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November 2007

A firsthand look at disappearing sea ice

sea ice

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy sails through patches of sea ice on its cruise north from Barrow. (Photo by Steve Roberts.)

In August, Steve Roberts (EOL) sailed north from Barrow, Alaska. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter that carried him, the Healy, is the country’s newest and most technologically advanced polar icebreaker. Measuring 420 feet, it served as a floating home for 26 researchers, about 90 crew members, and an array of scientific instruments, all bound for 80ºN.

The only thing missing on the cruise was ice. During normal summers, ships can expect to encounter sea ice about 30 miles north of Barrow. The Healy sailed 280 miles, to 75ºN, before it reached ice. “And this was early in the melt season, so there was still a lot more melting to occur,” Steve notes.

Later in the cruise, the ship made it to 82ºN, farther than planned, before it had to return to Barrow to stay on schedule. “When we started heading south from our northernmost excursion we were able to come out of the ice edge at 81.5ºN, which is truly astounding,” Steve says.

“This year was quite a dramatic change,” he continues. “Everyone on the ship was talking about the ice. It was depressing.”

polar bear

A polar bear watches the Healy sail past. (Photo by Steve Roberts.)

Steve, a software engineer, has been participating on Arctic cruises since 2002. He’s a member of a small group of civilian technicians, managed by the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who provide technical support for all Healy missions. EOL enables his participation through NSF’s Office of Polar Programs.

This particular cruise was in support of the NOAA-funded Law of the Sea mapping program, related to the Law of the Sea Treaty, an international agreement that defines the rights and responsibilities of nations using the world’s oceans.

Steve set sail on the Healy in Seattle, stopping in Barrow before heading north to within 500 miles of the North Pole, and then returning to Seattle via Juneau and the Inside Passage. The entire trip lasted two months.

In addition to not encountering sea ice until much farther north than usual, the researchers also observed distinctly less pack ice (ice that never completely thaws in the summer) than would normally be expected. Although their primary mission was not to study sea ice, they noticed that what little multiyear ice they encountered was probably less than four years old, whereas in the 1970s much of the Arctic was likely covered by 10- to-30-year-old ice.

Satellites provide a daily view of sea ice extent across the Arctic Ocean, but they generally can’t diagnose its thickness, which indicates its age. Icebreakers and submarines can gather this data, but their limited tracks leave much of the Arctic unsampled.

In September, scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that the Arctic sea ice minimum for 2007 shattered all previous lows since satellite records began about 30 years ago. On September 16, the sea ice extent measured 1.59 million square miles (4.13 million square kilometers). This was about 1 million square miles less than the average mimimum from 1979 to 2000, equivalent to an area about the size of Alaska and Texas combined.

Steve plans to return to the Arctic on the Healy next summer. “But I’m wondering if I’m going to be out of a job soon,” he says. “Who’s going to need an icebreaker?”

In this issue...

IPCC contributors share in Nobel Peace Prize

Remembering John Firor and Janet Roberts

Sunrise test flight successful

Same library, new home

A firsthand look at disappearing sea ice

NCAR launches Women in Science committee

Fantastic forum

Staff win awards for science, multicultural service

Just One Look

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