Arctic Science Journeys
Radio Script
1998

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Ice Station SHEBA

ice station photo

INTRO: Letting a ship become frozen in the Arctic Ocean for a year might seem like a strange thing to do. But if you want to learn how the Arctic climate works, there's no better way than being there. A team of U.S. and Canadian researchers are doing just that as they try to understand how global warming is affecting the far north. Recently Arctic Science Journeys' producer Doug Schneider visited with scientists at their outpost high in the Arctic Ocean.

STORY: After flying for three hours over the frozen Arctic Ocean north of Alaska, I was glad to be on the ground, or in this case on the ice. The small twin-engine plane made a smooth landing alongside the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Des Groseilliers. Welcome to ice station SHEBA, a scientific outpost 300 miles north of Barrow, Alaska.

Here at the top of the world, snowmachines shuttle people, food and cases of lite beer to the ship less than a mile away. Towering seven stories, the 320-foot-long ship--with its red hull, bright lights and creature comforts--is an oasis in a desert of ice. Adrift in the frozen sea since October, the ship is home to dozens of U.S. and Canadian researchers. They're here because there's a growing consensus that the world's climate is getting warmer. Yet the computer models they use to understand and predict that warming are flawed. They don't accurately duplicate the complex interactions between the Arctic ice, the sea below, and the air above.

Dick Moritz is a researcher at the University of Washington and director of the expedition.

MORITZ: "The main purpose of our research station here is to gather a data set that will put us in a position to develop improved models for climate that project things like the effects of global warming in the Arctic, and over the globe. To do that we have to gather a data set that documents the upper ocean underneath the pack ice, the pack ice itself, and the atmosphere all the way to the top. And it has to be done over the course of a large change in the parameters. We want to catch cold, warm, cloudy, melting, freezing episodes and to do that we have the research station here for the entire year."

At a cost of nearly $20 million, this scientific expedition is the largest project ever conducted by the National Science Foundation in the high Arctic. Called SHEBA, the acronym stands for Surface HEat Budget of the Arctic. Scientists want to know how the Arctic regulates the global temperature, and how climate warming might disrupt the Arctic ecosystem. Connor Flyn is with the U.S. Department of Energy.

FLYN: "The Arctic functions as one essential piece of the earth's climate system. We refer to it as the sink of energy. The equator acts as the source. You get solar radiation hitting the equator, and it is absorbed by the ocean and the atmosphere and eventually conducted up to the rest of the earth where it gets to the Arctic, where because of the very thin air and very little water, the infrared radiation can leak out into space. So it's where the earth gets rid of the earth's excess heat."

But scientists know very little about just how the Arctic climate works. So little that even the most basic information--things like wind speed, for example--are critical. Collecting such information falls to Karl Newyear and Patrick Ahern.

NEWYEAR AND AHERN: "We're with the SHEBA project office. There's these two 10-meter towers that measure wind speed and direction. The project office is collecting this information as base information for the other studies going on here. So if someone needs to know what the temperatures were, or how much snowfall there was, they can get it from us and use it in their data analysis. This is just a snow-gauge. Snow collects in here. We'll take it inside and melt the snow that's in there and see how much it snowed in the last day."

Ahern and Newyear take their snow gauge to Ocean City, a small wooden outbuilding set up on the ice near the ship. Scientists have nicknamed the outbuildings according to the kind of science being done in each. There's Blue-Bio, a blue trailer where biological studies are done, and Met City, a shack were meteorologists watch over instruments that in turn watch the skies above SHEBA. Over at Met City, Anne Keane, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has spent the last six weeks studying how clouds form.

KEANE: "We're finding a lot more clouds than people expected here. We've had a couple of really good storms, so we've been able to see how the clouds build and form and maintain and evaporate off again. We've seen a lot of the temperature inversions we sort of expected to see, but seeing what its duration is has been interesting. It's a bit hard to tell because this is the first time we've seen all this data together. Everyone has a guess as to what we should see, but when the data comes in it will tell us how much we do know about the Arctic."

Scientists had hoped to learn how the Arctic climate works, so they can predict how global warming might affect the far north. But privately, some scientists say SHEBA might be too little, too late. Changes caused by a warming planet may already be in motion. Scientists know, for example, that overall temperatures in the Arctic have risen 1 1/2 degrees Celsius, or about 3 degrees Fahrenheit, during the last 100 years. And Columbia University researcher Jay Ardai says the Arctic Ocean seems to be less salty now than when he was a graduate student 20 years ago.

ARDAI: "What we're seeing at least from the preliminary data is the water in even the same place is a fair amount warmer and less salty which indicates that a lot more ice has melted. That there is less ice or at least fresh water, which one interpretation is less ice, so you could construe that to be an indication of overall global warming. In one sense that was interesting to me because I was on that project as well, and to come up here some 20 years later and remember what the numbers used to be myself and see that they are different and warmer is fairly interesting."

Along with thinner ice, scientists are finding elevated levels of carbon dioxide in the Arctic Ocean. Carbon dioxide helps plants grow, but it is also one of the so-called greenhouse gasses. Too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps heat near the earth. Harold "Buster" Welch is a research scientist with Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans. He says marine plankton--the first and most important link in the food chain--are taking advantage of thinner ice and the abundance of carbon dioxide absorbed by the ocean.

WELCH: "There's rather more plankton than I expected. That's indicative of high productivity. So maybe productivity has increased as well. Which would make sense if the ice is thinner because what limits productivity in the Arctic Ocean is pretty much light. So if the snow cover is less, we would get more light and more production. That may be what is happening."

More plankton isn't necessarily bad, Welch is quick to point out. But it does bear watching, since increased plankton may trigger other, more dramatic changes in the delicate Arctic Ocean food web. Scientists will continue their studies of the Arctic until next October. By then, the ice breaker Des Groseilliers will have drifted even further north, pushed by polar winds and ocean currents. With each passing mile, scientists believe they're gaining a better understanding of how the Arctic climate works and how a warming global climate may affect the far north's icy world.

OUTRO: For Arctic Science Journeys, I'm Doug Schneider reporting from Ice Station SHEBA at the top of the world.


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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