UW News

October 28, 2003

Scientists trying to make sense of Arctic changes

News and Information

It was something polar veteran Jamie Morison hadn’t seen in that part of the Arctic Ocean before.

As part of the North Pole Environmental Observatory program he heads, Morison was on a plane over a part of the Arctic Ocean where typically the surface would include a jumble of slabs, ridges and blocks of ice. The ruggedness of the surface indicates that the ice is a year or more old and would have remained like a seal over much of the surface of the ocean all summer.

This winter, however, for 100 miles, the ice in that area was smooth and flat, meaning it had only formed after last summer. It was new ice in an area where Morison says he and other scientists would have expected that multi-year ice.

Personal observations aside, the extent of sea ice in the Arctic in September 2002 was at its lowest point of the last 30 years, and this September the ice was again near that level.

Such changes are among the reasons more than 400 researchers traveled to Seattle this week for the first and largest meeting of international scientists studying all aspects of change in the Arctic. They are looking not just at the extent of the ice, but also shifts in ocean and atmospheric conditions and of how ecosystems and human communities are responding. The meeting is the first open science meeting under SEARCH, the Study of Environmental Arctic Change initiative, led by the National Science Foundation.

The scientists’ goal is to formulate new research strategies to understand the changes that are being observed.

“We don’t know the full extent or future course of Arctic environmental change,” says Morison, oceanographer with the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory and chair of the SEARCH Science Steering Committee. “But we think we can understand it because the recent observations of the changing environment have given us new insights into how the Arctic system functions.”

Researchers said that four large-scale hypotheses under gird SEARCH investigations:
— Arctic environmental change is related to change in the atmospheric polar vortex, a large-scale cyclonic circulation in the atmosphere centered generally in the polar region.
— Arctic environmental change is a component of a more widespread change in climate.
— Feedback between the ocean, land and atmosphere are critical to the change process. The amount of ice, for example, or the lack of it, directly affects the amount of energy reflected back into atmosphere or absorbed by the ocean.
— Such physical changes have large impacts on the Arctic ecosystems and society.

“All the different disciplines where scientists see change in the Arctic are represented and being heard,” Jim Overland said of the meeting. Overland is an oceanographer with NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle and chair of the open-science-meeting organizing committee.

For example, a native inhabitant from Kotzebue, Alaska, told the gathering that warm weather in the Arctic in recent years has changed the number and kinds of wildlife and has increased the number of accident where even seasoned hunters and fishermen have misjudged ice conditions.

Other federal participants in SEARCH include NASA, NOAA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Smithsonian Institution and the Interior, Energy and Defense departments.


For more information:
Morison, 206-543-1394, morison@apl.washington.edu
Overland, 206-526-6795, james.e.overland@noaa.gov
NSF media contact: Peter West, (703) 292-7761, pwest@nsf.gov
NOAA media contact: Jana Goldman, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, jana.goldman@noaa.gov, (301) 713-2483
NASA media contact: Elvia H. Thompson, NASA, Washington, (202) 358-1696, elvia.thompson@nasa.gov

Downloadable images with cutlines from North Pole Environmental Observatory program this spring at:

(Includes images with University of Washington researchers and engineers)

Additional images and cutlines from Alaska, icebreaker at:

Images/B-Roll: For B-roll on Beta SP, contact Dena Headlee, (703) 292-7739, dheadlee@nsf.gov