Air Date: Week of April 17, 1998
Seven months ago, a Canadian Coast Guard ship was deliberately frozen into the Arctic ice near the North Pole. The ship is serving as a hotel and command post for researchers on a year-long project of the National Science Foundation. Their mission is to gather data to help science better understand how Arctic ice may affect and be affected by climate change. Steve Curwood spoke with the project's coordinator Richard Moritz who is on board the ice-breaker DeGrossieller (de-GRO-zi-ay), about 300 miles north of Alaska's Prudhoe Bay.
CURWOOD: Seven months ago a Canadian Coast Guard ship was deliberately frozen into the Arctic ice not far from the North Pole. The ship is serving as a hotel and command center for researchers on a year-long project of the National Science Foundation. Their mission is to gather data to help scientists better understand how Arctic ice may affect and be affected by climate change. Richard Moritz is the project's coordinator. We reached him on board the ice-breaker DeGrossieller about 300 miles north of Alaska's Prudhoe Bay.
MORITZ: We have a base here on the Canadian Coast Guard's ice-breaker, the DeGrossieller. This is a 300-foot long ship with a bright red hull and sitting out in the midst of all this snow and packed ice it's quite a sight.
CURWOOD: How much can you actually feel that you're not on land but floating on the ice?
MORITZ: It's a good question. It varies from time to time. When we first started out in October and put all the equipment out on the ice, things were very stable and so many of us got into the kind of mindset in our day to day work of being on a land surface with snow. That's quickly dispelled when these cracks form and we get the ridging events. To give you another example, just the other night we had some ice crack along the side of the ship, and some disturbing noises for the people who were sleeping on the lower decks. And we all got up at 2 in the morning and went out on the bridge to look and see what was happening. And turned out there was no problem, but it does make you aware.
CURWOOD: Dr. Moritz, why study Arctic ice?
MORITZ: This is really part of a study of the global climate system, and the little corner of the system, if you like, that has ocean covered with pack ice has a lot of very interesting processes going on associated with the annual cycle of melting and freezing of the ice. And it turns out that these processes introduce feedbacks into the system that can affect climate change. For those who don't know, I think it's worth saying that when we look at these global climate models and how they predict the evolution of the Arctic pack ice in response to, let's say, doubled carbon dioxide concentration in our atmosphere, some of these show very dramatic effects such as the complete disappearance of the pack ice over the Arctic during the summer in only 50 or 100 years' time from now. So, it really would be quite a different world up here if there were no ice at all during the summer.
CURWOOD: What would that mean for the rest of the world?
MORITZ: For the rest of the world, it's really the polar boundary, if you like, of the climate system. So, if you have a large warming in the Arctic, which goes with the disappearance of the pack ice, then you're going to have a change in the north to south temperature difference from low latitudes to high, and this is really what drives our westerly winds. So, the effect of the Arctic really manifests itself through a change in our weather. I think it's worth mentioning, too, that the Arctic Ocean is an interesting, fascinating ecosystem. Of course we have the seals, the walruses, the various fish in a complex, unique food web underneath the ice. All of this presumably would change in some profound way if the pack ice were to disappear during the summer.
CURWOOD: People have built a lot of computer models to predict the extent of global warming. What does your work do in terms of proving or disproving these computer models?
MORITZ: Well, with this experiment we're not particularly focused on gathering a data set that proves or disproves the models. But as a side benefit we have, of course, been measuring a lot of aspects of this system, so we do get some information on how the system has changed. I mentioned one earlier. We found much thinner ice here than many of us expected to find. We also found that the upper ocean was much fresher than earlier measurements in this area had shown it to be. These are both factors, thinner ice and fresher upper ocean, that are in fact simulated by these global models as a consequence of greenhouse warming. So, we've gathered another data point in that story to show that actually the system is behaving in a way consistent with some of the projections.
CURWOOD: Dr. Moritz, I want to thank you for taking all this time with us today.
MORITZ: My pleasure.
CURWOOD: Richard Moritz is with the National Science Foundation. He spoke with us from the Canadian Coast Guard vessel DeGrossieller. The ship and its crew return to warmer waters this fall.
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