Arctic sea ice is in constant motion. It rides on the ocean, absorbing energy from the circumpolar weather systems.
This movement causes a buildup of stress within the ice. Under enough stress, the ice cracks or buckles in a cataclysmic process that resembles the energy released in earthquakes. These continuous ice quakes result in open leads of water or mountainous ridges of broken, jumbled ice. These deformations, in turn, may have an effect on the thickness and durability of the arctic ice pack in the face of climate change.
University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher Jennifer Hutchings hopes that a better understanding of this complex process will help improve climate models and shed light on how sea ice behaved in the past and how it may change in the future.
Hutchings, a research associate at the UAF International Arctic Research Center, is chief scientist on a team of researchers that will spend the next two weeks at the U.S. Navy ice camp in the Beaufort Sea studying the relationship between ice movement, stress and the overall mass of sea ice.
The UAF-led expedition, which also includes lead researchers Cathleen Geiger and Chandra Kambhamettu of the University of Delaware and Jacqueline Richter-Menge of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, begins April 1. The field expedition is part of the Sea Ice Experiment: Dynamic Nature of the Arctic project, dubbed SEDNA, which is part of UAF’s collaborative International Polar Year research efforts.
Hutchings said the fieldwork will involve deploying buoys and other instruments to measure the movement and stress of the ice pack in the area around the field camp.
“We are going to use that information to validate the current generation of sea ice models,” Hutchings said. “We are trying to reduce the uncertainty of our prediction of arctic climate change.”
Ice deformation may have an effect on climate because open leads of water tend to add more heat and moisture to the atmosphere, which could reduce the overall amount of sea ice.
Conversely, if ice movement results in more ridges and thicker ice, the result could be a more durable arctic ice pack that is less vulnerable to seasonal melting.
The amount of sea ice is important to the overall understanding of climate change because it is thought to affect how much solar radiation, and hence heat, is reflected back into space. Sea ice is also thought to be an indicator of global temperature changes
The expedition also offers scientists a chance to share the field research experience with K-12 students through the National Science Foundation’s PolarTREC program, which links scientists and teachers for collaboration. Robert Harris, a high school teacher from Vermont, will join the researchers on the expedition and will relay the events and experiences of the camp to K-12 students via the Internet at http://www.polartrec.com/sedna-ice-camp/overview.
The SEDNA project is funded by a $1.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The project will also contribute to the lead International Polar Year project on the state of arctic sea ice.
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