Altered Arctic

As the ice recedes, scientists seek signs of life in warming seas


January 17, 2017

Story and photos by Kimberly Kenny

The ship glides through the frigid stillness of the Arctic Ocean. On this September night, the Chukchi Sea off the northwest Alaska coast is a quiet, snow-globe world. A maze of ice sculptures screeches along the hull. Radio chatter mixes with banter between scientists and the gurgle of brewing coffee.

Laurie Juranek worriedly taps her long fingers on her thermos. Sea ice threatens her carefully laid plan to sample water from pre-determined spots. The map in front of her shows large swaths of ice directly over the ocean patches where she’d like to deploy equipment.

Sometimes, when the ship encounters ice, she stands on the bridge in fascination, visibly calmed, occasionally taking photos.

But tonight is not the time to be meditative; tough decisions must be made. Where should Juranek direct the ship? Which science should be prioritized? The cost to operate this vessel is about $50,000 per day. Teams from Oregon State, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the University of Alaska Fairbanks all need time to collect data.

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Should the ship steam southwest and retrace a path that might yield promising results? Or should Juranek take a longer path and transit east around the ice field?

Juranek is a chemical oceanographer at Oregon State University and the chief scientist on a 28-day expedition aboard the research vessel Sikuliaq (“young sea ice” in the native Iñupiaq language). She is soft-spoken, humble, deliberate. She is also tough. Her early sea-going days were spent as the only female researcher on Ukrainian cargo carriers. Her faith in persistent work propelled her through a Ph.D. at the University of Washington and research trips in the South Pacific, the Pacific Northwest and the Arctic.

Laurie Juranek served as chief scientist on the Sikuliaq research cruise (Photo: Kimberly Kenny)
Oregon State professor Laurie Juranek served as chief scientist on the Sikuliaq research cruise.

Getting access to the Arctic at this time of year proved to be a tricky and lengthy process for Juranek’s team. The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission had misgivings about allowing a research vessel in the area at a time when bowhead whales are known to be migrating. After much negotiation, the cruise was allowed to proceed, as long as it remained at least 30 miles offshore and a community observer was present onboard.

Hot Zone for Climate Change

If you want to see the effects of climate change right now, look no further than the Arctic. It is being transformed by the unprecedented retreat of the ice. What was normal for this region decades ago is no longer guaranteed or even predictable. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, Arctic sea ice is declining at an increasing rate in all months of the year. In September alone, when sea-ice coverage normally reaches its annual minimum, NASA satellites indicate a decline of about 13 percent per decade.

This trend matters for many reasons. Sea ice acts as a reflective blanket on top of the ocean. Without it, water absorbs more sunlight and warms more quickly. Average air temperatures in the Arctic have increased twice as fast as the global average. Warmer seasons stretch longer; animal species adjust their behavior; indigenous communities that have thrived for thousands of years struggle to adapt; and scientists scramble to keep up.

These might seem like distant dramas, but what happens in the Arctic affects the rest of the world. This ocean is in constant motion. When ice forms here, cold, salty water sinks and circulates through the deep ocean around the planet with consequences for marine chemistry and biology that spread like the tentacles of some giant sea creature.

Launching equipment took a coordinated effort. (Photo: Kimberly Kenny)
Deploying and retrieving equipment takes a coordinated effort.

And then there’s the annual feeding frenzy that occurs during the Arctic summer. Whales, seals and birds flock here to reap the bounty of plankton “blooms,” tiny sea plants that are so important to the food chain that scientists call it primary productivity. News that primary productivity in the Arctic has increased almost 50 percent since 1997 made headlines last fall. Individual blooms are getting larger and occurring earlier in the year.

But what hasn’t been well studied is whether or not this trend is continuing later in the season, after summer passes and sunlight starts to wane. That’s the issue that concerns Juranek and her team on the Sikuliaq. With funding from the National Science Foundation, they are investigating primary productivity during the barely studied late season from August to November.

“What we’re trying to figure out is how biology is impacted by the lack of sea ice,” Juranek says, “In general, there’s less ice coverage later in the season than there has been historically. And that is likely to impact how things grow and live and die.”

Course of the R/V Sikuliaq in September 2016 (Map: Heather Miller)

Course Change

“Back to the Wainwright line,” Juranek says in characteristic brevity to Captain Adam Seamans, who receives the decision with an empathetic shrug, their normal mode of communication. The Wainwright line stretches toward the north away from the coast. It is part of a larger network of study sites created by the Arctic research community.

For the next several weeks, the Sikuliaq crisscrosses the Chukchi sea, stopping to collect water samples at stations along the line. At each one, scientists deploy an instrument known as a CTD. Consisting of sensors and two-dozen cylinders that can open and close to grab water, the CTD provides clues about marine organisms and ocean conditions — conductivity, temperature, depth — at selected locations from the surface of the sea to the bottom.

Miguel Goni, OSU oceanographer, with a sediment core. (Photo: Kimberly Kenny)
Sediment cores contain evidence of changing ocean biology and chemical processes. Miguel Goni, OSU oceanographer, coordinated drilling activities on the Sikuliaq.

When the CTD is hoisted out of the water, OSU professor Miguel Goñi rousts troops of undergraduates and research technicians who run lab equipment and record data. Eager scientists peek through the circular window of a water-tight door in the lab. After the all-clear is given, the door opens and they clamber en masse toward the CTD. They squat next to nozzles and fill bottles, cold water running over their hands. A few minutes later, in the Sikuliaq’s two labs, water whirls through tubes, down funnels and over filters.

Farther aft, after the CTD is out of the water, a winch lifts another piece of equipment called a multi-corer from the deck. The crew watches closely as the multi-corer sways off the ship and into the water. As it sinks to the ocean floor, scientists in the computer room watch a live video feed of its progress. When the multi-corer makes its landing on the seafloor, brittle stars, worms and other creatures embedded in mud come into view. The multi-corer projects a tube into the mud and collects a sample to bring back to the surface. On deck, this column of sediment will later be sliced into sections, each representing a layer of ocean history.

Dale XXXX and Burke Hales, Oregon State oceanographer, deployed the "SuperSucker" to gather data on water chemistry ad biology. (Photo: Kimberly Kenny)
Dale Hubbard and Burke Hales, Oregon State oceanographers, deployed the “SuperSucker” to gather data on water chemistry and biology.

With the CTD and multi-corer safely stowed on deck, OSU oceanographer Burke Hales goes to work with another sampling device that he developed. It goes by the scientific name of “SuperSucker.” As the crew tows the sensor-laden instrument behind the ship, it pumps water into the lab for rapid analysis. Data arrive as colored lines on Hales’ computer screen, indicating levels of oxygen, carbon and other elements dissolved in the sea.

From day to day, the science team and crew alternate between collecting water with the CTD and bringing up mud with the multi-corer. These activities become routine. Day and night, the work proceeds in shifts in a schedule governed by the need to accomplish the task at hand. The ship becomes its own ecosystem of personalities working toward the goal of discovery.

Ah Ha! Moment

Near the end of the cruise, the decision to change course pays off. Goñi bounds into the computer room, balancing a laptop on his forearm and pointing at the screen. “It looks like a phytoplankton bloom! We’ve got a phytoplankton bloom,” he tells Juranek.

Results from the CTD and the SuperSucker show there might be higher primary productivity on the Wainwright line than expected. Juranek is cautious to jump to conclusions, but she admits that her own measurements of oxygen levels are also higher than expected, a telling indicator of increasing primary productivity.

“There’s a lot of focus on the early season,” says Juranek. “There’s a huge bloom when the ice retreats. It turns a big, green, goopy color, just loaded with phytoplankton. We’re finding higher levels of primary productivity than we thought would be here at this time of year, than people think there is. But somehow — and the how is really what we’re after — phytoplankton are able to grow and be happy at this time of year too.”

Back to School

The expedition has gone well and is ahead of schedule. The Sikuliaq makes a brief stop at Point Hope, Alaska. The local school welcomes Juranek and other researchers who share a bit of their science and what they hope to accomplish on their journey. They would clearly like to inspire the next generation to follow in their footsteps.

Aurora borealis (Photo: Kimberly Kenny)
Aurora borealis from the deck of the R/V Sikuliaq

After the ship docks at Nome, the OSU scientists return to their labs in Corvallis. They are still analyzing their data, but a preliminary look suggests that the trend of increasing primary production is indeed continuing late in the season. By tracking dissolved oxygen, carbon dioxide and other gases in the water throughout the cruise, Juranek was able to see hot spots of biological activity. To her, the evidence is compelling but by no means the end of the story.

“I’m interested in what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis,” says Juranek, an assistant professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “But I see it as a small piece of a bigger whole. As a community, scientists are trying to figure out the way our Earth works. And we’re making this incremental progress. Nobody gets the answers in one go.

“Even throughout a whole career, you might just get a few little pieces of information that then get passed down to the next generation for people to build on. I feel like I’m contributing to the understanding of the way our planet works, and hopefully that will bring knowledge and some insight into courses of action.”

As the altered Arctic continues to unfold, scientists are focusing on more than the extent of seasonal ice or a change in productivity. What’s at stake is a fundamental shift in a massive ecosystem. Primary productivity adds fuel to the fire of life, from whales to polar bears, in a place that is still draped in darkness half the year. By studying a region so clearly positioned at the forefront of climate change, scientists are gaining valuable clues about the likely future of the planet.

Editor’s note: Kimberly Kenny received honors baccalaureate degrees in biology and international studies from Oregon State in 2015 and a master’s in journalism from Stanford University in 2016. Her participation in the Sikuliaq cruise in September 2016 was supported by the National Science Foundation.

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