INTRO: By some predictions, the ice covering the Arctic Ocean and North Pole may well be gone within the next half-century, due largely to a warmer global climate. While the world debates the causes of climate warming, scientists have begun a monthlong exploration of the high Arctic aboard a Canadian icebreaker. Their goal: To learn as much as they can about this unique environment before it's too late. Doug Schneider has more, in this week's Arctic Science Journeys Radio.
STORY:The scientists are from Canada, Japan and the United States. The expedition is being called the "Hidden Ocean." Their mission: To learn what they can about the Arctic Ocean, a vast sea that's quite literally covered by ice much of the year. Russ Hopcroft is a marine biologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. He says coming up with a name for the expedition was easy.
HOPCROFT: "We tried using the word "forgotten" first because by and large people tend to forget that one of the large oceans is actually on the pole. At the last minute someone came up with the term "hidden" because it hasn't been completely forgotten, at least not by everyone."
And if scientists are right, the Arctic Ocean may not be hidden for much longer. Climatologists and oceanographers predict the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free much of the time within the next 50 years. That likelihood makes it especially important to learn as much as possible about the region today. Rolf Gradinger is a marine biologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
GRADINGER: "At present the Arctic Ocean is the only ocean in the world where you find sea ice also during summertime. Computer models demonstrate that there is a certain risk that this summer sea ice cover would disappear totally. That will affect the marine ecosystem of the Arctic in various ways. For example, polar bears will lose their platform where they hunt and migrate. The same for many seal species. And there are several animals and plants that only live within the sea ice. There are about 200 to 300 plant species, and some of them occur only within the sea ice. So if the multiyear sea ice cover disappears, they will lose their homes."
Hopcroft and Gradinger are among 50 U.S., Canadian and Japanese scientists taking part in a monthlong exploration of the Arctic Ocean aboard the 392-foot-long Canadian ice breaker Louis St. Laurent. The ship left the tiny town of Coppermine, in the northeast corner of Canada's Nunavit Province, earlier this month. Five researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks are aboard the vessel, which will carry them north, then west through the seasonal and permanent ice cap. They're expected to reach Barrow, Alaska, in early September.
Along the way, researchers will study everything from the nearly microscopic organisms that live in the salty brine between ice crystals at the surface, to the sponges, corals and other species that make their living beneath the ice pack. While much research has been done above the ice, there have been few scientific forays to look at life within and beneath the ice. Russ Hopcroft says the goal of this cruise is to simply explore: To go where none have gone before.
HOPCROFT: "The plan is to try to get back to the flavor of old-fashioned basic exploration. If you go back to the pre-20th century, you find that it was very much what we now think of as basic exploration. So much was unknown. There were so many places people hadn't been. Everything was new, and people tried to do as much as they could. And that is the purpose of this ocean exploration program, to go and start looking at the places we never fully explored."
One of those places is the seafloor, far from the reach of divers. Scientists like UAF's Bodil Bluhm will use Remotely Operated Vehicles—small, remote-controlled submarines equipped with digital video cameras and a robotic arm—to find and collect specimens from the seafloor. Bluhm hopes to learn whether the Arctic Ocean contains the kind of variety of sea life as found in Antarctica or even the tropics.
BLUHM: "One thing we're interested in is looking at the diversity of species. There's a big discussion going on about how diverse the different ecosystems are. One thing people have been finding, or thought they were finding, is a bell-shaped curve of species diversity, of richness, that has a peak in the tropical areas, and then decreases toward the poles. But we've been looking in the Antarctic and the species diversity doesn't seem to go down as low as we were thinking. From that perspective it will be interesting to explore the Arctic more."
OUTRO: This expedition to the Arctic Ocean was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Ocean Exploration program. This is Arctic Science Journeys Radio, a production of the Alaska Sea Grant Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. I'm Doug Schneider.
Audio version and related websites
Thanks to the following individuals for help preparing this script:
Bodil Bluhm, Research Assistant Professor
Rolf Gradinger, Assistant Professor
Russell Hopcroft, Assistant Professor
Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
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