Researchers Demystifying How Arctic Clouds Form


This summer found Senior Research Scientist Paty Matrai and Senior Research Associate Carlton Rauschenberg far from home, alert for polar bears, and bundled in cold weather gear. As part of an international team of researchers, they spent six weeks tethered to a moving ice floe at the North Pole aboard the icebreaker Oden.

They traveled to this remote location to study the Arctic climate, which is changing faster than anywhere else in the world. One of the most significant consequences of this rapid change may be to something commonplace and yet enigmatic: clouds. Matrai acted as co-chief scientist for the Swedish-American research expedition, leading experiments to learn how Arctic changes may alter cloud formation, impacting global temperatures.

“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 changes among the microscopic sea life that causes them to form?”

Clouds are made up of droplets and ice crystals that form around small particles in the atmosphere. In the Arctic, these particles come mostly from microbial life in the sea and ice. As warming temperatures melt the ice pack and reveal open water, more biological particles can bubble out into the atmosphere. These extra organic particles may seed more clouds, potentially cooling temperatures and causing seasonal sea ice to freeze earlier.

Matrai’s team examined how ocean particles seed clouds during the crucial transition between summer and fall, when the open ocean freezes. From a research camp on the ice floe, they collected seawater and used it to generate artificial sea spray. The measurements they took will allow them to quantify how organic particles influence cloud formation — a crucial piece of information for modeling Arctic climate.

“Even though tasks like hauling gear across the ice may not feel fun until they are over, participating in expeditions and working in extreme environments like this are by far the best parts of my job,” Rauschenberg said. “I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to sail on the Oden and work with such an amazing crew.”

The research team spent two months aboard the Oden on this expedition, including eight slow days breaking through dense pack ice on the lookout for a large, sturdy floe to moor the ship. Reaching the North Pole wasn’t an expedition goal, but an artifact of the changing climate – the ice farther south was too rotten and porous, and thus unsafe for research camps.

During the long journey, researchers from seven countries studied the ice and seawater, as well as the meteorology, chemistry, and physics that govern cloud formation. Together, the projects will provide better insight into how the varying sections of the complex Arctic system are linked.

“Melding so many types of expertise allowed us to succeed in such an ambitious expedition,” Matrai said. “By learning how clouds form in the high Arctic, we will better understand this beautiful region so vital to our planet’s health and be better equipped to predict its future.”

Upper image courtesy of Ida Kinner. Lower image courtesy of Karin Alfredsson.