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March 1, 2007

UW scientists prominent as ‘International Polar Year’ is launched

News and Information

While dignitaries gathered Monday in Washington, D.C., for the launch of International Polar Year, ice-camp logistic experts with UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory were just days from heading north to establish a runway and a camp on the ice with a dozen tents and buildings. They’ll be responsible for the wellbeing of 40 to 50 people a night when the camp is at its height.

Meanwhile preparations continue apace for two UW-led expeditions in April and May in which some of the most complex arctic projects of 2007 will be carried out.

This year also will find UW researchers camped beside some of the Earth’s greatest glaciers and serving as a co-principal investigator on Canada’s $40-million flagship International Polar Year project.

“The UW’s expertise in polar sciences includes some of the leading oceanographers, atmospheric scientists, glaciologists, biologists, chemists and computer modelers in the nation,” says Dick Moritz, principal oceanographer with the UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory, that last year received nearly $6 million of the $8.7 million in grants and contracts to UW polar researchers.

“Also important are the contributions of local researchers at the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory and the non-profit Earth and Space Research. Seattle is a place where some key questions are being asked and explored.”

School of Oceanography professor Jody Deming, a member of the 17-person Polar Research Board convened by the National Academies, says understanding the processes in polar regions will take, “more and continuing measurements of the Arctic’s sea-ice cover, its dynamics and its coupling to the ocean, atmosphere and marine ecosystems. More studies are needed on the implications of a reduced ice cover to biological production in the ocean and to ecosystems — will they shift, lose key species, gain new ones? And in the process will more or less carbon dioxide be removed from the atmosphere?

“International Polar Year focuses resources and attention on these problems. It brings together scientists and various ‘stakeholders’ for better definitions of the problems.”

Scientists from more than 60 countries are poised to participate in more than 120 projects at a cost of $350 million. Deming, an expert on the microorganisms that live in sea ice, is a co-principal investigator on Canada’s major polar year endeavor that will involve overwintering aboard the icebreaker Amundsen. It’s an example of the cross-boundary, multi-national projects that International Polar Year is supposed to encourage. See http://web.mac.com/barber1818/iWeb/IPY-CFL/Welcome.html.

The “year” actually spans two years — from this March until March 2009 — so that two full field seasons can be included.

“The vision is that the International Polar Year will provide the spin up and testing period for programs that will go on after IPY,” says Jamie Morison, an oceanographer with the Applied Physics Laboratory’s Polar Science Center. “It will provide an opportunity to test a relatively dense set of measurements that might go into a planned Arctic Observing Network and to chose those that are most cost effective over the long term. There also will be surprises, and IPY will tell us about the need for measurements we never thought we needed.”

Morison already leads a long-term monitoring effort, the North Pole Environmental Observatory program funded by the National Science Foundation, now in its eighth year. With Morison as chief scientist and Andy Heiberg handling logistics, this year’s program runs half a month in April with a complex suite of work that includes recovering a mooring and instruments near the North Pole. See http://psc.apl.washington.edu/northpole/index.html

That effort will be followed in May by a project monitoring fresh water in the Arctic Ocean, led by APL senior oceanographer Mike Steele, now in its fifth year. See http://psc.apl.washington.edu/switchyard/index.html.

The U.S. Navy and National Science Foundation have turned to UW ice camp experts, led by APL’s Fred Karig, to handle the logistics for a camp some 200 miles north of Prudhoe Bay running early March through mid-April. Naval exercises will be followed by NSF science projects.

At the other end of the Earth, Howard Conway’s research program studying Antarctic ice sheets is an example of polar work under way by Earth and space sciences faculty.

“Recent measurements show that parts of the West Antarctic ice sheet are now undergoing rapid and dramatic change, but it is not clear whether the changes are manifestations of natural short-term variability or impending collapse,” research professor Conway says. “Our ongoing studies use geophysical methods and models to infer the flow history of the ice sheets.”

Other research by Conway and his colleagues is directed toward understanding climate-glacier interactions with the goal of using the glacier record to interpret patterns of the past climate that may be useful for predicting future response.

What’s happening in the high-latitude areas such as Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, the Scandinavian countries and the like are other areas of research for UW faculty.

Much of Earth and Space Sciences Research Professor Jaakko Putkonen’s work concerns the relationship between climate and permafrost, the soils of the Earth that remain frozen year round, sometimes for thousands of years. But permafrost is susceptible to thawing, Putkonen has documented, such as during certain rain on snow events. The resulting pools of water can create sheets of ice when temperatures drop again, ice that prevents animals such as reindeer from being able to reach the lichens and mosses on the soils that they depend on for food.

“Perhaps the most pressing issues are the ones that are propelled by climate change but not yet recognized,” Putkonen says. “As an example, the rain on snow effect that is still little known but has recently killed 200,000 oxen in Arctic Canada, about 50 percent of the herd.

“Some may suggest that preparing for the unknown is doomsday professing, however, we have very little experience with rapid climate change and it may have surprising effects. Therefore it is important to support the science in the Arctic where the change has been the most rapid recently.”

For School of Oceanography’s Peter Rhines, these high latitude areas are important because “the Arctic Ocean ‘communicates’ with the rest of the world’s oceans via these high-latitude waters.” The challenge is to keep instruments out there long enough to sort out natural cycles from human-induced changes, Rhines says. The waters around Greenland, for instance, have become full of chaotic changes and the ice pack is diminishing. The upper ocean near Norway and the Faroe Islands is showing massive changes in salinity and temperature that, if history is any indication, will cause shifts in the abundance and kinds of fish.

Thus, apart from the natural sciences component of International Polar Year, the social components will involve UW researchers in Canadian, Scandinavian and Russian studies.

“If IPY succeeds in bringing more minds together, then we will surely discover new things,” Moritz says. “We could make some big steps forward in our understanding of polar regions.”