International Expedition Sets Sail for the Arctic

08-02-2018

The Arctic climate is changing faster than anywhere else in the world. On August 1, a Swedish-American research expedition to the Arctic Ocean set sail to study how these polar changes may impact global temperatures by altering cloud formation.

Forty researchers from across the world will perform research based aboard the Swedish icebreaker Oden—including two from Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences. Senior Research Scientist Paty Matrai will act as co-chief scientist for the expedition, conducting experiments alongside Research Associate Carlton Rauschenberg.

After sailing nearly as far north as the Pole, the crew will moor the ship to a moving ice floe. As they drift with the ice, specialized research teams will collect vital statistics from the sea, ice and air.

“A better understanding of how clouds form in the Arctic is key to predicting the global climate of the future,” Matrai said. “Clouds play a very important role in our planet’s climate – but how are they affected by the microbiological life that thrives in and beneath the sea ice?”

Clouds are made up of small droplets and ice crystals that form in certain wind, moisture and temperature conditions. Condensation and formation of cloud droplets depend on the existence of small particles in the atmosphere, which in the Arctic originate from microbiological life in the sea and ice. The more sea that opens up as the Arctic ice pack melts, the more biological particles bubble out into the atmosphere. This process may lead to more clouds and earlier freezing of seasonal sea ice.

Matrai will examine the process of how these ocean particles seed clouds. Using seawater from the open spaces between Arctic ice floes, her team will conduct experiments that create artificial sea spray. The results will allow them to quantify how organic aerosols influence cloud formation.

“This research takes us from the microscopic to the global very quickly,” Matrai said. “By understanding how sea spray particles in the air influence cloud formation in the high Arctic, we will understand the polar ecosystem much better, and be better equipped to predict its future.”

Between the journey north and the time required to prepare experiments, Oden will spend two months at sea. For one month of this time, the ship will be moored to a large ice floe in the Arctic Ocean, enabling the scientists aboard to perform research in this remote environment. Together, the projects conducted during this time will provide better insight into how the varying sections of the complex Arctic system are linked.

“Perhaps the Northeast Passage will be passable by merchant vessels as early as in ten years’ time,” said Caroline Leck, professor of chemical meteorology at Stockholm University and co-chief scientist for the expedition. “We must rise to the challenge and carry out onsite studies into the link between life in the sea and cloud formations, a logistical and technical challenge beyond the ordinary in inhospitable and inaccessible areas of the North Pole.”

The researchers will return at the end of September. The Arctic Ocean 2018 research expedition is conducted by the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat and the National Science Foundation. It is the result of several years of collaboration between Sweden and the United States to strengthen research in the Arctic.

Upper image courtesy of Ida Kinner. Lower image courtesy of Lars Lehnert.