small place, the banter and sharing of knowledge is one of the best parts of the entire Arctic research experience. How will we solve climate change? What is the most outrageous solution we can come up with? How do we communicate these ideas to the public? To our politicians? How do we scientists stay sane and hopeful when we are witnessing first hand the melting of Arctic sea-ice? All important questions, and many more will be contemplated and debated over spicy Korean food and fresh watermelon.

First ice! Monday 6 August 2018

By Indea Rogers

Seals were spotted at a distance first thing in the morning lounging on a piece of ice. Members of the ice-team were jumping with joy at the sight of the first beautiful ice sheets scattering the ocean surface. The radar on the bridge of the ship is no longer blank but freckled with detected sea-ice!

There is an additional reason for celebration. The oceanography team quickly found their first mooring, which was originally placed in the ocean at least a year prior. A mooring is a type of buoy that reaches the ocean floor and measures ocean temperature, depth, and various biological factors, such as phytoplankton and nutrients, with depth depending on the type of mooring. There are 25 mooring stations the Araon ship will be visiting on this journey, either to collect the data, or place new instruments. This data is essential for understanding the physical and biogeochemical environmental properties of the changing western Arctic Ocean. In addition, heat flux from the Bering Sea into the Chukchi Sea, circulates along the Alaskan coast and melts the sea-ice. Studies have found that the timing of when the ice retreats and forms again in autumn along the Chukchi shelf is strongly tied to this warm water inflow. Thus, these moorings will help us observe this phenomenon.

To celebrate all this fabulous science we feasted on fresh Alaskan King crab that melted in your mouth. The sound of cracking crab shells accompanied by the sound of the ship smashing through ice filled the room.

Data sharing! Sunday 5 August 2018

By Indea Rogers

The Araon made it through the Bering Straight over night and you can feel the temperature change throughout the ship. While the water temperature remains a warm 10 degrees Celsius, when standing on the outside of the ship, the chill from the Chukchi Sea reminds you just how far North you are.

The snow buoys are working! A satellite phone call confirmed that the buoys set up on the helideck yesterday are transmitting data back to AWI, so we took them apart and placed back into their wooden crates for transport to the ice camps.

The next task consisted of assembling the Ice Mass Buoys (IMB) on the helideck. This included detangling and attaching four salinity sensors, a camera, a thermister string (measures the temperature profile at different depths), solar radiation sensors and a tilt (measures the angle of the solar radiation instruments relative to nadir) to the IMB Pelican case, which houses the electronics and a large battery.  Salinity sensors were placed in a bin filled with salt water. These IMBs will sit on the helideck for 24 hours, and if we receive the green light that everything is operational, we will take these apart the next day and store until deployment.

Exciting things are happening on the Araon! The first weather balloon was launched and new ones will be launched every six hours. The Radiosonde weather balloons measure air temperature, pressure, humidity and broadcasts the data in near-real-time (NRT) to the Korean Metrological Administration, which is then sent to the WMO-GTS (Global Telecommunication System) .

This NRT broadcasting of atmospheric profiles, as well as data from the vessel during the launch, makes this critical data available to anyone who wishes to access it.  While there have been thousands of weather balloons launched around the world, very few have been launched over the ocean, and even less in the Arctic.

Sea-ice observations have also commenced. While currently we are staring out at the open-ocean, meteorology data, weather data, ship data, and location are being recorded every three hours. Satellite images suggest we will begin to observe ice by tomorrow morning! Thanks to Dr. Julienne Stroeve for giving a presentation on how to use the Arctic Shipborne Sea Ice Standardization Tool (ASSIST) to collect these in situ sea-ice observations. Now anyone on board who wants to get involved can!


Happy Saturday! 4 August 2018

By Indea Rogers

“Abandon ship!” Is what was heard over the speakers in both English and Korean following a loud fire alarm during our practice safety demonstration. We all assembled in lines and struggled to shimmy into our full body survival suits that made everyone look like giant orange penguins. After double-checking that each personal flotation device had all the correct safety features such as a light beacon, working whistle etc., the loading into the lifeboat procedure was demonstrated. Now hopefully, if we were ever forced to actually abandon ship, we would all be calm and prepared.

When doing fieldwork two things often happen. Sometimes the instruments and gear work flawlessly and at other times, you will work for hours trying to troubleshoot a piece of equipment that functioned perfectly in the lab, but no longer works. This is the case with an irradiance sensor we brought with us from the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI). We have two light instruments, an irradiance and radiance sensor, both designed to measure the amount of sunlight incident at the surface of the ice, the amount reflected by the ice, and when the sensor is placed below the ice, how much light is transmitted through the ice. The radiance sensor appears to be working; this sensor detects the directional solar radiation coming from a small view angle (given in units of W m-1 sr-1). The irradiance sensor detects solar radiation over the full hemisphere (e.g. 180 degrees), which is the radiation coming from all directions. The irradiance sensor is critical to understanding the total amount of light that gets transmitted through the sea ice as opposed to that from a narrow beam. Light is a crucial component of life for many organisms, especially the algae at the bottom of the ice. Yet, even with trying a new sensor with the computer software, restarting the computer, and reprograming the software, the computer and instrument are not communicating. We will next attempt to use a different computer to see if that solves the problem. That is tomorrow’s project.

The helideck is also slowly being taken over by projects. Two snow buoys were removed from their crates and constructed to understand proper assembling procedure before being deployed in the field and to ensure the instruments are functioning as expected. These buoys, if all goes according to plan, will be deployed into multiyear ice and ideally monitor snow depth over the course of a year. Once they were securely strapped to the helideck, it was time to enjoy Saturday night Korean barbeque. Unlike other nights, Saturdays are reserved for cooking delicious meat and vegetables on a grill at your own table and enjoying a cold beer.

After dinner, the ice-camp scientist team met with the polar bear guards and helicopter pilots to discuss logistics. It is essential to review best-practice protocols in order to be safe on the ice as well as entering and exiting the helicopters. As the chief polar bear guard, Lester Robert Bruce articulates, “Control the people not the bears”. With so many various projects and modes of collecting data, there are many logistics to work out. The ice-camp team will likely have more meetings in the near future as plans are further solidified.

Departure! Friday 3 August 2018

By Indea Rogers

It took at least a dozen helicopter trips from the Nome, Alaska airport to the RV Araon ship sitting in the bay to get all the scientists and crew members from 9 different nations and 19 separate institutions aboard the vessel. Shortly after arriving on board, the organization of gear and unpacking of instruments began.

Scientists started to converse about the best ways to collect data, what types of projects individuals are working on and trying to trouble shoot instruments and data collection plans.

After dinner at 19:00, everyone met in the galley and introduced themselves and their science goals for the next three and a half weeks ahead. Some important individuals include our valiant captain of the ship, the chief scientist, our brave polar bear guards, and our essential ice pilots, among many others. It was revealed that many projects are focused on zooplankton and phytoplankton, looking at their grazing habitats, overall marine environmental conditions, and their relationship to changes in the sea-ice and snow regimes.  Other research endeavors include sea-ice satellite monitoring, projects in oceanography, and our sea-ice “EcoLight” project. EcoLight seeks to understand how our changing Arctic sea-ice environment is connected with both light transmission and absorption, the timing and duration of primary production events, and zooplankton population and habits, all of which are affected by variations in snow and ice regimes.

After the introductions were concluded, everyone dispersed to continue their work, whether from setting up a lab or trying acquire ones sea legs. The ship will remain in the Bering Sea outside of Nome overnight until the vessel embarks on its journey at noon tomorrow. It will take several days to reach the ice, which gives everyone time to test instruments and collaborate over science.  The key question on our minds is, will we find thick enough ice to deploy our instruments?