Not many people willingly sign up for a multi-week research cruise in freezing temperatures where fresh produce typically runs out after the second week at sea. But BIOS research specialist Becky Garley is excited at the prospect of returning to the Arctic for the third time next September 2022 as part of the Synoptic Arctic Survey (SAS).
“I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to see such a unique, beautiful landscape and its wildlife, that so few people are able to experience in their lifetime,” Garley said. “And the Arctic is particularly special because of the rapidly disappearing ice due to climate change.”
The SAS is an international scientific program led by researchers from Canada, China, Denmark, Germany, Japan, Norway, South Korea, Sweden, and the United States. The international cooperation of SAS is a vital aspect of the scientific research project, and important in an era of increasing geopolitical tensions in the Arctic and the push to claim territorial rights for oil and gas exploration and to increase trans-Arctic shipping between the Atlantic and the Pacific.
The goal of the program is to further scientific understanding of the impacts of climate change in the Arctic Ocean by using research vessels, including icebreakers, to generate a comprehensive dataset that will allow for a complete characterization of the Arctic.
The scientific data collected covers measurements of physical and chemical oceanography (including dissolved oxygen, pH, dissolved organic carbon), benthic habitat (such as macrofauna and epifauna), the water column ecosystem (for example, chlorophyll, primary production, fish, marine mammals), as well as hydrography, circulation, ocean acidification, and pollution.
“These data will be shared by national and international partners,” said Nick Bates, BIOS senior scientist and director of research, and principal investigator on the National Science Foundation award that is funding BIOS’s participation in the SAS. “This will allow us to get a good idea of how the entire Arctic is functioning at the present, as well as how the region is responding to climate change, including warming and increasing loss of summertime sea-ice.”
“I enjoy the Arctic,” Garley said as she maneuvered between instruments in the BIOS Marine Biogeochemistry Lab, where she analyzed seawater samples for dissolved inorganic carbon. “Looking at the ice is so much more interesting than the open ocean, and they stop the ship at the ice floes so people can get off the ship and run around—safely, of course, in our colorful survival suits.”
Garley first traveled to the Arctic in 2010 as part of NASA’s multi-year Impacts of Climate on the Eco-Systems and Chemistry of the Arctic Pacific Environment (ICESCAPE) mission, which sought to highlight the natural and manmade effects of climate change in the Chuckchi and Bering Seas. She returned in 2012 with the Russian-American Census of the Arctic (RUSALCA), a long-term census of the Bering and Chuckchi Seas conducted jointly by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Russian Academy of Sciences.
The summertime sea-ice that SAS researchers are investigating is in peril. During the last thirty years, one-third to one-half of the multi-year ice (ice that never thaws completely in the summer) has been lost in the Arctic, Bates said, and the area of open water has increased. This means that during the summer, levels of seasonal phytoplankton growth has increased across the entire Arctic, a phenomenon that researchers refer to as “Arctic greening.”
“The loss of sea ice and the ‘greening’ of the Arctic has increased the ocean sink of carbon dioxide by a factor of four to six times since the 1980s and 1990s,” Bates said. “Thus, the Arctic has become a much greater contributor to the global carbon budget.”
Despite the distance from the Arctic to Bermuda, the melting ice has a connection to BIOS, which can be seen in oceanographic measurements from the Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study (BATS). Located approximately 50 miles (80 kilometers) off Bermuda, scientists use the BATS site to collect data on biological, chemical, and physical properties of the ocean on a monthly basis. These data are proving crucial to helping researchers around the world understand how the ocean is changing over time periods of months, years, and now decades.
“What we see in the Arctic is a legacy at BATS,” Bates said. “The freshening of seawater in the Labrador Current flows past BATS five or six years later. What happens in the Arctic has an impact here.”