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Adrift on the ice: Two researchers join a yearlong expedition to the Arctic Ocean

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Environ beat

The German research vessel Polarstern departed from Tromsø, Norway, on Sept. 20 and started the largest polar expedition in human history. The expedition, also called the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC), will last a year on the Arctic Ocean, a mysterious place that is barely known. 

Two UW ice researchers, Bonnie Light and Madison Smith, are among the 300 scientists from 19 countries who will study the Arctic ice and climate change on the five research vessels.

The two researchers will join the expedition summer 2020. 

The primary goal of this expedition is to look closely at the Arctic and study how global warming has influenced areas around the North Pole. 

Light is a principal physicist at the UW Applied Physics Laboratory and an affiliate professor of atmospheric sciences. Working with her, Smith is a UW postdoctoral researcher who is interested in improving the representation of sea ice in climate models.

According to Light, the whole team of scientists want to study the atmosphere, the boundary layer, the ice cover, the biology life under the ice, and much more through this expedition. They also want to study how sea ice grows, melts, and rearranges under the current climate. 

“I study how the ice interacts with sunlight,” Light said. “We can use an example of white and dark T-shirts. On polar days, sun stay shining for the whole day and this lasts for six months. Ice is a “white shirt,” so it reflects lots of sunlight. If you have a crack in the ice or an open water area, it can absorb a lot of heat. We are trying to learn where this heat goes.” 

Light mentioned there are some relevant assumptions related to this topic. However, as the global climate changes quickly, many of the observations are expired and updated information is needed. It is also important to look beyond observations and see the underlying physics of the ice system. 

The last time scientists put a ship in the Arctic ice to study it for an entire year was between  1997 and1998 in the Surface Heat Budget of the Arctic Ocean (SHEBA) study led by the UW. Light was on board as a UW doctoral student. According to her, one of the biggest changes at the Arctic is the perennial ice, which is old, thick, and strong enough to resist melting. 

“A lot has changed,” Light said. “We used to have a lot of perennial ice that lasts more than one season. Now we have more new ice that melts in summer and grows again in winter. Perennial ice is getting thinner. Changes in climate has impacted the ice cover.” 

The total budget of this project is over 140 million euros, supported by the 19 countries that are involved.

“It is a huge collaboration,” Light said. “It is good to pull resources and expertise. There are more sea ice scientists in the world than 20 years ago from different fields of study. We want to make specific measurements on things we don’t know well and improve the global climate model, Community Earth System Model (CESM). Then, we can run the model and study past and future climates.” 

Reach reporter Sunny Wang at Twitter: @sunnyqwang64

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